Welcome to our online repository for the Find Your Sacred Book Club’s latest book: “What Are People For?” by Wendell Berry.
In this book of 22 essays, Berry gracefully navigates from one topic to the next — from insatiable consumerism and household economies to literary subjects and America’s attitude toward waste. And he “talks to the reader as one would talk to a next-door neighbor: never preachy, he comes across as someone offering sound advice.”
Below are some of the questions we posed along the way, along with a sampling of your thoughtful answers.
1. In the essay Damage, Berry says, “To lose the scar of knowledge is to renew the wound.” What sort of scars of knowledge are we tempted to lose? And though the temptation is to forget, how do we benefit from remembering?
Remembering breathes life into the experience which leads to wisdom. —Dana M. Martin
The extreme sadness that comes with the death of someone you love. With that pain comes the acknowledgment of what love means. —Ann VerWiebe
Remembering alters the path we choose and gives courage to offer assistance to others on their journey. One doesn’t need to fall into the same pit I did. Can I help shine a light on that steep road? —Kristine B. McAnelly
We are soon to lose the last of the Holcaust survivors. Their direct memory of and witness to that atrocity will be gone. I fear their loss will mean forgetting how one individual can all but destroy an entire faith of people. —Karla Schlensker Sneegas
2. In the essay Healing, Berry says, “True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.” Though we currently find ourselves in isolation, it is with extreme obligation. In times like this, how might we find restorative solitude without obligation?
Wild places can be anywhere our boundless, timeless minds create. —Dana M. Martin
I have found that being outdoors, regardless of the weather, for even a few minutes is an intentional space to find that solitude. Creating space in mind and heart to just be is restorative. —Mary Reed Spencer
Cuddling with my pets in the yard. —Rebecca Hoffman
Getting outside for a solitary walk, even in my urban neighborhood, is restorative. I believe it’s a Buddhist saying to spend 20 minutes a day outside; if stressed, make it 40! I’m also finding ways to talk with neighbors I’ve never met, who are also out walking. The young couples are often a bit impatient at first, but so far I’ve been able to discover some connection that surprises them, and I find that fun and energizing. —Carol Frances Johnston
3. In the essay “A Remarkable Man,” Berry describes farmer Nate Shaw as “a superior man who never went to school.” Shaw’s character was formed by life experience and sense of place. How have your surroundings influenced the person you are today?
I once knew a man who could have been Nate Shaw. He was mythic in our family yet anonymous to most. Having been a nomad most my life, I had no real connection to a plot of ground. But this man understood his ground, his people (who were characters) and relationships so deeply that you almost wondered if he was real when he talked. I was blessed to know him, even if briefly, and felt like I had a visit after reading this essay. Only Wendell Berry could have brought him back so vividly. —Sarah Riggs Reed
As much as I value my education (English major at a liberal arts college), what I learned in the classroom was far less influential than the life experiences I gained during that time. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to live in a few vastly different cities, and each PLACE has left an indelible mark. Experiencing places, people and cultures makes us who we are. —Sarah Kelley
4. What do you think is the purpose of protest? Are any modern-day protests moving the needle in society, or are the effects occurring “in one’s own heart,” as Berry asserts in this passage from “A Poem of Difficult Hope”:
“If protest depended on success, there would be little protest of any durability or significance. History simply affords too little evidence that anyone’s individual protest is of any use. Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.”
5. In Style and Grace, Berry explores “A River Runs Through It,” a novel in which fishing is described as a rite of companionship. According to Berry: “It is a tragic rite because of our inevitable failure to understand each other; and it is a triumphant rite because we can love completely without understanding.” Can you describe any instances in which we love despite a lack of understanding?
6. In discussing the state of Christianity in God and Country, Berry suggests that “organization” can force upon an institution a character that is antithetical to it. Why do you think that’s the case? And does it always have to be so? What are some examples of organized institutions that have remained true to their core values or even benefitted from this evolution?
People aren’t perfect. Institutions and organizations are created by people and therefore mirror those imperfections. —Dana M. Martin
People are indeed not perfect, so every organization strays over time. The ones that last find ways to renew themselves in dynamic relationship with core values and changing context. I’m not Catholic, but looking at Catholic history it seems to me that the Church has been renewed again and again – mostly by lay led movements. I suspect that professionalization (what Pope Francis calls “clericalism”) usually leads to decline. I’ve long thought the vigor of Baptists (the largest Protestant group in the US), and the remarkable longevity of Judaism could be due, at least in large part, to the way the laity are encouraged to practice their faith – in both traditions with high levels of scriptural literacy, among other things. If this is right, I wonder if people from other, non-Christian traditions, have observed anything similar? —Carol Frances Johnston
7. In the essay Waste, Berry writes, “Much of our waste problem is to be accounted for by the intentional flimsiness and unrepairability of the labor-savers and gadgets that we have become addicted to.” Can you point to any specific instances or habits you have adopted that help reduce such waste?