“The only antidote to fear I know is good work. I learned in pregnancy, facing labor (all of my labors were very, very, very long), to simply screw up my nerve, accept that the only way out is through, and to go forward into the pain. We’re in the same situation now—the way out of this current crisis is through it, to go forward from where we are, with what we have and who we are.”
– Sharon Astyk
Depletion and Abundance
Yesterday I woke up feeling sad. I felt it as I made breakfast, preparing for a day of work with Lance and Tammi. Thoughts of the future preoccupied me and I couldn’t help but feel a small depression at the trying times I suspect we face. I am a firm believer that there is much good work to be done in response to this future and that much of that work will prove rewarding, enjoyable and renewing for us. I’m a firm believer that the way we live now is not ideal and that many of the ways in which we will be forced to change will be for our good. Yet, there’s no denying that if my vision of the future is correct, even in just a general sense, then we will have to deal with some harsh realities. Most of us here in America and other industrialized nations would do well to be poorer, yes, but we very possibly face an extreme poverty that will prove at times painful. That doesn’t mean a good life is impossible, but an easy one looks less and less likely.
I see it already in the struggles that some of my friends are having with the economy. I see it in the fear of friends and acquaintances that their living may fall out from underneath them, leading to a frightening and uncertain future. I fear even for my family and friends who are secure now, because I believe none of us are particularly secure long term. Dwelling on these melancholic realities, a part of me wanted to crawl back into bed, to close my eyes and disavow everything I’ve been thinking of late.
Instead, I went to work.
In the morning, I moved and cared for the chickens, then pitchforked some cow patties. By the afternoon, I found myself repairing and restringing parts of a barbed wire fence. This fence runs along a sporadically busy country road and encloses a field within the Miami River valley. It’s a particularly beautiful valley—abundantly green, blue skies overhead that day, forested hills rising on either side, veined not just with the river but multiple meandering creeks. I felt lucky to be there, to have good and simple work in a beautiful setting, to be able to work at a natural pace. My earlier melancholy couldn’t hold in such a satisfying moment.
Tammi joined me a bit later and we finished that stretch of fence together. Afterward, we drove back to Nehalem—Lance, Tammi, and their daughter Abigail in their truck, I in my own car—to a barn where they keep some more animals. We were there for two baby goats, born sometime within the last two days. After a quick bit of herding, we had the mother and her kids separated and ready to be transported back to the main farm. We loaded the mother in the back of the truck and Abigail and I each held one of the baby goats for a few minutes, marveling at how light they were, how cute and plaintive. They seemed weak, possibly not yet fed, and we worried the mother had rejected them. But even in that sobering situation, I couldn’t help but be buoyed by the tiny, adorable creatures and their small warmth. This was one more of the many, many perks of being a farmer.
From there, Lance, Tammi and Abigail headed back to the farm with the goats and I drove back to my farm, the work day done. At home, I used the bathroom and washed my hands, glorying in the warm water on my cold flesh. It was a small but significant pleasure, and it’s the sort of pleasure that I think will play a much large role in our lives in the future. I drank two beers, ate dinner (lamb burgers), poked around on the internet, talked a bit with Brian, read the last few pages of Depletion and Abundance, including the quote at the beginning of this post. I felt sad again, and I’ve little doubt that the beer played its role in that.
For all my declarative statements, I don’t know what will happen in the future. I suspect poverty. I suspect a hard go of it. But we have a hard go of it now. We’re tearing apart the world, doing our level best to murder our ecosystems, losing much of our humanity in technology, fracturing our communities, our families, our covenantal relationships, distracting ourselves constantly, enslaving ourselves to an economy of degradation. We don’t do good work for the most part. Many of us struggle to find meaning. We feel at a loss, adrift, often alienated, cut off from living a life that feels full and real.
Hot water on your hands becomes a pleasure when you’ve been outside for much of a winter day, becoming cold at times while you do important work, leading a more immediate life. When you’re inside all day in a climate controlled environment, cut off from the actual, outside world, perhaps distracting yourself with television and the internet and a variety of electronic gadgets, or maybe just doing work that doesn’t do much to enrich your community—well, then hot water tends to be standard, expected, nothing wonderful or revelatory. I like hot water being revelatory. Yes, it means less comfort, but then you actually recognize when you’re comfortable. And the times when you’re not are much more likely to involve good work and meaning.
So, yes, I become depressed sometimes when I think about a future I don’t expect to be pretty. But then I have moments when I’m working outside, repairing a broken fence. Or holding a baby goat, not more than two days old. Or simply running hot water over my cold hands and sighing with relief. These are all things that are as likely as not to occur during a life of poverty and they all give me joy. Sometimes, that joy exists only because of this different life. And I think about all the things that have depressed me in my previous life—the lack of meaning, the constant distraction, the multitude of electronic gadgets, the destruction of ecosystems—and I hope and suspect that will be much less a part of our future as they are now less a part of my present.
I fear the pain and challenge I think the future presents for all of us, but I celebrate all the joyous moments and sense of meaning it promises to bring, as well. Yesterday morning, I could have let the fear grab hold of me, crawled back into my warm bed, closed my eyes, pretended it all away, shirked my responsibilities, ignored the good work waiting for me and impoverished my future—and it would have been the easiest thing to do at that early morning moment, when I wanted no part of my visions of the future. But I went to work instead, and there I found joy and happiness and meaning. By going forward, I found a small bit of the antidote to my fear. Every day doing good work will bring more of it. To turn away from that and try to return to the false comforts of our current way of life would have been an abdication of responsibility and a personal condemnation to a life less meaningful, less happy, filled with delusion and sorrow rather than the sometimes hard joys of good work.
This, then, is why I go forward into voluntary poverty. Because I think it’s important work, because I think it’s my responsibility, because I can’t bear the standard world around me, because I don’t believe it will bring me happiness and joy. If I find myself living in a world in which I rarely notice and appreciate the hot water on my hands, I’m living in the wrong world. This world, this poorer one, is the right one. It’s the only one that can bring me happiness and meaning and satisfaction. It’s the only one I can bear. So I go forward, into poverty, into good work, gathering my antidote piece by piece, a lifetime of work.