American history, Culture, marriage and relationships, nonfiction, philosophy, politics

Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community

sex economy freedom community book

Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community: Eight Essays by Wendell Berry. Published in 1993. 208 pages.

I have always loved the commentary and writings of the insightful, prolific Wendell Berry. Reading his book, “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community”, it became clearer why I find his perspective so refreshing. How often have we heard the connection made between our culture’s predilection to specialization and compartmentalization with the destruction of the economy, sexuality, marriage, family, community, and the nation?

Very rarely I submit, although it’s a connection which is hard to deny upon serious observation and even harder to address as our culture succumbs more and more to the seduction of the “me first” mentality. A mentality which is largely driven by our increasing focus on individual rights at the expense of everything and every one, up to and including our own parents, our own children, and their children.

In the book’s title essay, Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community Berry attempts to piece together how our movement away from interdependence and local community standards and toward a tendency to think globally has impacted our most intimate relationships, and how sexual love in general and marriage in particular have been irreparably damaged as a result:

There are two kinds of sexuality that correspond to the two kinds of economy. The sexuality of community life, whatever its vagaries, is centered on marriage, which joins two living souls as closely as, in this world, they can be joined. This joining of two who know, love, and trust one another brings them in the same breath into the freedom of sexual consent and into the fullest earthly realization of the image of God. From their joining, other living souls come into being, and with them great responsibilities that are unending, fearful, and joyful. The marriage of two lovers joins them to one another, to forebears, to descendants, to the community, to Heaven, and earth. It is the fundamental connection without which nothing holds, and trust is its necessity.

Our present sexual conduct, on the other hand, having “liberated” itself from the several trusts of community life, is public, like our present economy. It has forsaken trust, for it rests on the easy giving and breaking of promises. And having forsaken trust, it has predictably become political. “Losing kindness” as Lao-tzu said, they turn to justness.” (p. 134-135)

This is sadly correct. Sexual politics is a dominant and lucrative industry in America today. Divorce law, child support enforcement, abortion rights, contraceptive availability, health departments to deal with communicable diseases, sexual harassment, and on it goes. All of these institutions have grown in our misguided attempt to interject perfect justice and the semblance of safety into the necessarily murky business of male/female interpersonal relations. As a result, most women view every man as a potential aggressor and many men have grown to view every woman as a potential accuser of anything form date rape to dead beat fatherhood. This is supposed to liberating? Berry continues:

The difficulty is that marriage, family life, friendship, neighborhood, and other personal connections do not depend exclusively or even primarily on justice-though, of course, they all must try for it. They depend also on trust, patience, respect, mutual help, forgiveness-in other words, the practice of love, as opposed to the mere feeling of love.

As soon as the parties to a marriage or a friendship begin to require strict justice, then that marriage or friendship begins to be destroyed…(p.135)

And this of course, is exactly what has happened on a grand scale. As sexuality has become a commodity to be consumed (think of the quest for hotness at all costs), coupled with the right to do whatever feels good to us without regard for anyone else, and we have all but destroyed the beauty of sexual love and marriage. Sex sells. There is even a new term for the atmosphere in which people pair off: the sexual marketplace. No longer are the terms “husband” or “wife” adequate to describe the person we share our most intimate relations with. The term is now sexual “partners” and we gauge others’ sexual morality not by their fidelity in marriage but by their “partner count.” The language of intimacy is now the language of the marketplace.

People enter into marriage under the spell of sexual infatuation, failing to recognize that the practice of love, rather than the mere feeling of love, is what keeps a marriage alive, growing and fulfilling. The values of the marketplace, of quid pro quo, has usurped the place of love and forgiveness, reducing marriage to nothing more than an arrangement that lasts as long as our arbitrary and fickle senses of satisfaction are appeased.

Sadly, Berry notes, we have moved into a culture that can only be described as nihilist, one where most people are not interested in or able to be contented with this diffusion of love. They want to continue to have love focused myopically on them and them alone, as this is what society has groomed us to believe that marriage is all about.

A society whose members are concerned only with themselves, their individual needs, and are slaves to their passions with no regard for the greater good can be described no other way than nihilist. Churchgoing, “civic minded” nihilists, but nihilists nonetheless because a life spent pursuing personal pleasure-no matter what euphemisms we use to make it seem otherwise- is a useless, hopeless life. Our selfish greed can never be truly satisfied. Fulfillment is found through service and love executed in practice, not as the pursuit of sensations. And it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference if we call ourselves liberal or conservative, as Mr. Berry so eloquently states:

“The conventional public opposition of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ is, here as elsewhere, perfectly useless. The ‘conservatives’ promote the family as a sort of public icon, but they will not promote the economic integrity of the household or the community, which are the mainstays of family life. Under the sponsorship of ‘conservative’ presidencies, the economy of the modern household, which once required the father to work away from home – a development that was bad enough – now requires the mother to work away from home, as well. And this development has the wholehearted endorsement of ‘liberals,’ who see the mother thus forced to spend her days away from her home and children as ‘liberated’ – though nobody has yet seen the fathers thus forced away as ‘liberated.’ Some feminists are thus in the curious position of opposing the mistreatment of women and yet advocating their participation in an economy in which everything is mistreated.”

Most contemporary rhetoric about service and duty is nothing more than the demagoguery of hypocrites, playing on our emotions for the sake of their own ambitions:

There is no denying, of course, that “community” ranks with “family,” “our land,” and “our beloved country” as an icon of the public vocabulary; everybody is for it, and this means nothing. p. 132

Now that we have stated the problem, the next step is to work toward a solution. The question then, is how do those of us who yearn for community, family, respect for the land and love for country achieve even a semblance of either while surrounded by a culture for whom these things are nothing more than feel good rhetoric at best and obstacles to personal desire and ambitions at worst?

Berry offers solutions, but they are hard solutions for a culture of people comfortably entrenched in an easy, resistance-free way of life. Here, he gets credit for trying.

5 out of 5 stars.

I originally wrote this read and reviewed this book in 2012, but it seems more relevant today than it did even when I first read it, so I’m featuring it here. Reviews for more recently read books are in draft and forth coming.

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nonfiction, parenting, philosophy

Children Learn What They Live

by Children Learn What They Live by [Harris, Rachel, Nolte, Dorothy Law]

Children Learn What They Live: Parenting to Inspire Values, by Dorothy Law Nolte and Rachel Harris. Paperback edition published n 1998. 224 pages.

I picked this book from one of the myriad circles I travel where homeschooling families we know bring their extra books to give away and make space for yet more books. It looked intriguing to me, so I picked it up. At the time, I didn’t realize that the book was based on a relatively well regarded poem of the same title by Dr. Dorothy Law Nolte:

If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.
If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.
If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.
If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.
If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.
If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.
If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.
If children live with fairness, they learn justice.
If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.
If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.
If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.

 

The chapters in the book are divided to correspond with each of the virtues as outlined in the poem. When I started reading this, I found a lot of encouragement and opportunities for parental introspection.  Any of us would be hard pressed to deny that the values extolled in the poem are  worthy of emulation and instilling into our children.

However, as I continued to read, I found my discomfort with the tone of the book gradually increasing. I initially chalked it up to my own sense of shame as the realization that my report card, as measured by this poetic rubric -particularly weighed against the examples and stories given in the book to illustrate them-  nets me a solid ‘C’ as a mother. Even making concessions for my inadequacies,  there was something about the book I couldn’t quite put my finger on until I could, and it was this: The ideals are presented in ways which negate the foundational truths of the Christian faith to which I adhere.

For instance, there was no allowance given to the reality that often we should feel shame for our actions  and that we should see the connections between our actions and what they tell us about who we are as human  beings, which can lead us to understand our need for God. Our children need to take this journey as well. That we should be transmitting this truth to our children in ways that which don’t do unnecessary damage is worthy of emphasis. However, this book seemed to imply that we aren’t to impart this truth at all; that shame in itself is inherently damaging. I don’t ascribe to that assertion.

As recognition of my issues with the book took shape, I was able to read it with more of an open mind because I understood that rather than presenting eternal truths, it is presenting ideals in the light psychological and cultural “truth”. Good values, but values which assume inherent human goodness which I reject. More importantly, raising children in this way to the exclusion of any exposure to the reality of human nature in a fallen world sets them up for failure.

We should praise our children when they do well, but Dr. Nolte offers no allowance for the reality that sometimes proper guidance insists that we offer our children constructive criticism. The vagueness in the examples of guidance towards children who have done a disobedient or dishonorable thing seemed to insist that we not make children feel bad, even when they should. The massive fog of entitlement that seems to have swept over and infected every generation from my own (GenX) forward is evidence enough to me that the self-esteem movement has failed. We do them no favors when we shield children from their need for forgiveness and grace.

Lest I am beginning to sound as if I hated the book, I didn’t. I learned some things. Things that I, even after 24 years of parenting, was thankful to be reintroduced to because I can be an impatient mother. The virtues are good ones, and we should be offering our children quadruple the grace as opposed to guilt, if only because we are keenly aware of our own need for grace.

The problem emerges when we uncouple the implantation of these values from transcendent truth, which is exactly what this book attempts to do. Morality without a tether is soon severed in pursuit of what a person thinks they “deserve” when they’ve been trained that they are wonderful, fabulous and deserving of only good things simply because they breathe.

 

3 out of 5 stars.

 

joys of reading, philosophy

An Experiment in Criticism by C. S. Lewis

Because this post interconnects very closely with my most recent post on the different approaches readers can take when sitting down with a book, I’m sharing it here.

Lewis’ depth of thought certainly gives me, as an avid reader, something to think about. For instance, the notion that it is possible to sit with a book and get no more out of it than one would a half hour sitcom was one image which sprang to my mind.

The question becomes: Is there ever a time when reading is suitable for that?

joys of reading, philosophy

To Savor or Devour?

My, how time flies!

Nearly two years ago, I planted this link in the comment section of one my earliest posts with the intention of returning to it as an impetus for discussion with fellow book lovers.  From Aeon, a thoughtful piece on the history of the metaphors comparing reading to eating, titled Is ‘devouring’ books a sign of superficiality in a reader?:

The language of eating is often used to describe reading habits. If pressed for an explanation, one might say that to ‘devour’ books is to do something positive.

It implies intense appreciation on behalf of the reader, and suggests that books in themselves are enjoyable and delicious, like warm pastries.

This metaphor, however, hasn’t always seemed so benign. Two hundred years ago, describing someone as ‘devouring’ a book would have been an act of moral censure.

Indeed, before I discovered this short history lesson, I would have stated unequivocally that devouring a book is a positive thing. Of course, that was my off the cuff response, one offered without much forethought. As I have further considered the implications of devouring a book, I realize that some texts are to be savored rather than devoured in the same way as some foods are to be savored rather than devoured.

For instance yesterday, I splurged for Sunday dinner, bought a duck and prepared this recipe. It was definitely a dish to be savored, one where appreciating the layers of flavors and textures was warranted. It was not only good, but decadent. To eat it in a rush would be to diminish the effort, not to mention the expense, that I put into preparing it.

One of my other favorite meats is bacon. I fry it up at least 3 days a week, but I am often hastening to fulfill all of my morning duties which begin most days before 5:30. Breakfast is sometimes reduced to snatching up a couple of pieces of bacon as I pass the plate in the kitchen and sip my constantly reheated morning cup of Joe. The bacon, as much as I enjoy it, is usually devoured rather than savored. The bacon is, for all intents and purposes, common.

Common things can be wonderful, but we don’t treat them the way we would things we only enjoy on rare occasions, and the same can be said of the ideas and content we encounter in books. I was able to devour Their Eyes Were Watching God as an adult in part because I was re-reading it. Also, regardless of the fact that it was written by an author I have deep affection for, it was still fiction. Fiction can offer big ideas worthy of contemplation and reflection and often does, but I can safely ‘devour’ most of it.

The long, turbulent relationship between reading and eating is invisible to modern eyes, yet in our media-soaked culture, it is more pertinent than ever. The unexamined language of ‘devouring’ idealises one kind of reading at the expense of others, leaving readers impoverished.

For millennia, reading’s connection to eating has reflected its centrality to social power and responsibility. Some of the oldest reading images have their roots in the Bible: Ezekiel and John, for instance, literally eat manuscripts during divine visions, representing their role as revelatory agents. This idea of the reader as a mediator of knowledge has had longstanding cultural resonance.

Readers are only impoverished to the extent that we don’t appropriately process what we are reading. The references to Biblical prophets and prophecies is an apt one. Few would disagree with the sentiment that when reading sacred texts or tomes based on the values and implications of our sacred texts, savoring is definitely the right approach. When we are hiding truths in our hearts, we need to examine them carefully.

In contrast to the voracious and relatively quick pace at which I read Watching, I was far more deliberate, contemplative, and meditative while reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. These were ideas and words to be savored because there were, within those pages, eternal truths which I want to carry with me as long as I live. The Aeon piece touches on this distinction:

Renaissance reader-scholars developed a conviction that not all reading was equal. While their eating imagery sometimes distinguished between kinds of books (as in Francis Bacon’s adage that ‘[s]ome books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed’), first and foremost it distinguished between different kinds of readers. The ancient conception of the social significance of reading now found expression as the ethical obligation to respond well to texts.

Ultimately, this is where I fall on the question of devouring books. It’s not always a bad thing, but neither is it always a good thing. It depends on what we are reading and why. The Aeon piece goes a little bit further. Take the time and finish it if you can. It’s not very long.

What is your general approach to reading and books? Devour, Savor, or both?

 

Culture, educational, nonfiction, philosophy

12 Rules for Life

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by [Peterson, Jordan B.]

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan B. Peterson. Published January, 2018. 409 pages.

I emphasized the page count in the book’s specifications because the length is very relevant to my thoughts on the book. Specifically, that it is too long and would have been a much better book had Mr. Peterson not taken readers along his long windy roads connecting Carl Jung, ancient motifs, religious themes and personal experiences to say what he could have said much more succinctly.

Brevity is the soul of wit, it’s been said, but it can also be the key to transmitting ideas which are more easily understood and widely accepted. It was impressive YouTube videos of Jordan Peterson, from lectures to media interviews to online Q and As, which first exposed me to his ideas. Most of them, as a commentator noted in my previous post, would be considered common sense to people in generations gone by. However, this is a new era, and people demand more than the simple “because I said so” or “because it’s right” to get on board with an idea, no matter how solid it’s validity has proven to be down through the ages.

Since this is true, I was thoroughly prepared to accept that an intellectual and psychologist offering rules for life that buck current cultural thought should include a fair amount of psychological jargon and even gobbledygook in his presentation. Still, 400 pages was 200 too many, and tiptoeing through the tulips of Peterson’s theories was often wearying, but I stuck it out. I stuck it out because I find his overarching ideas, if not all the details, to be of value. On to some of the 12 Rules, which were indicated by chapters.

Rules 1 and 2 were good rules, but those chapters were among the hardest for me to read. It’s hard for a woman who believes man was created in the image of God to read copious amounts of information on how we can learn to be so much more human by observing lobsters. There were also far too many pages of psychological minutiae in those chapters as well.

Nevertheless, the rules themselves are good. The first one was common sense that we all heard from our grandmas (stand up straight!), while the second should be common sense, but I applaud Peterson for saying it because few people, including me, do it (treat yourself as you would someone you are responsible for). I liked that he highlighted that most people get better medical care for their pets than they give themselves. I believe him.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll fill you in that you can find all 12 of the rules listed here (I have no affiliation with or further knowledge of this site and found the list via a Google search).

In his exposition of Rule 6 (get your house in order before trying to change the world), Peterson makes an astute observation that most anyone paying attention has also noted. Namely, that in the absence of religious beliefs and connections, people have attached religious devotion to all number of things, including atheism and social activism. It is this ingrained feature of the human heart which, I believe accounts for people’s tendency to get out there and change the world while their own world is a mess.

Pursuing meaning rather than expediency -Rule 7- was in my opinion the closest Peterson came to a semi-accurate understanding of Christian teaching. He is correct that when expediency and advantage are primary drivers behind the things we do, life is void of meaning and will plunge into despair at the first hint of suffering. And if there is one constant in life, it’s that we will all suffer. I appreciated that bit of wisdom which seems increasingly lost on so many.

All of the rules are useful, and had Peterson and his editor been more vicious and used more precision when it came to eliminating irrelevant information, this would have been a much better book. I am certain that no portions of the book were meant to be construed as stream of consciousness, but there were sections that felt that way as I read them. It could be that Peterson is such a smart man with so many ideas that parts of it were just over my head, but even if that were the case, it underscores my point.

When a college professor writes a book to help a generation of young people, and especially young men, tap into the antidote to chaos, a little simplicity goes a long way. Nevertheless, Peterson’s rules are good if unoriginal, and many of them are brand new information to this generation of young adults.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

 

 

 

 

 

educational, homeschool, philosophy

An Ongoing Conversation

Someone thought I was equipped -dare I say intelligent enough?- to entrust with  leadership in one of the rooms where a segment of The Grand Conversation is being unfolded. That’s my fancy way of saying that for a remunerative pittance, I have agreed to teach a class at a level of academic accountabilty and rigor that is beyond the standard cooperative that springs to mind when most people think of homeschooling.

Of course, we’ve never been engaged in what typically springs to mind when one considers Chrisitan homeschooling as it was done by the pioneers who paved the way 30-40 years ago.

The good news is that it’s in a subject that I have steadily grown in appreciate of and passion for. The bad news is that it’s in a subject where there isn’t a cohesive and developmentally appropriate collection of material and curriculum for the grade level I am teaching. This means I am in the process of building one from the ground up. If I was simply interested in the disseminating of information, this would be a piece of cake.

However, as a family who has enbraced the Classical philosophy of education, we view every subject as interconnected and woven together in such a way that the whole person is fed; not ony intellectually, but spiritually, emotionally, and rationally. In effect, a true education is simply the beginning of a conversation on the lifelong journey to discover truth, beauty, and the strands which connect the past, present, and future to eternity.  Building a curriculum and itinerary that disseminates the facts and information in a way that brings the subjec to life, connecting it to the whole is daunting, even as I feel relatively confident that it is doable.

Despite that confidence, some inspiration is helpful and I can always count on finding educational inspiration when I click on Circe Institute. And since I am relatively certain that anyone who reads this relatively mundane corner of the web is equally interested in intellectual stimulation and the wider conversation, I figured it would be fitting to share the links from Circe which inspired me over the past few days as I began my project.

The first is Round is a Shape, by Lindsey Brigham Knott. My favorite excerpt:

And then come the genetic tendencies and environmental factors—hardest of all to discern, diagnose, and deliver care. As anyone knows who has struggled with allergies or autoimmune disease, bodies are mysterious things, and what nourishes one person’s health may destroy another’s. This mystery is encountered in the classroom, too: even when a uniform diet, lifestyle, and exercise can be enforced upon students, these will not affect them all in the same ways. Some students complete assignments decently, are fairly obedient at home, and seem like generally good kids, but never approach the zeal and love that, like the glow of health, are the marks of being truly fit in soul. Some students reject all we have sought to teach them, set out to discover the truth they think we’ve denied them, and then, like Chesterton discovering Britain, eventually learn in the only way they ever could have done that it was all true after all, and give to it their hard-won love.

From the uniqueness of every student’s soul flows the mystery and wonder of the teaching vocation; its unruly currents and unforeseen eddies often frustrate our best efforts to direct them in an even course, but to dredge and straighten the stream would be to kill its bubbling inner life. Only wisdom, patience, and prayer can finally aid the teacher who seeks the health of her students’ souls.

The next is Do not read that now; You will read it in 5th grade by Joshua Gibbs, which is heavily relatable as our 4th grader has already read many books that she will encounter or be assigned in the next couple of years:

If an elementary school student is a voracious reader, he will often set his eyes on books which are part of school curriculum from forthcoming years. His teachers or parents will say to a 3rd or 4th grader, “Oh, don’t read that book yet. You’ll read it in 5th grade.” But often enough, this is unfortunate advice.

I will grant that some books are thrill rides and mysteries best experienced for the first time in community. The same is true of films. If a room full of people is watching The Game or Memento and no one in the room has seen the movie except one fellow, that fellow will likely ruin it for everyone else with pointed sighs and gasps and repeated claims of, “This all makes so much more sense the second time through.” No one can stand that fellow.

That said, everything does make more sense the second time through, which is a thoroughly classical point to make to students, and very few children’s books contain twist endings. Barring one-off stories with unusual endings, I see no reason to tell 3rd graders not to read 5th grade curriculum simply because “you will read that in two years”, and here’s why:

You can read the “why” over at Circe Institute.

Whether your kids are homeschooled, traditional schooled, or like our kids, hov’ring somewhere in the middle, we are all probably experiencing a bit of spring fever and anticipating the respite of summer. I hope this bit of educational inspiration helps us to hang in there and finish our school year strong.

Happy Monday!

 

 

 

Culture, nonfiction, philosophy, politics

Life at the Bottom

life at the bottom book

Life at the Bottom, Kindle Edition, by Theodore Dalrymple. Originally published in 2001. Print edition: 263 pages.

I became interested in this book solely on the force of Thomas Sowell’s recommendation of it. I didn’t know anything about Theodore Dalrymple, but Sowell’s endorsement was enough to intrigue me. His concise description of the book was as follows:

An incisive and brutally honest eye-witness account of the social degeneracy created by the welfare state among the white underclass in Britain– remarkably similar to the social pathology in American ghettos but without such supposed causes as slavery or racism.

Indeed, Dalrymple himself made it clear very early on in this book that his frame of reference was separate, distinct, and unrelated to the perception of lower socioeconomic life commonly held by average Americans. In fact  his documented experiences were relegated almost solely to Britain’s white underclass with a small percentage of Muslim immigrants.

Before buying this, I read the Amazon reviews of “verified purchasers”. Very few of those who reviewed this book liked it. However, the tone of the negative reviews almost immediately indicated that I might like this book for the same reasons that Thomas Sowell recommended it. It wasn’t politically correct, and it summarily dismissed poverty alone as an excuse for bad behavior and life choices.

Many of the stories Dalrymple recounts from his years of practice in the London’s tougher neighborhoods are heart rending. His attempts to offer help and counsel to those who repeatedly make terrible decisions bear no fruit most of the time.  He points out that what we consider poor is hardly poor when compared to those in less developed parts of the world:

“This underclass is not poor, at least by the standards that have prevailed throughout the great majority of human history. It exists, to a varying degree, in all Western societies. Like every other social class, it has benefited enormously from the vast general increase in wealth of the past hundred years. In certain respects, indeed, it enjoys amenities and comforts that would have made a Roman emperor or an absolute monarch gasp. Nor is it politically oppressed: it fears neither to speak its mind nor the midnight knock on the door. “

The result?

“It is the prerogative of the unthinkingly prosperous to sneer at the bourgeois virtues.”

The people who reviewed Dalrymple’s book negatively accused him of blaming the poor for their plight. In reality, his book did no such thing. While it is true that Life at the Bottom repeatedly notes that many of the perils of Dalrymple’s patients are a result of their own poor decisions, in the end, he places the ultimate blame elsewhere:

“And if I paint a picture of a way of life that is wholly without charm or merit, and describe many people who are deeply unattractive, it is important to remember that, if blame is to be apportioned, it is the intellectuals who deserve most of it. They should have known better but always preferred to avert their gaze. They considered the purity of their ideas to be more important than the actual consequences of their ideas. I know of no egotism more profound.”
I agree with him.

Grade: B-. The content is good, but the writing is a bit disjointed.