“We’ve had two generations of college bred people now who have really been indoctrinated with the idea that every big problem has a big solution. And I just don’t believe it! The big problems we have now will be solved by hundreds of people accepting local responsibilities for small problems.” Wendell Berry
I watched several Wendell Berry videos last week that were posted by my friend Chris Smith and the Englewood Review of Books. They were posted in honor of Wendell’s 80th birthday. I’m intrigued by this man; his message as well as his demeanor. I was captivated by something that I wasn’t at first able to name. It came to me the next morning as I sat with my impressions and listened to my heart. Wendell isn’t afraid of being against.
His message came through loud and clear as though someone took a Sharpie marker and reinforced the letters over and over, giving them permanence and definition. I watched and listened as he shared his thoughts about the big problems of the world related to the environment, ecology and community. I sifted through his orations noticing that what made them so strong, so compelling, so intriguing wasn’t just what Wendell said he was for but what he clearly and un-apologetically said he was against.
Like in the above quote. I not only love what it says but also what it confronts. Wendell speaks out against big solutions to big problems. He goes on to assert that people who say they have a big solution to a big problem only have a simple solution. And simple solutions will only create bigger problems for our world. That rings true for me. In my book, Starting Something New, I suggest that we are living in the “day of small beginnings” and perhaps through people birthing God-given dreams, these micro-initiatives will weave a web of care that will span the globe. The big problems Wendell says “will be solved by hundreds of people accepting local responsibilities for small problems.” That’s my belief, as well.
As I sat with this reflection of Wendell’s strength of character and message because of his “against-ness” and I thought about myself it became clear to me that I’m uncomfortable with saying what I’m against. I’m too committed to being nice to be anti-something. I also suspect that it’s not as acceptable for women, as for men, to speak with conviction that’s reinforced by an against-stance. So, I think it’s safe to say that I have a bias against being against.
Then I thought about Jesus. In so many of the gospel stories he certainly spoke about what he was against. He blasted the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. He rebuked those who lacked compassion for the marginalized. He cleared out the temple of greedy money mongers. But Jesus had a way of confronting what he was against without attacking and disrespecting people, even though he certainly implicated them by what he said.
So, what does against-ness do for us? Is it, perhaps, what fuels action? Is it what gives stronger definition to our lives by naming not only what we are for but what we oppose?
As I wrote in my journal about my own dis-ease with expressing what I’m against, I wondered how it has affected me in addressing problems in my own town and on my own block. Am I so committed to playing it safe and being nice that I shrink back from being a creative contrarian? What has that cost me? And what has it cost my context?
As you can tell, I’m writing all of this while still in process. It feels like a holy invitation to think and write about what I’m firmly against; and to meditate on how Jesus was able to speak out against what bothered him without maiming the people he spoke to. I think that’s what Wendell Berry modeled so well and why I was so taken by him.
I suspect that for me and you to get engaged in our jobs of addressing the small, local problems in our neighborhood by doing our small part, we must confront and move toward the things that aggravate us; the things that provoke angst and raise our ire. I welcome your thoughts and reflections on what it’s like for you to be “against” and how you navigate expressing your “against-ness” in a way that ultimately builds up and doesn’t destroy. Please comment!
By the way: if you have a small solution to a small problem in your neighborhood and want help developing it, I’ve scheduled another Starting Something—Dream Incubator Workshop on Saturday, October 24th. David and I would love to help!