One year ago I was unpacking Christmas lights while taping up moving boxes. My husband’s job had ended unexpectedly and we planned to move between Christmas and the New Year. We were racking our brains to come up with a plan, while trying to cheerfully sip eggnog at the holiday parties. It was not a time I want to repeat but is a cherished time because it drew us together and forced us to define our priorities as a family.
Over the past months the Liturgy of Life reading group has been reading Wendell Berry’s The Art of the Commonplace. As we finish these last essays on agriculture Berry shares a story.
Mr. Evans was a New York farmer. He was half way to meeting his goal of growing his dairy farm to 120 cattle when he went through a season of wet weather which reduced his grain harvest by half. He was faced with a choice. He could feed only half his herd, he had to either sell the other half, or purchase twice as much grain as he could afford.
Though the circumstances are different, we all face decisions like this one, about when to plunge ahead and when to scale back. Two years ago my husband got a dream job that required our family to live out in the country. We were an hour from the nearest city and soon my commute for work became an incredible strain. It was unplanned but I decided to stop working and become a full time stay at home mom.
A year later when this same dream job ended unexpectedly we were in a tight spot. We had to decide, do we move, take a job, make our decisions fast and not take a financial risk or take our time, use some of our savings and figure out what our next steps should be?
Mr. Evans made the difficult decision to say, “No” to expansion. He sold half his herd. Afterwards he realized that he had been overworking his land and as a result his cattle were having serious health problems. By scaling back he was able to see his situation with more clarity, give it the attention it needed, and make better decisions for himself, his cattle, his family and his land.
I said, “No” to continuing in a situation that wasn’t working. I quit my job. A year later when my husband was out of work we decided I should continue at home. He took some part time work and we lived off of savings and prayed for six months before taking our next step.
It was hard to walk away from a fulfilling career (especially one that I had worked for 10 years to obtain). The following year it was difficult to be patient in what felt like an urgent situation. It was risky to say, “no” to financial security, and to not jump at any and every opportunity as we saw our savings dwindle.
Now before I go on I need to add that I realize that having the opportunity to say, “no” to a job and not starving to death is a privilege that I don’t take for granted. I am grateful to be in a country and an economy that allows us to earn a living doing something we love and that has allowed me to stay at home with my daughter.
This is also not a post about working versus staying at home, this just happens to be my example. Your life is probably totally different and what is important is that we learn to set priorities consistent with our values which can then guide our decisions and allow us to function well and live with intention and purpose.
Berry gives 14 guidelines to aid in decision making in these times. He writes them specific to farming but they are applicable to nearly every situation. You should read all of them, but for the moment I’m going to mention two.
“In an organism, what is good for one part is good for another. What is good for the mind is good for the body; what is good for the arm is good for the heart.”
Berry’s definition of organism is actually more like an ecosystem. He describes it as a farmer, mind, body and soul living in relationship to land, soil, plants and animals.
We live in an individualistic society and tend to think of the organism as one person. But I’ve found it helpful to think of my organism as my household. There is no solution that is “good” if it works for me but is not good for my husband and daughter.
As a family we have learned to first define our main priorities, which usually sound something like, “to be obedient to God, and have a household that functions well.” When we decided for me to stop working it didn’t feel like a loss of career as much as a gain towards functioning better as a family. In relationships our sacrifices stop being sacrificial as we work towards a common goal.
This brings me to the second point,
“A good solution always answers the question, How much is enough? Industrial solutions have always rested on the assumption that enough is all you can get. That destroys agriculture, as it destroys nature and culture. The good health of a farm implies a limit of scale, because it implies a limit of attention, and because such a limit is invariably implied by any pattern.”
During my residency I remember working my tail off to be a wife and mom and doctor. I was constantly juggling. Looking back I realize I wasn’t able to give my best to any part of my life. Yet everything in our culture stretches us thinner and encourages us to go for more, bigger house, new job, better pay, hotter oven, colder freezer, faster cars, we have endless options and are bombarded constantly with advertising telling us we need it.
We are on a constant quest for personal happiness. Nagged unceasingly with the feeling of, “if I could just get one more . . .” or “if I could just get a little further with that . . . then I would really be happy.” But history and Wendell Berry tell us that there is another way to live.
Did you know that traditionally the times of hardest work, like harvesting grain and sheering sheep were seen as times of great religious depth and ceremony?
During hard work man understood that he was drawn closer to God. God can’t be contained to the 15 minutes of morning quiet time we give Him. We can find Him in all things and all people, and sometimes our biggest, “Yes” to Him can be a, “No” to the things that draw us away from Him.
Thanks for being here,
This post is part of a series of reflections on The Art of The Commonplace. For more Liturgy of Life, subscribe or follow on facebook. To learn more about our reading group, click here, or check out our facebook group. We would love to have you read and ponder along with us.