January 24, 2021

Wendell Berry on the Future and the Present

CF Falls 2

This week, what we are doing (instead of listening to me) is hearing and discussing quotes from Wendell Berry’s 2015 book, Our Only World: Ten Essays.

In our final post of thoughts from Berry, he meditates on Jesus’ words, “Take no thought for the morrow,” encouraging us to remember that, if something is right to do to make the future better, it is right to do now, for the present good.

• • •

There is in fact much at hand and in reach that is good, useful, encouraging, and full of promise, although we seem less and less inclined to attend to or value what is at hand. We are always ready to set aside our present life, even our present happiness, to peruse the menu of future exterminations. If the future is threatened by the present, which it undoubtedly is, then the present is more threatened, and often is annihilated, by the future. “Oh, oh, oh,” cry the funerary experts, looking ahead through their black veils. “Life as we know it soon will end. If the governments don’t stop us, we’re going to destroy the world. The time is coming when we will have to do something to save the world. The time is coming when it will be too late to save the world. Oh, oh, oh.” If that is the way our minds are afflicted, we and our world are dead already. The present is going by and we are not in it. Maybe when the present is past, we will enjoy sitting in dark rooms and looking at pictures of it, even as the present keeps arriving in our absence. Or maybe we could give up saving the world and start to live savingly in it.

…Only the present good is good. It is the presence of good — good work, good thoughts, good acts, good places — by which we know that the present does not have to be a nightmare of the future. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” because, if not at hand, it is nowhere.

From “On Being Asked for ‘A Narrative for the Future’” (2013)
In Our Only World: Ten Essays


  1. Adam Tauno Williams says

    I am completely with Wendal on this one – we live in a time when people are obsessed with calamity [and thusly the extremists that shout calamity].

    Even when the real actual factual Present has abundant positives – the hand wringing… OMG.

    Never mind that we have survived epidemic disease, sun spots that set telegraph wires on fire, a dust bowl, a year without a summer, an actual civil war [for crying out loud!], world war [twice!], interment camps, Jim Crow, stock market crashes, race riots, campus uprisings,…. And here we are; the vast majority of us safe, the vast majority of us fed [or even fat!]

    Our obsession with calamity is a societal sickness, that is the only possible explanation. It is madness; when the majority of those elsewhere would volunteer to take our place, when I imagine the vast majority of those who have lived in history – if they saw our today – would take our place. [I can remember the 1980’s.. I would have traded then for now in a heartbeat].

    It is nearly impossible to affirm something without someone, compulsively, needing to assert some negative that – of course! – makes it *ALL* meaningless; as if a shadow trumps the day. [and how often that negative is a *possibility*, which may or may not come to pass].

    I think Wendell is at least in the ballpark of the prime cause – placelessness; people connected not through the Earth but through imaginary places (with imaginary neighbors – often Internet caricatures of friends) – if they are connected at all.

    • Our obsession with calamity is a societal sickness, that is the only possible explanation.

      Actually, it is a paired sickness; the other side of the coin is the myth that “everything will ever and always continue to get better and better!” That something in between might happen – say, a decades-to-centuries decline into another dark age – rarely occurs to anyone. But even in that instance, Berry’s advice to work for the best good in the present still holds true.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Never mind that we have survived epidemic disease, sun spots that set telegraph wires on fire, a dust bowl, a year without a summer, an actual civil war [for crying out loud!], world war [twice!], interment camps, Jim Crow, stock market crashes, race riots, campus uprisings,…. And here we are; the vast majority of us safe, the vast majority of us fed [or even fat!]

      Our obsession with calamity is a societal sickness, that is the only possible explanation.

      There is another, having to do with how our brains are wired.

      Our society has pretty much beaten the survival game (see your first paragraph above). But the survival hardwiring is still there. When (like us) all the remaining problems are “First World Problems” (a la Weird Al Yankovic), we will still react to them as life-or-death Survival Threats since no REAL Survival threats are around. It just goes up the stack of Maslow’s Heirarchy, that’s all.

  2. Adam Tauno Williams says

    > a decades-to-centuries decline

    And progress/decline may be a question of “where?” Or “for whom?”. It is a question that needs to be rooted in Place;. Everywhere is nowhere. We certainly see this in economics. We’ve shot way beyond the notion of “recovery” [relative to 2008] in *many* places… While others continue to decline. Generalizing these discussions ruins them..

    > Berry’s advice to work for the best good in the present still holds true.

    Exactly. And that good is in a specific context.

  3. This dichotomy has been fully in view the past couple of weeks with the RNC and DNC. The choices presented to us are either “I’m all right, you’re all right, we’re all all right” and “It’s all just a big shit-storm!”

    I guess Berry here is offering a different choice.

  4. Looking back at my life honestly, I have to admit that there have been far too many instances in which I have thrown in the towel too soon. Some craven thing inside me always shrinks back from giving that last burst of effort or putting all my chips out on the table. A partial defeat somehow seems better or more tolerable than stepping into the ring for that final round and facing either total defeat or complete victory. I give of myself up to a point, but I always hold a measure of myself — be it my time, energy, money, pride, love, loyalty — back in reserve. What I’m saving it for, I don’t know. And the less of myself I give in the present tense, the smaller my life seems to become in both the present and future tenses. Sometimes I feel like that miserable jerk who buried his entrusted coin in the ground in Jesus’ parable about the talents.
    But, as self-centered and cowardly as I can be, I sometimes find myself stepping out and doing something crazy — like taking a raging alcoholic into my home in order to help him get the help he needs and learn to live sober. It has been an interesting month or so, and my patience and resolution have been stretched out to the limits. But I certainly have been living more in the present than I was before.

  5. >> “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” because, if not at hand, it is nowhere.

    There is a lot that strikes me as curious these days. I find it curious that there is so much push back against Berry expressed here. I suspect this has much to do with the observation articulated by Richard Rohr that there is a first stage of life in which we attempt to figure out who we are and establish a place for ourselves in the physical world. And this intended to be followed by a second stage after the first stage is established, a stage of spiritual awareness and exploration and growth, a time when we realize that the kingdom of heaven is not just at hand as an intellectual concept, it is here and now and the door is open and our whole purpose here is to enter in.

    It seems to me that Berry is living in that second stage of life, whether he articulates it as such or not. The first stage is dominated by ego and self-consciousness and physical survival, the second by Self-awareness and spiritual evolution. The second stage involves ultimate threat to the ego and it reacts out of an animal fear of death, which is natural but prevents us from entering into the spiritual kingdom which Jesus opened for us. I see some here reacting instinctively and almost violently to the threat to the ego which kingdom living poses and I recognize this in myself. It is normal but intended to be overcome with God’s help.

    The awareness of this second stage of life is both new to us today, and as old as the above good news Jesus announced. The western world in particular has stubbornly refused to recognize it for two thousand years, while the eastern wing of the church has seemed more comfortable with the notion of spiritual transformation and dissolution of the ego. It seems to me that this basic notion is being stated far more plainly and openly than ever before, and that there is increasingly little excuse for those old enough to have gotten the first stage established well enough to move on. Curious times indeed.

    • Richard Rohr’s writings have been a godsend to me, opening my eyes to so much, maybe because I’m in that 2nd half of life. The kingdom of God is here, always has been here, and will always be here but we mostly don’t notice. I agree with him that Western Christianity has mostly tried to keep people in the first half mentality which makes church more of clique you join than a divine life changing encounter. Thus, the panic mentality we see today when people see that their clique is no longer, in middle school parlance, the cool group.

  6. Dana Ames says

    1) Charley wrote: ” the eastern wing of the church has seemed more comfortable with the notion of spiritual transformation and dissolution of the ego.” Well, yes… The deal is, the eastern wing recognizes that it is a process energized from our side by gratitude, and depends on seeking humility and rejecting falsehood of all sorts. This requires prayer, patience, constant conversion toward God and focus on loving the person in front of you ***over the long haul.*** In the east, we say “My brother is my life,” and “We are saved together; we go to hell alone,” and understand, as in the Jewish take on “love your neighbor as yourself”, that we don’t even have a self until we love. Our impatience (national character), individualistic streak (Enlightenment/Modernist heritage) and easy mobility/rejection of the materiality and stability of Place (technological advancement and nominalist framework) work against this. Then along comes a theology that says it’s all going to happen just as soon as you pray a prayer to acceptJesusChristasyourpersonalLordandSavior. The improbability of that expectation (in the vast majority of cases) became clearer and clearer to me the older I got, and made me go looking for something saner. We don’t have to live on a farm to re-orient ourselves… and Berry reminds us of some of these important things.

    2) The excerpt today puts me in mind of something Fr Stephen often writes, which he got from studying with Hauerwas: Once we assume responsibility for the outcome of history, we are agreeing to do violence. The call not only by political factions, by also by many Christians, to “change the world” has never sat 100% well with me, even though I lean toward the idealist side of the spectrum. I think Hauerwas is right. Christians assuming responsibility for the outcome of history, whether that of nations or of other people around them, have always, always succumbed to the temptation to use coercion and force to make that outcome happen – on the large scale with persecutions of various sorts, and on the small scale with abusive local church leaders, and the wretchedly urgent need to “close the deal” to get someone “saved.” Again, in the east we love and care for others – and have responsibility only for our own journey… but it is also widely recognized that the less ego we have, the more we become the person we were meant to be, and the more others are attracted **to God,** not to us. [Paradoxicle! my favorite theological flavor…]


    • Robert F says

      Dana, With the ability to move more-or-less easily from one place to another has come the ability to escape intolerably dysfunctional situations, situations that could not be changed from inside by anyone formed in that dysfunction. I think the ability to change one’s social location horizontally has been a life-saver for many people; I know a number of people who would’ve perished if they had stayed in their inherited social places. I cannot look at this mobility as a negative, though I’m willing to acknowledge that it has ambivalent facets; overall, I consider it a blessing of modernity, and I would not move back to any previous era when it was much more difficult, or impossible, for all the tea in China.

    • Robert F says

      Dana, I know you’re not suggesting moving back to any earlier era. But when you talk about “easy mobility”, I wonder what too easy mobility would look like. When you have to get out of a toxic or oppressive situation, you have to get out; no amount of ease in doing so is too easy. And frequently, it’s very hard, however easy it may look from the outside. No one can stand in your place and make such a call for you, and no one can do it for you; but it’s good to live in social reality that allows for egress from a particular location when that location has become unendurable, or dangerous. The violent dysfunction of close-knit, insular communities throughout history has made the lives of more people than we could possibly guess a living hell.

      One thing I’ve realized lately: Protestantism, particularly in its denominational forms, is thoroughly modern. It accepts and utilizes the values of mobility, and personal choice among a vast array of possibilities, that are intrinsic parts of the modern project. Since I place high priority on those values, I love Protestantism; I’m willing to live with the high degree of anomie, uncertainty and instability that come along with modernism and Protestantism. They are worth the price. The discipline they require, for those who take them seriously on their own terms, is the kind of loosing from the desire to control outcomes that seems to be at least part of what Charles is talking about when he speaks of getting free from one’s ego. In this discipline, it’s exactly the exercise of personal choice, and the experience of mobility that goes with it, that eventually brings one to the place where it’s possible to recognize that choices are not such an important thing after all, though one can’t avoid making them; and this, paradoxically, opens out onto a freedom from the need to control, and from the fear of not fulfilling one’s desires, that I’ve only recently begun to enter into. What it requires most of all is the willingness to more and more move into the openness and spaciousness of a pregnant and positive, and life-giving, indeterminacy. I feel as if I’ve finally embarked in earnest on the mystical journey I’ve been just missing all my life. So much is new to me.

      • Dana Ames says

        Well of course one should remove oneself from a toxic situation. I certainly wouldn’t want to deprive someone of that measure of personal safety.

        In the past, it was much more incumbent upon the community to intervene in such situations. I think that happened sometimes. People failed then, as now. There is no “golden age.”

        I’m glad you are experiencing so many positive things, Robert. May Our Lord help us all.


  7. I’m not sure I agree with Wendell’s example. I think the people wringing their hands over our pending future ecological doom do so because they have no power. They can live in the present all they want, and this planet can still be ravaged and pillaged and destroyed by ridiculously huge powers with no accountability. Wendell’s encouragement to live in the present is the answer to an entirely different problem.

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