Achieving Character and Acquiring Skills: A Regress Report

Rock Island, IL

These are some canyons

we might use again

sometime.

–William Stafford, “Indian Caves in the Dry Country”

A good crystal ball is hard to come by these days, so it isn’t entirely clear to me what exactly Reality has in store for us. But as I think about what sort of scenario that, say, a betting man would envision at the end of the current interval we call Now, my mind tends in general toward the past. Odds are: having a good look at what lies ahead will require of us a familiarity with what we left behind.

I say “current interval” rather than “current epoch” because the period of time I’m referring to—the time during which we’ve gone after the last of the carbon-rich pools available to us (coal and oil)—will prove to have been too short and too anomalous to be anything more than an interval. That the interval should have been short and yet characterized by speed and acceleration is but one aspect of its oddity. I’d lay good money on our never seeing such an “interval” again.

I had the opportunity recently to ask a group of students, all of them unfamiliar to me, whether they thought we are going to think our way out of our current ecological crisis and energy shortage. It should come as no surprise that many, if not most, of them did in fact entrust themselves to human ingenuity. In the eyes of the young, who are going to have to shoulder an enormous burden, Man remains reliably intelligent, resourceful, and progressive.

(I forbear saying anything about those who deny any such crisis or shortage.)

Not unexpectedly, our conversation turned for a very specific reason toward the past. The “very specific reason” is this: whenever the question of limits arises, someone will say something like, “I don’t want to go back to the eighteenth century” or “I don’t want to be a farmer” or “You can’t go back in time.”

These are three very stupid remarks. All you really have to say in answer to the first two is that Reality doesn’t care what you want. None of this is about what anyone wants. You might outlive a given day of reckoning, but “I don’t want” is a phrase that doesn’t really belong in the discussion.

The third remark, however, is of a different order altogether. “You can’t go back in time” is true in the manner that “you can’t jump over a caboose” is true, and so in a certain respect it doesn’t need saying. That the obvious sometimes does need saying doesn’t mean that this is one of those times. I think we all pretty much agree that we’re stuck in the present and that we’re headed toward the future. Our occupying the past is unlikely.

(Gatsby, who believed in the time-bending pixie dust of money, said incredulously, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” But the money he relied on to manipulate time was, in the main, useless to him after he was found floating dead in his swimming pool encircled by his own blood. It’s a good object lesson for those who would ask money to do what it can’t do.)

In dealing with this third remark I told these alien students the story of Wendell Berry’s debate with former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz. This debate took place back in, I think, the late ’70s and, at one point in the debate, someone unhappy with one of Berry’s remarks shouted from the back of the room, “You can’t go back in time.” Berry replied, “I’m not talking about going back in time. I’m talking about going back in character.”

This is a useful distinction, especially if you think about it in terms of something else Berry has said about character. It comes from what, in my judgment, is one of the most important sentences he ever wrote: “We must achieve the character, and acquire the skills, to live much poorer than we do.”

Acquiring skills—the skills of making do, the domestic arts—is one thing. It is probably something almost anyone can do, especially given Necessity, which is a stern and unmerciful preceptor.

But achieving character is another matter altogether. And if I leave aside the fact that achieving character probably has a lot to say about whether a person is willing to acquire some skills, I do so only to hasten the point: such skills and character belong primarily to the past. They are available to us in the present, to be sure, but not so readily, not so widely, not in such abundance.

The past: that thing we don’t want to go back to; that thing many of us live in contempt of.

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