Some years ago I watched the movie Praying with Lior, which – according to one website – “asks whether someone with Down syndrome can be a spiritual genius.” It doesn’t spoil anything to say that both the movie and Lior concentrate on community. Community defines the synagogue family in which Lior is both the recipient and the giver of grace. Over and over, like a mantra, Lior recites, “It’s the comMUNity.”
A periodical widely respected as the voice of prairie agriculture, The Western Producer, has recently been featuring articles about mental illness on the farm. We’re not talking here about a quaint homestead, a sod house with pioneers suffering from isolation. In a recent issue, we read about a rancher with 550 head of cattle and 230 head of bison (August 2017). This 28-year-old has courageously spoken out about the emotional, mental and physical toll his work takes on his life: “Stressful doesn’t even start to explain it,” he says.
The very nature of farm life has changed, said one panellist at a recent conference: “the dynamics of communities have changed over the years. . . . Today, there may not be one neighbour within five miles. . . . The curling rink’s gone, the ball diamonds are gone.”
What the rancher and Lior have in common is the need for community. Lior has it; the rancher not so much. In many farming and ranching regions, whether near urban centres or in more remote rural regions, the 9:30 a.m. coffee time (after chores) at the local diner or in Helen’s kitchen are things of the past. “There is not enough time,” we say. And there are not enough farmers either. A community cannot continue to support its members when the basic habits and structures of social unity are missing. Isolation may be destructive to people with iphones, Dodge Rams and Twitter if personal contact is impossible.
I was reading from Wendell Berry’s writings (short pieces) and I found this: “What I would call Amish genius has consisted not at all in forswearing industrial technology but in limiting the use of it.” And later from the same essay: “They [the Amish] alone, in the face of every technological innovation offered as ‘an improvement,’ have had the genius or the wisdom to ask the absolutely crucial question: ‘What will this do to our community?’”
There used to be a Tim Horton’s coffee shop on Upper James Street in Hamilton, Ontario, where I would go for an early, 6:00 a.m. coffee when I visited our family living there. The coveted corner table would often be occupied by four retired steelworkers from the now-shuttered mill. They would be holding forth about this and that and I would nod. Dominic or Gino would greet me with a “hello,” and I would reply with, “Ya got the world’s problems solved yet, guys?” And we would all smile.
A year or so ago I got up early for coffee and – no Tim Horton’s. It had been replaced by a drive-through located just down the road. More chances for community gone.
In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that “the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged. . . . He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.”
My resolution for the next year is to be a “sure voice” to people in my locale, to try to promote face-to-face visits, to be the receiver and giver of support and grace . . . whether by lovingly surrounding those with disabilities, by staying put on the farm instead of fleeing for the suburb, Florida or my iphone, by volunteering more at local charities, by daring to share my own loneliness with others, and – mostly – by simply being there, with others and for others.
That’s more than enough to keep me busy for a whole year or all the years I have left.