from Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition by Wendell Berry

No individual life is an end in itself. One can live fully only by participating fully in the succession of the generations, in death as well as in life. Some would say (and I am one of them) that we can life fully only by making ourselves as answerable to the claims of eternity as to those of time. ~p. 8

Professionalism aspires to big answers that will make headlines, money, and promotions. It longs, moreover, for answers that are uniform and universal – the same styles, explanations, routines, tools, methods, models, beliefs, amusements, etc., for everybody everywhere. And like the corporations, whose appetite for “growth” seems now ungovernable, the institutions of government, education, and religion are now all too likely to measure their success in terms of size and number. All the institutions seem to have learned to imitate the organizational structures and to adopt the values and aims of industrial corporations. It is astonishing to realize how quickly and shamelessly doctors and lawyers and even college professors have taken to drumming up trade, and how readily hospitals, once run according to the laws of healing, mercy, and charity, have submitted to the laws of professionalism, industrial methodology, careerism, and profit. ~p. 15

The only science we have or can have is human science; it has human limits and is involved always with human ignorance and human error. It is a fact that the solutions invented or discovered by science have tended to lead to new problems or to become problems themselves. Scientists discovered how to use nuclear energy to solve problems, but any use of it is enormously dangerous to us all, and scientists have not discovered what to do with the waste. (They have not discovered what to do with old tires.) The availability of antibiotics leads to the overuse of antibiotics. And so on. Our daily lives are a daily mockery of our scientific pretensions. We are learning to know precisely the location of our genes, but significant numbers of us don’t know the whereabouts of our children. Science does not seem to be lighting the way; we seem rather to be leapfrogging into the dark along series of scientific solutions, which science is always eager to supply, and which it sometimes cannot supply. Sometimes it fails us infamously and fearfully. ~p. 32-33

Unlike the culture of the European Middle Ages, which honored the vocations of the learned teacher, the country parson, and the plowman as well as that of the knight, or the culture of Japan in the Edo period which ranked the farmer and the craftsman above the merchant, our own culture places an absolute premium upon various kinds of stardom. This degrades and impoverishes ordinary life, ordinary work, and ordinary experience. It depreciates and underpays the work of the primary producers of goods, and of the performers of all kinds of essential but unglamorous jobs and duties. The inevitable practical results are that most work is now poorly done; great cultural and natural resources are neglected, wasted, or abused; the land and its creatures are destroyed; and the citizenry is poorly taught, poorly governed, and poorly served.

Moreover, in education, to place so exclusive an emphasis upon “high achievement” is to lie to one’s students….The goal of education-as-job-training, which is now the dominant pedagogical idea, is a high professional salary. Young people are being told, “You can be anything you want to be.” Every student is given to understand that he or she is being prepared for “leadership.” All of this is a lie. Original discovery is not everything. You don’t, for instance, have to be an original discoverer in order to be a good science teacher. A high professional salary is not everything. You can’t be everything you want to be; nobody can. Everybody can’t be a leader; not everybody even wants to be. And these lies are not innocent. They lead to disappointment. They lead good young people to think that if they have an ordinary job, if they work with their hands, if they are farmers or housewives or mechanics or carpenters, they are no good. ~p. 57-58

Journalism and the electronic media, for example, routinely exhibit representations or disclosures of intimate emotion as objects of curiosity, as intrinsically interesting, or as proofs of artistic or journalistic courage. The perennial act of cutting-edge enterprise in reporting is to shove a camera or a microphone into the face of a grieving woman. But what is the qualitative difference between the man who cold-heartedly shoots another and the photographer who cold-heartedly photographs the corpse or the grieving widow? Are they not simply two parts of the same epidemic failure of imagination, which is to say a failure of compassion and of community life?

Such exposures do not make us free, and they do not increase our knowledge. They only compound human cruelty by a self-induced numbness to the suffering of others and to our common suffering.

To be indifferent to hurts given by one’s writing to its human subjects, which exactly parallels the scientific-industrial indifference to the suffering of animal or human subjects of exploitation or experimentation – to say “I don’t care, I don’t give a damn” – is a betrayal not only of the subject of writing, which is invariably our common life, our neighborhood, but also of imagination itself. It is a refusal to be compassionate, a denial of the vital link between imagination and compassion. How can such a betrayal not impair one’s ability to know the truth and to make art? ~p. 86-87

There is no reason, as I hope and believe, that science and religion might not live together in amity and peace, so long as they both acknowledge their real differences and each remains within its own competence. Religion, that is, should not attempt to dispute what science has actually proved; and science should not claim to know what it does not know, it should not confuse theory and knowledge, and it should disavow any claim on what is empirically unknowable. ~p. 98

Good artists are people who can stick things together so that they stay stuck. They know how to gather things into formal arrangements that are intelligible, memorable, and lasting. Good forms confer health upon the things that they gather together. Farms, families, and communities are forms of art just as are poems, paintings, and symphonies. None of these things would exist if we did not make them. We can make them either well or poorly; this choice is another thing that we make. ~p. 150

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5 Responses to from Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition by Wendell Berry

  1. Kathleen says:

    Wow, this one sounds like it is packed full of some very powerful stuff!

  2. Melissa
    Twitter: myeclecticbooks

    I love him…but must admit that I struggle a bit to get through his books. I’ve still got to finish his Agrian Essays to complete the challenge!

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Melissa – yes, his non-fiction can definitely be a challenge, but it is so worth it! His fiction is very accessible.

  3. Pingback: Favorite non-fiction of 2011 | BOOKS AND MOVIES