Wendell Berry: Community Brings Flourishing

Wendell Berry writes in “Men and Women in Search of Common Ground” of how community can bring trials and suffering, but it is in those very trials that our good hope lies. His says that binding ourselves with the closest relational ties in life offers us the only kind of freedom that has the possibility to bring flourishing.

“These ways of marriage, kinship, friendship, and neighborhood surround us with forbiddings; they are forms of bondage, and involved in our humanity is always the wish to escape. We may be obliged to look on this wish as necessary, for, as I have just implied, these unions are partly shaped by internal pressure. But involved in our humanity also is the warning that we can escape only into loneliness and meaninglessness. Our choice may be between a small, human-sized meaning and a vast meaninglessness, or between the freedom of our virtues and the freedom of our vices…” (Berry, Men and Women in Search of Common Ground)

The highest state of the human person is not freedom from bondage, but rather being tied to places and people with bonds of love the way a root is tied in bondage to the soil. There is a myth in our culture that to rise we must cut our ties with everything that might hold us grounded. It has given us a culture (at its worst) with a tendency towards transience and shallowness, but the problem is that there are good things in life which cannot come except by endurance with a place and with people. The pursuit of the freedomĀ fromĀ those ties is the pursuit of an isolation which can suffocate the soul.

As Berry says, the only way to escape the pressures of community is to escape into “loneliness and meaninglessness.” There is a choice between a freedom that is vast as our every whim, and a freedom that is limited in countless ways by love for things outside the self. In the first freedom there is a hidden bondage. There every happy wish-dream sours eventually in the bracing air of this broken world. The grass will always look greener on the other side and in the pursuit of the greener grass you will never settle and actually begin to live there. In the latter bondage, however, there is a hidden freedom. Though life in the wake of the Fall has a way of breaking down every tie, commitment and faithfulness have a way of bringing in redemption to even the most broken places. The work of redemption is a long and painful work, but it is also the only real way to save anything, and it is in the very ties of bondage to real people and real circumstances that we find the freedom of joy, healing, and happiness of human flourishing.

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