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Liberalism generally assumes the autonomous individual and a "state of nature" characterized by independence. We are seen as primarily responsible for and accountable to ourselves. 
But there’s very little lived reality to this characterization of the self: as Leah Libresco Sargeant points out in a new article for Plough, "dependence is our default state, and self-sufficiency the aberration. Our lives begin and (frequently) end in states of near total dependence, and much of the middle is marked by periods of need.” 
When we really look at ourselves and the world, we see signs of frailty and dependency everywhere: in a tiny newborn baby, tendrils of ivy curling around a stone, eggs keeping warm underneath a mother bird’s wings, tree roots gravitating toward water. I remember my grandmother placing her soft, wrinkled hand heavy on my shoulder when I was young, using my sturdy body as a support for her frail one as we walked through a store together. We are surrounded by interdependence, living in a world in which health—as Wendell Berry might suggest—is predicated on membership.
But if our society “holds up independence as the ideal,” Leah suggests, we become beholden to “two rival duties: to obscure our dependence and to be resentful of it.” We ignore real health in pursuit of an artificial state of being.
In his book What It Means To Be Human, O. Carter Snead suggests that “expressive individualism” encourages people to separate "the will from the body, insisting that the will determines everything rather than natural ‘ends' or communitarian connections,” as Jacob Shatzer writes in his review of the book for The Front Porch Republic.

The problem, of course, is that this view “'forgets the body' and ignores the vast networks of dependence that define human life. Expressive individualism fails because it can’t make sense of actual lived experience—the experience of embodiment, dependence, vulnerability, and limitation."
A highly fragmented conception of the self and society has far-reaching consequences. In his essay “Health Is Membership,” Wendell Berry suggests that our culture “isolates us and parcels us out,” demolishing any sense of communal life or wholeness. Such a viewpoint encourages us to parcel out various aspects of our lived existence—churches, families, schools, stores, farms, hospitals, nursing homes—and put them in detached zones, each serving as a separate little world of its own. As I wrote for Breaking Ground earlier this year, we end up approaching our world like a machine: “divorcing ourselves from every other part, pulling apart the various strands in the tapestry.” 
What's more, this viewpoint can tempt us to ask, with Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” If we do not see ourselves as dependent or vulnerable, then we can ignore the needs of our neighbors and communities. We can see ourselves as beholden to nothing and no one. 
This has massive consequences for our stewardship of the earth, animal and plant life, and our communities. It also has a massive impact on the economy we create: in a couple books I recently reviewed for Mere Orthodoxy, authors Alissa Quart and Maxine Eichner argue the modern American economy is based on the assumption that most workers are untethered and autonomous—thus fundamentally punishing or disqualifying most parents, since caregiving requires interdependence and indebtedness. Dealing with parents-as-workers requires us to deal with embodied humans: humans who age, have babies, or need a place to breast pump, for instance. 
But our obsession with efficiency encourages us to “optimize” our society and economy in ways that punish the weak and vulnerable (as well as those who care for them). The needs of the very young and very old cannot be “optimized.” To be a caregiver requires us to milk a cow when she needs to be milked, water plants when they are thirsty, change diapers when they are soiled, wash wrinkled skin with care and gentleness, regardless of the time or inconvenience. 
Meanwhile, practices like monocropping—or the ruthless rigor of our slaughterhouses and packing houses—actively discourage any acknowledgment of ecological complexity, or respect for persons, which would result in health (this is something Leah and I talked about in a recent Q&A for her Tiny Book Club—Part I and Part II).
It is interesting to contrast this view with that espoused by Berry in his lovely essay “The Body and the Earth.” In it, Berry suggests that our world is like a body: a complex, glorious web of interlocking and interdependent pieces, each impacting the health and wellbeing of the other, each playing a vital role in the health of the whole.

“Body, soul (or mind or spirit), community, and world are all susceptible to each other’s influence, and they are all conductors of each other’s influence,” Berry writes. “… This is a network, a spherical network, by which each part is connected to every other part.” 
This year has reminded us just how interdependent we are. Even recent discussions of one’s “support bubble”—the individuals we interact with on a regular basis, thus impacting and potentially putting at risk of infection during a time of pandemic—encourage us to see ourselves not as autonomous, but as dependent: part of a web of membership and indebtedness, one that often stretches farther than we comprehend or imagine.
This year helped reveal the fragility of our food system, the brokenness in our nursing homes and elderly care systems, our desperate need for reform in our prisons. It reminded us how much we need small businesses for local health, of the important role played by local institutions and associations in coming alongside our society’s most vulnerable and disenfranchised. 
This year, we were encouraged to examine what it takes to “place the weak at the center,” as Leah puts it. Hopefully this December, we will also remember that we ourselves are also weak and dependent: if not in body, then most certainly in soul and spirit. We need each other: the joy of communion, the love of our neighbors. Often we do not deserve their love, and can give nothing in return. That is the grace of dependence.
Email me and let me know your thoughts on interdependence. I'll include some thoughts in the next newsletter!
in other news
  • Farmers are draining water from the Ogalalla-High Plains Aquifer faster than rain and snow can replenish it—and Modern Farmer suggests federal and state agricultural policy are egging on the depletion.

  • Maria Godoy examines the ways redlining in the 20th century has continued to impact neighborhoods in the 21st century—even making them more susceptible to the pandemic.
  • A global study finds that our levels of resilience are determined by our exposure to suffering: "we discover our resilience only when we are forced to meet unavoidable suffering full in the face."
  • Over at Civil Eats, Lisa Held considers the cases for and against the expansion of aquaculture and fish farming. Can we make these practices more sustainable? How do they impact ocean ecosystems?
  • We all need to learn the habits of "wintering," book author Katherine May suggests: finding "a way to get through tough times by chilling, hibernating, healing, re-grouping."
  • It's time for us reconsider the worth of maintenance, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang writes in his LARB review of The Innovation Delusion: "The more modest activities [of maintenance and repair] are undervalued in just about every way. Despite their invisibility, they are indispensable, and absolutely essential in a crisis.”
  • Marilynne Robinson writes about habits of questioning, and the mysterious resources of the mind: "it has actually been among the great pleasures of my life to realize that almost anything offered as truth deserves another look. Looking deeper renews the world."
  • "Politics as consumption" often results in a desire to find, Goldilocks-style, a political home that's "just right," Rachel Anderson argues for Breaking Ground. But "the Christian practice of hospitality" should reform and reorient our politics, directing our desires away from a search for perfect unity or at-homeness, toward "the common good with particular people in a particular place."
  • Joy Clarkson reviews Susanna Clarke's latest novel, Piranesi, considering both its critique of our mechanistic understanding of the world and its call to re-enchantment. Clarke does not allow us "to slip into optimistic nostalgia or modern condescension," Joy writes, but "[invites] us instead to consider a possible blindness of our own time to the spiritual potency in the natural world."
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

I've been meaning to read this book for years, and am glad I finally set aside the time. Dillard's book is a compelling and beautiful work of theodicy, one which considers both the beautiful and grotesque in nature, and considers the divine mystery hidden within the quotidian. Dillard calls us to "be still, and know": to pause in a frenetic time, and to seek out the wonder often lying in plain sight. Dillard's style can, at times, feel a bit overwrought (at least to me). But I also think the book's verbosity and poetic style complements many of its larger themes, fitting as it does within a call to embrace a more complex, enchanted understanding of nature and reality. 

Jack, by Marilynne Robinson

Along with members of our November book club, I just finished reading Jack, and am so thankful for our webinar discussion of the novel yesterday! This novel, for me, served as a poignant reminder of the fragility involved in loving and receiving love. "To love at all is to be vulnerable," C.S. Lewis once wrote. This is something Jack grapples with over the course of the novel, as he seems to ask himself—again and again—whether the required vulnerability is worth it. But the novel's concluding considerations of courage and faithfulness fit (as Jeffrey Bilbro suggested to me) with Robinson's assertion in Gilead that "precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm."
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Feedback for the last edition of Granola: 

"[Gentleness is] a word that we rarely hear or use, I suppose because it sounds too sentimental to us. But, of course, as you eloquently point out, it is not sentiment at all. I like to picture it, in certain instances, like a sort of aggressive tenderness. In our society, individualism is overvalued to the point that, for some, it becomes more important than care. In fact, it dawned on me recently that there is an attitude in America that looks down on care. The attitude implies that not caring leads to real freedom and that care is for suckers—and is perhaps un-American. In this context, I suppose the idea of gentleness would seem like a foreign language.

But—I won't fall into despair! Yes, let's develop our capacity for gentleness. The world may need it now more than ever. And, perhaps even more, let our minds and attitudes submit to being gentle not primarily for the impact we might have but because we know it will preserve something in each of us that is worth preserving."

– Drew G.

"I believe that gentleness shines most when it is offered as contrast to someone else’s aggression and heat. In some ways, it’s resilience and unflappability stirred with kindness, empathy, and extending the benefit of the doubt. I am challenged by this word, though, because I struggle to think of moments in 2020 that seemed to exemplify this fruit of the spirit. And further, as a Christian, this is one of the ways that I know that Christ is at work in me."
– Morgan L.

"Your comments on 'active passivity' really strike me. I find myself in agreement, but I don’t know how much that agreement does for us—as you imply, it’s not as though it’s obvious exactly where 'gentleness' ends and 'enfeebled compromise' begins. That can be an annoyingly persnickety question, I know, especially when the answer is going to always be more a matter of contextual, tactile knowledge—or, as you put it, something we recognize in an 'embodied, intimate, and local' way—rather than anything rationally principled.  

Maybe it all comes down to faith and hope: the faith that we and others will be able to know and compassionately articulate where that dividing line is in all of our particular moments, and the hope that we and others will keep ourselves on the 'gentleness' side of it."
– Russell F.
"Gentleness is the leading virtue of St. Francis deSales, who is known as 'the Gentleman Saint.' He’s worth getting to know, even if you’re not a Catholic."
– Bill M.
I grew up in rural Idaho, and now live in Northern Virginia. I have written for The American Conservative, The Week, New York Times, Washington Post, National Review, Weekly Standard, Christianity Today, and others. To quote C.S. Lewis, "You'll never find a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me."
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