Pulling the Weeds: “Kindly Use” in Our Shared Relationships

Here in the Southeastern U.S., plants are the backdrop of everything. Kudzu is only the half of it—plenty of native species are just as eager to engulf any unsuspecting open space. Nature abhors a vacuum, and in a region as warm and humid as this one, green growing things rise with astonishing speed to the challenge.

Tending a piece of land is mostly a never-ending battle between the things you intended to grow and those you didn’t. Old-field succession is almost an olympic sport here, with poison ivy, various tree saplings, and the ghosts of escaped groundcovers from a nearby bed jockeying for position in a fresh-cut lawn almost before the mower has cooled off.

This, of course, presents a metaphor.

Relationships require tending. Our natural and forged connections with neighbors, friends, family, church, city, county, state, nation, and world are just as apt to be swamped by the vines of division, suspicion, ingratitude, and pride as an empty farm is to be swallowed by the forest. It is difficult not to sense that we are in a great period of “re-wilding” in all our allegiances. The careful work of sowing, watering, and weeding our mutual loves has not kept pace with an entropy juiced with the artificial fertilizer of the Internet.

Nowhere is this more true than in politics, or, more precisely the subsuming of all things into politics. It used to be a truism that all politics is local, but now even local politics is global. Every idea, every passion, every preference has been agglomerated into one of two opposing commercial-entertainment-culture-habit-values models that demand every human interaction conform to themselves. They function like religions, and actual church life and theological study have trouble competing.

Bonds of kinship, proximity, shared experience, and responsibility wither as these new growths take root. Like some invasive species that secrete chemicals to inhibit the growth of competing plants, these complexes then work to ensure that nothing else that grows but their own clones. These replacements’ bonds are sterile, only capable of using up the good created by the rich ecosystem they supplanted and never producing fruit.

This new field is depleted of trust. Acquaintances size each other up to decide whether this new person is a confidant or threat. Instead of cherishing their closeness and dwelling fondly on what they share, old friends quickly dive into political questioning to suss out whether the connection is still viable on that basis alone. Parents and children would rather fight about matters far removed from their actual concerns than continue the project of learning how to give and share life.

Performing Self-Assurance

This is not to say that there is no merit in social and political ideas of either the “right” or the “left”. Rather, these ideas cease to have value when uprooted from the soil of interconnectedness that makes any real political life possible. Epithets like “cancel culture” and “virtue signaling” spring up when there is a pervasive sense that reality is under assault by those on the “other side” of a given issue (as though there were always only two). When everyone you disagree with is assumed to be insincere and on the make, calculating what they say to conform to a standard language deck passed out by their dark overlords, is it any wonder we can’t have a conversation?

When it comes to policing these filters (shibboleths?), our attitudes are by turns “evangelical”—suffused with the feeling of having figured out the real story and eagerness to have others believe—and “fundamentalist”—ensuring that our perceived opponents understand that they are wrong, I am right, and that this makes me superior to them. Imperative in both these attitudes is urgency. Time spent caring for one another, listening to one another, and reflecting on what we learn from each other is a threat to the system, and so must be avoided at all costs. Far better to fling slander from a safe distance.

Perhaps, though, the adherence to views and language we demand of others is only the projected manifestation of the fear we feel. We wonder what it would be like to lose our precarious place in the world, to disappoint the circle that holds us and feeds us only so long as we stay in line, so every opportunity to take down someone else (who, notably, isn’t us) is a little hit of the fentanyl of self-assurance. One less opportunity for it to be me who falls. The ethics of the cool kids’ table have expanded to the world entire. But in direct proportion to how performative a virtue becomes, it ceases to be formative. Good things are often more in need of cultivation than defense.

Learning to Be “Kind”

Novelist, poet, essayist, and farmer Wendell Berry wrote in The Unsettling of America about the value of “kindly use” of land—that is, intimate knowledge of a place and its particulars that protects it from abuse and fits it to flourish in producing what it is designed to produce. Kindly use is knowing not to plow in ways that will cause erosion, recognizing that some slopes need to be forever forested, or recognizing that a low spot will always be a wetland instead of a crop field. This is in contrast to “general use” that seeks to apply an outside set of land management practices based on abstract principles without benefit of local knowledge. Such use is often abuse—doing more harm than good.

What’s good for land is good for people. Kindly use of relationships calls for deep knowledge of one another. Good manners and professional habits are good insofar as they provide a baseline for courtesy, but are ill-suited to expressing real love for specific people—there is no kindness without intimacy. Even less so making shared politics a prerequisite for friendship. Assumptions that have no room for correction or curiosity toward others offer no basis for lasting kinship. Restoring community among our splintered selves calls for a faithful pursuit of “re-localization,” rooting our understanding of people, places, and viewpoints in the things themselves instead of filtering all local knowledge through political blinders.

In such a re-localization of our loves, we have to re-learn how to repent and forgive. None of us can live up to what we are striving toward, even if we are all striving toward the same thing. The most vicious patterns I see now are the accusation of double standards between the two all-encompassing “teams”. The right response to such, isn’t indifference to the standards, though. Perpetrating the same excesses you’re upset about just to “own the libs” or “trigger the snowflakes” just salts the earth for everyone. The process of cultivating virtue always starts with giving and receiving grace. The good works come after. There is no other path to hope and wholeness.

Again, Berry is instructive. Though he has made a life of argument for very definite stances on conservation and a host of political and economic concerns, his art has been to winsomely persuade and hold out hope that anyone is capable, at some point, of choosing a different path. Theologian Russell Moore, writing in praise of Berry’s 87th birthday recently, shared a story:

“I am not sure I’ve ever felt more sheepish than when, sitting at his dinner table in Kentucky, my iPhone started ringing in my pocket, right there with one who is, um, not a fan of such devices. When I cringed and said, ‘sorry,’ he said ‘Well, we’re all sinners, aren’t we?'”

We are all sinners. Expecting perfection is unbiblical and unholy. Rather, in the words of the Second Helvetic Confession, “yet we must hope well of all, and not rashly judge any man to be a reprobate.”

In a world well practiced at casting down the unrighteous and taking no delight in the serious business of repentance, daring to say “we’re all sinners, aren’t we” is act of utmost courage. In it, we stand up to the dictator within. Every act of grace is cultivating the hope that others might see, take up the call, and follow. The life you save may be your own.

It’s a dangerous world out there. Be “kind.”

A Sure Thing

How does one gain the confidence
Of a finch that flies headlong
Into an arborvitae?

A mass of tangled greens that might,
(Or not) hold a nest, eggs, mate, home,
Or at least defray the rain a moment.

Is it instinct that creates faith?
Or memory of the warm twirl of grass
And feathers that gives courage to return?

Whatever credence I enjoy
Passes through me, a current
From fixed point to fixed point.

The heart is no dynamo,
And unworthy of trust.
Belief is a signpost
Pointing only to itself,
A shadow of a shadow
From which no flutter bursts forth.

Image: Snow at Sunset Rock, Lookout Mountain, Tenn., December 2017.

Before the Dissolving

The world must speak of God
If He was here at all.
And not in subtle tones,
But bold strokes of color,
Light and shadow, shimmers,
Glowing ochre glory.

The very fact of doubt,
That tugging ill-at-ease,
Is a gift to the man
So glorious himself
He could for a moment
Garble the plain message.

The hope of riches must
Warp the one who squanders
Expectation for it.
They do more harm to him
Who catches them than to
The man they disappoint.

The lowly devour
The color and the shape
So lavished on this place.
Why bite the hand that feeds?
When you live in the dark,
The light is hard to miss.

God, in violent action,
Seeks after His poor ones.
Only they can stand Him,
Without brace of culture.
The wave is grace to sand
Uncastled in its pride.

When He does show His face,
Ev’ry hill is brought down,
Ev’ry valley filled in,
The crooked straightened out,
Before the dissolving
Presence of the artist.

God will glory, no doubt, in the message.
It must disappoint, devour all who miss it.
The blindest action of pride will someday face the artist.

Image: Sunset, Roan Mountain TN/NC, August 2004.

Game Theory

A board lies open upon the coffee table,
Twenty-four points, four dice, thirty shining chips.
Toe to toe across the field these five thousand years
Have sat friends and warriors, suffering through its fun.
Fiercest strategies on the line with each quick roll,
The wildest chances undone by other well-placed men.

In another’s eyes glow the wishes of all men,
Their fears and dreams laid at the altar and table.
We cast our lots, counting on the skill of our roll.
Time and chance shave down our purposes, bits and chips,
Husking us from the inside-out as though for fun.
Ambition, sin, spite work their chaos through the years.

Little bits of wasted time gather into years.
Energy poured into safely bringing home men,
‘Round the board again, again, just for fun.
Life, pique, and laughter unfold across the table,
No anguish outlasting the resetting of chips,
No happiness beyond the reach of one bad roll.

Clear heads seldom prevail when disappointments roll
Down troubled brows, breaking hearts and ruining years.
Carefully stockpiled wealth cashed out like poker chips,
Paid out in snippets to cadres of bluffing men
Peering from between stacked forms on a bank table.
Whoever said this game was supposed to be fun?

To call it mental exercise is to poke fun,
Serious analysis gets a big eye roll,
But there is value yet in this ancient table.
Passing time in contest bears the wisdom of years
Giving vent to the zeal of competitive men,
Spending their frustration crunching potato chips.

When joy depends on the work of silicon chips,
And every moment is given to hunting fun,
Perhaps we are all Eliot’s hollow, stuffed men.
In time, though, Peter (or someone) must call the roll.
The curtain drops on our eternally numbered years;
Six men and true carry us to one last table.

The dice may be loaded, still we cannot but roll.
Listen as the plans and paths of our striving years
Rattle down to His body, His blood, His table.