Wendell Berry on the Family
Berry also writes that, “Without the household–not just as a unifying ideal, but as a practical circumstance of mutual dependence and obligation, requiring skill, moral discipline, and work–husband and wife find it less and less possible to imagine and enact their marriage. Without much in particular they can do for each other, they have a scarcity of practical reasons to be together. They may ‘like each other’s company,’ but that is a reason for friendship, not for marriage.” What he means here, is that a good relationship needs a couple which, out of necessary, works together and for each other. They are thus attached to one another out of a need for livelihood. If they simply have sentimental love without any other ties to one another, why be married at all? Again, Berry compares human relationships to the land: just like large corporations “love” the land because they make a profit from it though they neither intimately know the land or care for it, in a marriage a man or woman can exploit one another sexually, but they don’t truly know their partner nor care for them. In both cases, the person exploits either the land or the other person for his or her gain; the person treats the land or her partner like they belong solely to him or her, when the land or the partner belongs to the family or the larger community. Yes, marriage is a special relationship, but it’s exclusivity shouldn’t be confining and stifling. Instead, in Berry’s view, a couple should work together, to sustain each other, their families, and the community.
For Berry, an ideal relationship is one in which partners work together on a farm. A husband and wife have sometimes similar, sometimes diverging duties, but they work closely for one another and for the land and for their community in order to coexist for the long-term and out of love. Berry’s fiction is filled with such examples. He also gives a negative counter example in Hannah Coulter, where Hannah’s daughter’s husband leaves her for another woman. Hannah’s daughter and her husband were both teachers, but they worked in different districts, had different friends, led different lives from six in the morning until six at night. This estrangement caused a breakdown in their marriage. I can think of dozens of counter examples in which couples have made such situations work, but besides telling a story, Berry was trying to make a point: relationships where a couple needs each other only for sex can lead to no relationship at all. Not everyone can have Berry’s ideal farmer-like interdependence on the land and each other and their communities, although many people have gone back to the small farmer lifestyle since Berry wrote The Unsettling of America in the 1970s. I don’t have any easy suggestions for how a husband and wife can structure their lives to depend more on one another in this day and age, but I think Berry correctly observes that many current relationships dissolve because the two people live separate lives.
These relationships–with family, with community, with the land–take work and commitment. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, records that “success” in a profession takes at least 10,000 hours, and I don’t know why people think that relational “success” can come any more quickly. And just as competence and joy and rewards come as a result as those long hours in a profession, so too do long relationships bring their own rewards. (And if you’re Berry, the two processes can even be connected: your close work with family members on a farm brings both professional and relational “success.”)
So, government and education can harm a family, but a dependence on–instead of an isolation from–the land, the community, and one another can foster a strong family. And the result of the work and commitment which forms strong families leads to health and peace, of an individual, of the land, of the community.
Berry is a pacifist and spoke against the Vietnam War and the War on Terrorism and the loss of civil liberties after 9/11. And yet, despite his public protest, he still writes, “It seems to me inescapable that before a man can usefully promote an idea, the idea must be implemented in his own life…How can a man hope to promote peace in the world if he has not made it possible in his own life and his own household? If he is a peaceable man, then he has assured a measure of peace in the world, though he may never utter a public word.” This quote returns to Berry and my own belief that people must change themselves and what is in front of them before they enact change on a large-scale.
And, to be realistic, that change may not ever happen on a large-scale. I like Wendell Berry’s humility and his recognition that utopias can be just that–utopias. (The word literally means “no place.”) In a poem, “Marriage,” he captures the beauty and fragility of a marriage relationship which has some analogies to any relationship: “You come near me / with the nearness of sleep. / And yet I am not quiet. / It is to be broken. It is to be / torn open. It is not to be / reached and come to rest in / ever. I turn against you, / I break from you, I turn to you. / We hurt, and are hurt, / and have each other for healing. / It is healing. It is never whole.” (If you’re confused, read the poem again, replacing the word marriage for the word “it.”) Berry defines an ideal relationship, but he knows that people never enter into this relationship: they are always hurting and healing one another, and they never feel whole.
He fictionalizes these thoughts in his novel Remembering, in which the farmer Andy Catlett has acted like a bastard toward his wife and family and community for an entire winter. Andy lost his hand in an accident the past fall, and he wallows in self-pity and refuses to enter a new, different, difficult life as a one-handed man. When Andy is on a trip across the country, he fantasizes about starting a new life, in the city, alone or with an occasional woman, away from his hurtful past ties. The new life would be a good and decent one, no doubt about it. But as he reflects on his past life, he remembers the joy and the grief he’s experienced in his family and his community, and he chooses to return to them, to reconcile to his family and home and suffer the resultant griefs and claim the resultant joys. This act of choice makes family so fragile, yet it also makes it full of value and meaning. Instead of fleeing from his past or falling into co-dependency, he accepts that he has responsibilities toward others as they do toward him, and he returns to fulfill these duties. He decides that his past ties will enhance instead of cripple his future, and the end is bittersweet.
Many people think that life becomes more full through having more: more relationships, more travel, more food, more jobs, more money. Berry would see these desires as symptoms of a sick, consumerist, capitalist society. For him, life’s fullness comes from experiencing the richness in one thing: one family, one place, one community, one strip of land. He wants to dig deep instead of spread himself thin.
I guess this article is about more than family, but I trust my connections would please Berry, who knows only by relating to all parts of life, each in turn, in the proper order, can humanity be healthy, though never whole.