It was late winter 2012. A certain pattern of being had become the norm for me. Mornings, I awoke grinding my teeth and my heart racing, panicked about whatever the day might hold. Nights, I frequently startled myself awake, sweating, terrified, unable to fall back asleep. My days were filled with a debilitating feeling of self-loathing and frequent tightness in the chest.
Doctors often qualify these sorts of symptoms as generalized anxiety disorder. Whatever label you want to give it, my emotional capacity to function and live a normal life was shrinking. In this space of vulnerability, several books entered my life. Among them was The Hidden Wound by Wendell Berry. This book became a source of clarity for me. What Berry’s talking about is race and the land; he’s talking about racism and environmental destruction. What I was reading, though, was about the art of living.
During this time, to live--even to feed myself, clothe myself, much less live artfully--had somehow come to seem impossible. And I wasn’t alone: when I finally sought professional help, I discovered that numerous other students and friends had been or were in counseling of some kind.
The diagnosis of anxiety, depression, and other mental-health disorders has been increasing. Something is “breaking us into pieces” (p. 75). Something is breaking our society into pieces. Berry saw the root of our numerous social problems as spiritual, as emotional. He saw our social problems as having a fundamental common cause. He said, “an emotional dynamic...has disordered the heart of...every person in society.... It has fragmented both our society and our minds” (p. 91). The symptoms of this something are “endless:” murder, rape, debt, toxic waste, hopeless poverty, unearned wealth (p. 131). And in my case, my symptom, and the symptom in the lives of peers, was a sort of emotional disorder that came to see every possibility of hardship as a reason for terror.
When considering what aspects of his message resonate or apply most fully to my own life experience, I find three principles that Berry advocated have most fully helped me overcome my own spiritual paralysis and disease. The application of these ideas didn’t come from The Hidden Wound alone; rather, The Hidden Wound was something of a second witness to me of the truths I discovered in other books, in therapy, and in my own life experience. In this sense, Berry’s essay has been both an important pillar and a guide. And because applying his ideas about race and social degeneration more broadly to my personal spiritual struggles was so effective, I am convinced that Berry was correct in his claim that our societal ills have common roots.
The first principle that helped me was laying aside the need for tangible results and enjoying simple pleasures. This was one of the most useful ideas for me. Berry wrote about how materialistic his society became; and not materialistic in the sense of enjoying physical pleasures, but of seeking after money, seeking after a certain status, and always concerned with how a particular activity was going to help them get ahead. In contrast, he describes Nick, and Nick’s ability to live pleasurably in the moment, without regard to how it was going to get him ahead.
My many friends and acquaintances who categorized themselves as having an anxiety disorder of some kind did not struggle with a love of money; but they, and I, did struggle with an over concern for consequences and results. In contrast to Nick’s placid ability to fantasize the future without it affecting his acknowledgement of the demands of the moment, I found myself constantly worrying about whether a particular task was going to get me ahead; if I was getting ahead enough; if I wasn't getting ahead enough, what would that do to me; what did I need to do to get more ahead?
In contrast, one extremely effective clinical therapy for anxiety disorders is mindfulness. This is practiced by patients through focusing on some sensation or experience to help distract the mind whenever anxiety arises. An example would be eating a piece of chocolate and paying attention to the flavors and textures of the chocolate. Berry describes something similar when he describes the pleasures of “eating and drinking and resting; of being dry while it is raining, of getting dry after getting wet, of getting warm again after getting cold... A man had to be acutely and intricately attentive” (p. 75). Berry speaks of these pleasures as superior, because they are not dependent on circumstances, but on a certain willingness to undergo discomfort because of the pleasure of relieving that discomfort; on a certain willingness to be present. The more we are present in our experiences, good or bad, the greater our emotional health. The more we are willing to accept and engage in experiences, good or bad, the greater our capacity for happiness and pleasure.
The second principle that helped me was the importance of elemental, essential work. This idea certainly extends beyond race and ethnic relationships. Berry wrote,
“The root [of our problems] is in the inordinate desire to be superior...to our condition. We wish to rise above the sweat and bother of taking care of anything--of ourselves, of each other, or of our country.” (p. 112)
For me, a great measure of my anxiety came about because of the enormous, insurmountable list of to dos my daily routine presented me with. No matter how efficient I was, things were going to fall apart, the bed would have to be made every morning, the bathroom cleaned, my body fed. Ultimately my attitude could be summarized as: I could not keep up with the demands of life, so why should I try? Yet, the more I tried to avoid taking care of myself, however, the greater my anxiety grew. The more I tried to find a balm for my distress in avoiding difficulty and effort, the stronger my distress grew. This quote from Berry’s essay, however, came to my mind often, reminding me of truth: it was in losing myself in work; in the gratification of working with my hands; in the pleasure of making and eating a meal that I found spiritual satisfaction.
The third principle of Berry’s that I found most helpful for my life was community. During this time, I was blessed to live in a remarkable community of students. In this community, we ate together daily, gave us each other rides to appointments and the grocery store, played games together, cared for each other when one of us was sick. I was an important player in this community, with the assigned duty to lead the women in the community in church services and activities, as well as to care for the sick, the downhearted, and the unemployed.
On my days of emotional struggle, I thought I wanted only freedom to “do as I please[d],” and enjoy idleness. But my responsibilities rarely allowed this, and this freedom, the “freedom to take care of ourselves and of each other,” (p. 129) was so many times my saving grace. It distracted me from my anxiety, it gave me a sense of purpose, and it made me “whole” by “giving me common cause” with my “commonwealth” (p. 104).
* * *It has been months since my anxiety symptoms have surfaced. I’ve described to you how Berry’s ideas of simple pleasures, elemental work, and community influenced my perspectives and motivated me to emotional healing. The Hidden Wound both adeptly describes my own broken situation and offers me the solutions.
As I look to my future, the ideas of simple pleasure and elemental work will continue to be important in my life. But I increasingly find that the concept of community will most help me learn and grow. This is also the idea from Berry’s book that seems most applicable to life four decades later, because I think it is the idea that has been most forgotten. For example, we know that our population is becoming increasingly urbanized. In his book Not All of us are Saints, Dr. David Hilfiker describes the medical problems of the inner city. He says that in fact, the medical problems that one finds in the inner city and in the country are almost the same: drunkenness and insanity, for example, are often considered the exclusive domain of the inner city homeless, but they can be found anywhere. The difference, though, is that in the country, the community is there to get a person back on their feet, to provide a home, a job, security. In the city, among the thousands of people, the sick become lost and their condition worsens.
I was lucky enough to have a community where I didn’t become lost. I had a role and responsibility that gave me purpose, and I had others to support me and guide me through dark days. Because of this experience, and because of my reading books like The Hidden Wound, I have begun to see my life’s work as “strengthening and defending communities” (p. 136). That means that my profession will be teacher, or speech therapist: someone with a strong stake in the community. It means that when my choice is between doing something for myself and helping someone else, I will choose to serve.
Berry knows that if people of different race and social status come to know each other, they will be able to cease seeing each other “on the basis of stereotypes” (p. 133) and achieve societal healing. I believe that coming to know each other will enable us to achieve other kinds of spiritual healing. As we invest in community, as we accept our predicament as fundamentally dependent on others, I believe that our wounds of all kinds will be healed. Our joys will deepen, and all “the most necessary and valuable things” (p. 137) of our lives will be preserved.