Labours of Love
Labours of Love

Labours of Love

Cultivating grounds for hope and good work.

Appears in Spring 2021

Much of our public discourse about societal problems revolves around mind-boggling numbers: tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere; acres of topsoil washed away; millions of lives lost or impoverished due to historic and ongoing racial injustice; trillions of dollars of debt; thousands of daily COVID-19 deaths. When the problems are quantified in these ways, moral agency and responsibility become attenuated, and the responses we can most easily imagine are variants of either resigned pessimism or gleeful optimism. The pessimist figures there’s nothing I can do in the face of such huge problems, so I might as well distract myself with doomscrolling or, at most, find some insignificant gesture to make myself feel a bit better—maybe dumping ice water on my head to raise money for ALS or posting another story on Facebook about the dangers of the coronavirus. The optimist agrees that there’s nothing an individual can do, but places confidence in big solutions, usually political or technological. Neither the pessimist nor the optimist can imagine any meaningful action in the face of massive societal problems.

Framing our problems in terms of vast quantities encourages us to ground whatever hope we can muster in solutions large enough to put a dent in global problems. Conveniently, such framing also absolves us of individual responsibility; if the problems are so big I can’t do anything about them, I don’t have to change my life. In fact, not only can I not do anything about these problems, but I don’t even need to do anything about them—the politicians and technocrats will fix them for me. On this optimistic view, the millennial kingdom is just around the corner. And for those who don’t have faith in a government run by their preferred political party or in the scientists and experts working on these challenges, then apocalyptic devastation seems unavoidable. The optimist and the pessimist occupy two sides of the same coin: quantified discourse shuttles between utopia and apocalypse, but proponents of both agree that the scale is so vast no individual action matters—our future is determined, and it’s just a question of whether we’re determined to live in a Silicon Valley paradise or to go up in smoke.

The Kentucky farmer and essayist Wendell Berry seeks a third way, the way of hope. For Berry, good work is worth doing regardless of whether it will fix our global problems. By grounding ultimate hope in a given redemption, he is freed to do good work without having the impossible pressure of fixing global problems. So while some of the many technological and political ideas bandied about are worth pursuing, such solutions are a poor foundation for hope because they will inevitably disappoint us: no technology can make us live forever, and no political system can make us live in harmony with one another. If global efficacy is the standard of our work, then most of us have no good work to do. As Berry writes in regard to environmental challenges, “If we think the future damage of climate change to the environment is a big problem only solvable by a big solution, then thinking or doing something in particular becomes more difficult, perhaps impossible.”

Berry’s hope rests on two pillars: an eschatological vision of wholeness or shalom, and particular, practicable examples of redemptive living. He repeatedly insists that both are necessary; we cannot embrace one without the other, and we cannot try to collapse them together. One of our great temptations is thinking that individual acts will realize the eschaton, but they won’t. Nevertheless, individual practices of healing—of helping our wounded neighbour—participate now in the abundant life of the kingdom of God. Throughout his writing, then, he turns to exemplars who demonstrate the kind of loving, hope-sustaining work that is possible. He finds one example of such work, perhaps surprisingly, in Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, a play written in a time haunted by disease and political turmoil. In Berry’s reading, the faithful servants in this play form a constellation that might orient and guide individuals and institutions seeking to do redemptive work in the midst of a dark, bewildering world.

Eschatological Hope and Practicable Examples

In a culture that is obsessed with efficient, scalable solutions, it can seem quixotic to advocate practices that are blatantly inadequate to achieve the shalom for which we hope. Yet that is precisely what Berry does. He writes, “We are going to need the hope and the purpose of a coherent community, clearly articulated and steadily borne in mind. And we are going to have to resign ourselves to patience and small steps.” It is this combination of an eschatological ideal and practicable examples that gives shape to Berry’s hope. There are historical reasons why our industrial culture finds it difficult to maintain this gap between the ideal and the actual. Charles Taylor traces its collapse to the Protestant Reformation, which he argues was part of a larger Reformist “drive to make over the whole society to higher standards.” These Reformist movements generated optimism about the possibility of transforming the present world to realize our ideals. The effect of this Reformist impulse was to unleash a radical freedom to “re-order things as seems best.” Such freedom brings a heady optimism: we can change the world to usher in the millennial kingdom. This optimism has particularly shaped America; in the nineteenth century it generated many utopian communities and animated various reform movements—temperance, women’s suffrage, abolition, the eight-hour workday. Real good often comes from such efforts, but when capital-R Reform inevitably falls short of its lofty goals, despair follows. So the all-or-nothing impulse of Reformism leads to both utopian optimism—some new technique, some new policy, some new technology will fix our problems and realize the eschaton—and its flip-side apocalyptic pessimism—our problems are unsolvable, Armageddon is upon us.

Christian hope is distinguished by its faith in a final redemption and its conviction that humble acts of love can participate in this redemption now.

Near the end of his narrative, Taylor points to an alternative that avoids both optimism and pessimism by re-establishing a necessary gap between the ideal and the actual. As he argues, Christian eschatology maintains such a gap by locating hope in a divinely inaugurated redemption at the end of history: “This is a transformation which cannot be completed in history. In the nature of things, Christianity offers no global solution, no general organization of things here and now which will fully resolve the [tension between the ideal and the real]. It can only show ways in which we can, as individuals, and as churches, hold open the path to the fullness of the kingdom.” We hold this path open by means of specific, practical examples. Christians “can’t exhibit fully what it means, lay it out in a code or a fully-specified life form, but only point to the exemplary lives of certain trail-blazing people and communities.” Christian hope, then, is distinguished by its faith in a final redemption and its conviction that humble acts of love can participate in this redemption now.

Accepting this gap between our limited practices and our eschatological ideal frees us to act, whereas a focus on quantities and scalable solutions is paralyzing. A utilitarian ethic that measures success in terms of the greatest good for the greatest number can make particular responses to global problems seem pointless. If there are seven billion people in the world, what difference does it make if I drive my car less or buy grass-fed beef? The book Numbers and Nerves, edited by Scott Slovic and Paul Slovic, provides a psychological description of this phenomenon. Social scientists have found that people are more likely to donate money to help one child if they aren’t reminded of the millions of children who need food. It seems that expanding the scale of the problem imparts a sense of helplessness or “pseudoinefficacy”: “Compared with the large numbers of persons out of reach, the prospective aid created a sense of inefficacy, that is, a ‘drop-in-the-bucket’ feeling.” The authors argue, however, that this pseudoinefficacy “is nonrational. We should not be deterred from helping one person, or forty-five hundred, just because there are others we cannot help.” Yet in a culture that values quantifiable, wide-scale change, it’s no surprise that people feel like their individual actions are useless.

In other words, efficacy itself may be the wrong standard. It’s the standard of both optimists and pessimists, it’s the standard of an age that’s obsessed with quantities, but it’s a standard that erodes hope, good work, and sustaining communities. According to the standard of efficacy, our actions are only worthwhile if they lead to quantifiable change. So creating locally adapted art or being part of a flourishing community or undergoing a moral conversion will probably not reverse climate change or solve systemic racism or make a quantifiable dent in the vast problems of our world, but we shouldn’t judge the rightness of our actions by these standards. We help a refugee not because this is a way of “doing our part” in some mass movement or because we can help everyone who needs food and shelter. Rather, we provide food and water and support because the one refugee we help is valuable and worthy of care. Our hope, then, does not depend on our individual actions causing widespread change; more often than not one person’s good actions don’t snowball into a large-scale movement. If we only do good because we think our actions will lead to systemic change, we will grow discouraged and succumb to pessimism and despair. We can’t pin our hopes on achieving 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide or reversing soil erosion or eradicating a virus. It is in this way that although Christian eschatology is often accused of justifying the reckless use of environmental resources, it can also free us to do good work by lifting the paralyzing burden of efficacy.

Indeed, Berry’s Christian vision does not expect that the health for which he hopes will be achieved in human history, and yet his hope remains practicable. Berry’s hope lives in disciplines and practices that participate now in the health and redemption for which he longs. While his hope is oriented toward a vision of eschatological shalom, it lives in the present. He writes that “a desirable end may perish forever in the wrong means. Hope lives in the means, not the ends.” He expands on this in an interview, contrasting hope with both optimism and pessimism: “Optimism and pessimism are based on the idea of how things are [going to] turn out. Hope is grounded in the present; it’s not about the future. It’s about the reality of possibilities, this sense of possibility that you can do better.” Thus Berry advocates for practices that “are good now, according to present understanding of present needs. . . . Only the present good is good. It is the presence of goods—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.” Such hope leads to good, redemptive work regardless of whether it results in measurable benefits. It motivates the kind of faithful action that Hebrews 11 celebrates as “the substance of things hoped for”—action that embodies the redemption we hope for even while we know we will not experience its fullness.

Throughout his essays, Berry points to particular people or communities who exhibit these kinds of creative, hope-supporting modes of life. Rather than advocating abstract principles or systems, he points to a particular artist (Harlan Hubbard: Life and Work), a particular poet (The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford), a particular wilderness (The Unforeseen Wilderness: Kentucky’s Red River Gorge), a particular forester (“A Forest Conversation”), a particular agrarian community (“Seven Amish Farms”), a particular interracial friendship (The Hidden Wound). Such examples act as signposts or cairns that can guide our own lives. What Berry writes about King Lear applies more broadly to all these examples: “Human hope may always have resided in our ability, in time of need, to return to our cultural landmarks and reorient ourselves.” These examples of good work and good lives are not likely to transform society, but, freed from the impossible burden of fixing the world’s problems, we can orient our own lives by these landmarks. As Berry writes in describing William Carlos Williams’s poetry, “Local work, well done, is applicable elsewhere, not as prescription but as example.” The examples, then, may not be scalable, but they can be imitated. They can teach us how we might shape our art, our communities, and our lives in proportion to the redemption for which we hope.

Faithful Service as the Practice of Hope

In the spring of 2020, when many of us were under various stay-at-home orders, some commentators pointed out that Shakespeare may have written King Lear “under lockdown” while the Globe was closed due to an outbreak of the plague. We don’t know that for sure, but it is true that the London playhouses were often closed due to plague, and King Lear was written in the aftermath of great political turmoil as well, a time marked by King James’s ascension to the English throne in 1603. In this context, Shakespeare dramatizes the pain and damage that poor political leadership can cause, but he also portrays the hope that even the most warped and broken among us can change. And on this hope—that individuals can undergo a moral conversion—rests any hope for the redemption of our culture. Without such conversions, all the technologies and all the political institutions in the world will never bring fundamental change.

On Berry’s reading, King Lear is essentially about the redemptive power of faithful, humble service. By willingly sacrificing their aspirations and pride, the faithful servants in the play—“Kent, Edgar, Cordelia, even the Fool, and finally Albany”—participate in the redemptive action of the play. The great evils that lie behind the play’s tragic events—the evils that these sacrificial servants work to remedy—stem from a hubristic belief that life can be fully understood and controlled. Lear and the Earl of Gloucester cause great pain by “treating life as knowable, predictable, and within [their] control,” and when their plans finally shatter, they both fall into despair. As these characters demonstrate, hubristic optimism and apocalyptic pessimism are two sides of the same coin; both view life as predictable, and thus once events spin beyond their control, both give up on life.

Yet to believe life is determined, Berry argues, is to “pass beyond the possibility of change or redemption.” Writing against the technocratic tendencies of our age, he explains that “suicide is not the only way to give up on life. . . . We can give up on life also by reducing it to the terms of our understanding and by treating it as predictable or mechanical.” So both Lear and Gloucester succumb to “the human wish, or the sin of wishing, that life might be, or might be made to be, predictable.” This is the same sin that our data-obsessed culture falls prey to: “It is becoming clear that to reduce life to the scope of our understanding (whatever ‘model’ we use) is inevitably to enslave it, make property of it, and put it up for sale. This is to give up on life, to carry it beyond change and redemption, and to increase the proximity of despair.” Big data and the polls and metrics it spawns may be powerful, but they tempt us to believe that we can understand and control life itself, a belief that inevitably has tragic consequences.

What, then, is the alternative? Rather than acquiescing to evil or escalating one’s technological force to try to defeat evil on its own terms, the heroes in King Lear respond with “good and faithful service”; those who have been unjustly exiled from court work to serve the good of the very leaders and friends who have wronged them—they love their enemies. Their service doesn’t magically fix the ramifying evil of the play, but it practices hope:

Lear and Gloucester in their selfishness are too vulnerable, and the wickedness of their adversaries is too real, to permit to the good servants any considerable practical success. They can give no victory and achieve no restoration, as the world understands such things. Their virtues do not lead certainly or even probably to worldly success, as some bad teachers would have us believe. They stand by, suffering what they cannot help, as parents stand by a dying or disappointing child. This assures only the survival in this world of faithfulness, compassion, and love—which is no small thing.

Shakespeare does not offer some naïve, sentimental redemption; the play remains a tragedy. Yet if faithful service cannot bring global transformation, it can yet change individuals. These servants “restore those defeated old men to their true nature as human beings. They can waken them to love and save them from despair.” So by the end of the play, the two foolish, hubristic men who set the tragedy in motion have been redeemed by faithful, sacrificial service, and the kingdom has been placed under good rule.

Such hope-giving service must stem from a desire to participate in the present good rather than from the expectation that it will effect some systemic, large-scale change. When the Earl of Kent is unjustly banished by Lear, he tells himself,

If thou canst serve where thou dost stand condemned,
So may it come thy master whom thou lov’st
Shall find thee full of labors.

Berry reads this both literally and allegorically: “This is a literal description of Kent’s predicament in the play, if we read ‘thy master’ as King Lear, and ‘condemned’ as Kent’s exile. But it is also, and just as literally, a description of the human predicament and consequent obligation, if we read ‘thy master’ as Christ, and ‘where thou dost stand condemned’ as the fallen world.” Kent and the other faithful servants have no reason to expect their labours will solve the play’s political catastrophes, but—unlike Lear and Gloucester who give up when the odds turn against them—they nonetheless serve in hope.

Models Not Metrics

In our age, it is not only political rulers whose power tempts them to hubristically give up on life. Everyone with an internet connection has at their fingertips the power of big data, fast processors, and sophisticated scientific models. Such power can be useful, but it also tempts us to put our hope in the ability of technology to quantify, predict, and shape the future. And when we place our hope in technology and its expert-wielders, we too give up on life, forgoing the difficult work that authenticates hope. Political and technological solutions will be an important and necessary part of addressing our societal challenges, but they are not the grounds of our hope. Rather, Berry argues that our hope lies in the promise of a given redemption and the opportunity to do good, loving work. Hope is not an expectation that things will get better—that’s optimism—it’s faithful work that serves the present incarnations of the final redemption for which we wait.

"Local work, well done, is applicable elsewhere, not as prescription but as example." —Wendell Berry

How might churches and organizations encourage their members to practice such hope? One step would be to frame institutional goals in ways that make good work imaginable. We need fewer metrics and more models. When leaders cast a vision in terms of metrics—so many new church members, so much new revenue—they predispose their community members to go hunting for some capital-R Reform: some new consultant, some new software, some new technique that can bring about the desired change. If these techniques fail to deliver the promised growth, despair ensues. By casting a vision anchored in models and exemplars of good work, however, leaders prepare their members to serve faithfully regardless of results or challenges. Such an approach is particularly necessary during times of disruption or upheaval, when there are no reliable metrics to go by.

Berry articulates the limitations of predictions and metrics in response to an interviewer’s question about whether he could “envision . . . worldwide cataclysmic effects of climate change and global warming”:

Well, I think that's easy to envision, but totally useless, illegitimate. People are always having visions of the future, but I don’t think that we’re called upon to do that. It’s so much more important to have a vision of what is right. You can’t outfox all the variables that are weighing on the future. Nobody knew about 9/11, nobody foresaw that. Nobody foresaw that the election of 2000 would be decided by the Supreme Court. I think that’s a very foolish game that people play, saying “the water will be 18 feet deep in Manhattan” or something like that. To hell with it. I’m not interested in that. I mean, I’m unwilling to commit interest to that sort of thing; I have children and grandchildren and I have the appropriate fears for them, but the important thing is for me to fulfill my obligation to them. Which is to try to do the right thing now: to pass my memories on to them, and to give them good advice, knowing that they’re going to ignore it for a while. But I don’t like this futurology stuff. It doesn’t move me.

What does move Berry is work that tends present goods. Berry’s mode of hopeful work resists totalizing Reform and disavows any arc of history that supposedly bends inevitably toward either progress or apocalypse. Rather, Berry thinks that we practice hope when our faith in an eschatological redemption leads us to do good work now, right where we are.

I think it’s safe to say that not many people foresaw the disruptive events of recent months, from a worldwide pandemic to economic crises to political realignments to a reckoning with racial injustice. But we don’t have to predict the future to imagine and practice good work in the present. We have already been told all we need to know about the future—that Christ will return and restore his broken creation. In the meantime, we have been called to take up the ministry of reconciliation in the light of this eschatological hope. This is the attitude that lies behind Martin Luther’s apocryphal statement: “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would plant a tree.” If we believe that God is going to save the world, then we have time to salve our neighbours’ wounds. Our hope is not somehow to effect our own redemption or to save the world—that is beyond our control—rather, our hope should be that when the end comes, when Christ brings his eschatological redemption, our master whom we love shall find us full of labours.

Spring (Fruit Trees in Bloom) by Claude Monet, 1873.

Jeffrey Bilbro
Jeffrey Bilbro

Jeffrey Bilbro is associate professor of English at Grove City College and the editor-in-chief of Front Porch Republic. He is the author of several books, most recently Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News


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