Three centuries ago, back when Europe was called Christendom and everyone figured they were Christian (however syncretistic or nominal), something started shifting. It’s a shift that got us to the place we are today, where belief is an option, and not a very easy one at that.
I’ve been reading a huge book about how shift toward secularism happened, Charles Taylor’s The Secular Age. Here’s the deal: Around the 18th century, people began to see themselves as rational, benevolent individuals walking in some premade divine plan, rather than people needing the grace and intervention of an intimate God. People were “coming to see society as an ‘economy’, an interlocking set of activities of production, exchange and consumption, which form a system with its own laws and its own dynamic,” guided only by the invisible hand of the economy (p.181). The virtuous thing now was not to go off and get sanctified, but just to be productive, to contribute to an economy that would somehow magically carry out God’s plans if we all just acted in our own self-interest.
And what did we lose? Taylor says, “It seemed that greatness, heroism, full-hearted dedication to a non-utilitarian cause, were in danger of atrophy, even of disappearing from the world” (p.184).
Full-hearted devotion to a non-utilitarian cause… atrophied.
This evening I went with my kids to a meeting about joining 5th grade band. The teacher joined us in marveling that in this state of budget cuts and slashed music programs, our district has kept this program alive and kicking. Then she read this:
Why I Teach Music-
A Poem, Anonymous
Why I teach music:
Not because I expect you to major in music
Not because I expect you to sing or play all your life
Not so you can relax
Not so you can have fun
But, so you will be human
So you will recognize beauty
So you will be sensitive
So you will be closer to an infinite beyond this world
So you will have something to cling to
So you will have more love, compassion, gentleness, good – in short more life.
If ever there’s a non-utilitarian cause that demands full-hearted devotion, it’s teaching ninety eager fifth graders to blow into their instruments at the same time.
I came home to find Hobbles dead in the chick waterer, drowned.
Earlier in the day I had carried Hobbles, our tiniest chick with one spraddled leg, upstairs to rewrap a Bandaid around his feet to help them grow straight. My son, seeing the little fuzzy head peeking out of my hand, came to watch the little guy. He was the smallest of the chicks, and his little Bandaid-tied feet seemed to have the opposite effect of what you’d expect: he ran everywhere, Forrest Gump style, throwing himself into all of life full force with bounces and tumbles that made him by far our favorite chick.
And also the one most likely to stumble into the waterer and drown.
I should have known. I’d read the chick care websites, and I should have put rocks in there to keep a fallen chick’s head above water. But I didn’t.
So tonight we buried Hobbles beside the only other chick we named, Polar Bear. My daughter named that one. He was the fuzziest of all chicks, but the one who never managed to learn to stand up.
And oh, how weakness inspires devotion. He worked at it with all his might but his legs never held him, so he tumbled around, crashing face first again and again while the other birds ran and cheeped and nibbled their first bites of food. Finally Polar Bear just seemed to give up the will to live.
Why must Charlotte’s Webb teach us to care for runts? Why must every good story tell the victory of an underdog? What drives us to want to name and love most the two most hopeless little birds?
Farmers learn this, I thought as I buried the Hobbles beside his Polar Bear. Don’t love the runts. It just isn’t practical. Runts die. Practical says root for the easy winners, and let the weak die.
And yet everything I do on this farm, ultimately, feels like caring for runts. And it just isn’t practical.
If I wanted practical, I wouldn’t plant my own raspberries and go to bed with tiny thorns in my fingertips. I would pay some immigrant I’ve never met unsustainably low wages to pick my raspberries for me on a massive farm far away. If I wanted practical, I wouldn’t build a chicken coop and nurture these fragile chicken lives for the sake of a pocketful of eggs every day. If I wanted practical I wouldn’t spend 6 years of my life working on a PhD in anthropology. If I wanted practical, I wouldn’t teach my children piano, or take time out of my day to help them sew muppets or go fishing or take bike rides. If I wanted practical I wouldn’t bother bringing kids into this world at all, and I certainly wouldn’t love—not runts, not anybody. Of all life’s impracticalities, love must be the least practical.
As an afterthought, I went back out to the woods to my chick graves and tucked beneath the soil two paper flowers. My friend made the flowers by hand as wedding favors out of handmade paper—oh the impracticality. Spread in the paper are seeds of purple flax. Here I plant more impractical seeds, aptly representing the love of marriage in a country where your marriage is more likely to end in divorce than not. Seeds somehow supposed to grow amidst all the unpredictability of weather, weeds, and the scratching of my hungry chickens themselves.
But I go on planting, I go on nurturing fragile life. So we will be human. So we will recognize beauty. So we will be sensitive. So we will be closer to an infinite beyond this world. So we will have something to cling to. So we will have more love, compassion, gentleness, good – in short more of this impractical thing called life.