Here, Wendell Berry makes a very interesting observation about the nature of problems and solutions in general, or more specifically, about cultural disease and healing.
These things that appear to be distinct are nevertheless caught in a network of mutual dependence and influence that is the substantiation of their unity. 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. The body is damaged by the bewilderment of the spirit, and it conducts the influence of that bewilderment into the earth, and the earth conducts it into the community and so on.
-Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, p.110
He is talking about how all the parts of our world and community are connected and that a problem in one section will never be isolated. It will always have far reaching effects. For example, if more families are torn apart by divorce, all kinds of other bad things follow: damaged children obviously, but also interrupted employment, litigation, etc. When a school goes downhill, it has far-reaching effects on it’s students. When a farmer abuses the soil for short-term gain, it can impair the next generation significantly. When a man visit’s a prostitute, he spreads disease, furthers the abuse of women, financially props up the pimp, etc. When a man smokes weed, his twenty dollars trickle all the way back to gangs on the Mexican border who like to leave severed heads lying around. He also hurts his employer by being spacey. He hurts his neighbor by caring less about him too, at least for a while.
Now, none of this is news. You’ve probably all heard the illustration about how a drop of water in a pond can send ripples out all the way to the edges.
All that is certain is that an error introduced anywhere in the network ramifies beyond the scope of prediction; consequences occur all over the place, and each consequence breeds further consequences. But it seems unlikely that an error can ramify endlessly. It spreads by way of the connections in the network, but sooner or later it must also begin to break them. We are talking, obviously, about a circulatory system, a disease of a circulatory system tends first to impair circulation and then to stop it altogether.
Berry also notes that, because an error in a network (I’m going to substitute “selfishness in the community” for “error”) is, by nature, destructive, it tends to break ties as it goes. The horrors of divorce cannot spread to a thousand generations since those generations aren’t going to exist. The decadence of Rome before it’s fall didn’t spread to the whole world. After enough of the empire was broken, it imploded and was overcome in war. Because evil burns its bridges, it can only travel so far. A comforting though actually!
Now here is what I found the most curious:
Healing, on the other hand, complicates the system by opening and restoring connections among the various parts – in this way restoring the ultimate simplicity of their union. When all the parts of the body are working together, are under each other’s influence, we say that it is whole; it is healthy. The same is true of the world, of which our bodies are parts. The parts are healthy insofar as they are joined harmoniously to the whole.
Healing, by it’s very nature, makes the network more complicated. When you restore connections in the family, then you have to learn to live with these people. If you and your wife get back together, then you have to learn to relate to her mother-in-law again. And you have to feed to dog, which you didn’t have to do before. A lot of people talk of ways to fix education. But do you realize that if you fix education, it will not make it suddenly simple and elegant? If the interaction of teachers, students, parents, and the rest of the technology is made richer and more healthy, it will also be increasingly difficult to put your finger on one thing that is holding it together.
We often, very often, imagine that healing will simplify things. The newsstand is full of magazines offering ideas to simplify your life. They even have titles like “Real Simple”. Religious fundamentalists also tend to think like this. Introduce this one big change, like everyone taking the bible literally or everyone submitting to Sharia law, or everyone tossing away their “crutch” of faith in a fit of secular humanist existential ecstasy, THEN the world will be less tangled up. It will be simple! No. Our world, our community is a circulatory system. The more healthy it is, the more tightly integrated it will be – the more difficult it will be to understand. Yes, in some ways, when life is healed it is simpler. But it is also thicker.
Hate causes a mess, but love causes even more of mess!