We’ve recently started the annual tradition (three years going strong!) of holding a wild game dinner with our friends and church community. Each family brings a dish harvested from the East Texas area, and past menus have included crab, venison, wild pig, crappie, and, of course, squirrel. We tell stories about the harvest of each, and each family explains how the dish was prepared—from start to finish.
We live in fractured days, lacking in harmony, civility, and comity. “Comity,” an old word for courtesy and kindness, is related etymologically to the Sanskrit word for “smile.” As it often does, etymology here beautifully illuminates a reality, in this case about both kindness and smiling: they unceasingly bring warmth, joy, and a smile to both giver and receiver.
Wendell Berry's fiction shows what relationships look like with skin on—how real relationships are enacted between people. As the characters who inhabit the fictional town Port William interact, they demonstrate how individuals can either perpetuate or obstruct meaningful relationships. The lives of two characters in particular, Hannah and Burley Coulter, have a lot to teach us about relationships and liberty. Together, Hannah and Burley demonstrate how caring for people in committed relationships requires moving beyond personal liberty for the sake of the other.
Still, Berry maintains, the particularly Amish ways of working, rejoicing, and relaxing work together to promote the “great possessions” enumerated by Kline in his essays. “The lives of fellow creatures and our delight in those lives are great possessions,” writes Berry. Kline delights in what surrounds him on his daily round of labor, whether it be nesting bobolinks, his children, or the neighboring farms whose owners he all knows by name.
For Kaplan, when comparing two countries and asking why one has succeeded where the other has failed, what matters most is not national policies but “societal dynamics—the strength of the social glue, the nature of relationships across groups, and the role of social institutions.” These are things that manifest (or fail to manifest) at the local level.
I’ve been told that workers have had to step away from the register while checking out paying customers to chase away repeat shoplifters as they hurled all kinds of epithets at them…on top of one elderly worker having a milkshake hurled at her face. As much as middle management feels bad for the workers, there is little within their power to alleviate the situation, as most of the power is in the hands of distant (and indifferent) bureaucrats.
My point is not to get lost in conventional debate here. But seeking to heal from the culture war, I want to uncover the bodies of my neighbors, which industrial stories kick in the face, deform, and then at election time bury beneath the red-blue map. Aligned with my neighbors, I want to stand in a place off that map, outside those stories.
Maybe we can just call it something else, like, “Living with family and friends in a neighborhood designed to encourage the building of social capital, relying on them in real and tangible ways (rather than just manufacturing reasons to occasionally interact with them), and overcoming the isolating dynamics of modern life.”
This trend is peaking in a small rectangle, the smartphone. As Marc Barnes observes, the smartphone has replaced the TV. The smartphone is portable and personal and has enticed us to enjoy our shows in our private rooms. The ubiquity of the smartphone is an artifact of our own loneliness.
It is, I realized, handy to have a proper template handy, ready to use, should my fears come true, and I discover that I really did forget to answer an email for a few months, and then need to send a very thorough and sincere apology. In fact, it is possible that such an email is buried somewhere in one of my three inboxes right now, awaiting this very reply.