From the Gardening Journals
"I want to live happily in a world I don't understand." The financier/philosopher Nassim Taleb starts one of his chapters with those words in Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder.
Taleb goes to great lengths to point out that modernity (a thing he loathes) is a highly complicated world that, truth be recognized, nobody understands. The world is integrated, labyrinthine, complex, technological, speedy--all adjectives he employs. And he's right.
It reminds me of a conversation that Marie and I had last spring. She was talking about a friend's investments and his conviction that the United States economy is going to fall apart. In addition to gold and silver, he's also buying guns. She asked what I thought, and I basically said, "Yeah, maybe. And definitely, at some point . . . like maybe in 500 years or maybe next week. Who can possibly know? You know what I know? I know that sickly spinach plant I re-planted two weeks ago is going to make it. That's what I know."
I don't understand this world. Heck, it goes beyond that: I don't understand the world, trust the world, or even particularly like the world.
Now, by "world" I mean the modern world, the cultural-economic milieu into which I've been thrust. I'm not referring to creation or other people in general. I'm not a Gnostic who thinks matter is evil and the world is run by an evil demiurge. The only evil demiurge I know is in Washington, DC, and that's a political statement, not a metaphysical one, though the evil is getting so powerful I'll soon need metaphysical analogies to capture the enormity of the problem.
The dichotomy between the two senses of the word "world" is instructive. There's "the world" as created by God: good, joyful, to be loved. There's the "world" as used by those of us who might despair: modern life, with its carnality, crudeness, and complexity.
As a Christian, I'm called to embrace the "world" in the first sense. God made the world. Who am I to condemn it? The act of gardening is one way of embracing and loving that world. It is, I've come to believe, one of the best ways, if not the very best way, which might be the reason gardening goes all the way back to the days of Babylon.
As a Christian, I'm increasingly inclined to believe that I'm also called to reject the "world" in the "modernity" sense. Indeed, I believe St. Paul makes this clear in his condemnation of the flesh. "Flesh" is merely the "world" writ small, just as the "world" is the "flesh" writ large.
Yet the "world" as a by-word of modernity brings more to it. The "world" has always had its fleshly allures, temptations of the body and mind. The "modern world," though, brings a lot more to the existential table than just a handful of temptations. The entire attitude of modernity seems antithetical to the Christian way.
A semi-naked woman has always been tempting. Now there are semi-naked women everywhere. We've always known that "haste makes waste," but now slowness is practically a sin. Money has always been the root of all evil, but now money is the root of everything else too (the "cash nexus" condemned by Carlyle). We know silence is golden, but there's noise everywhere . . . the iPod has mercifully saved us from loud, booming music, but at the sacrifice of the user's stillness. People like to say "small is beautiful," but they admire the big stars and biggest houses. Everyone knows they should mind their own business, but gossip media is bigger than ever. People desire solitude (the "bowling alone" syndrome), but they then spend it with electronic people--on Facebook, in chat rooms, or taking in the pseudo-lives of reality shows. Busy-ness is expected from everyone: if you're not "engaged," you're pointlessly taking up space. Everyone wants to be special and the next American Idol.
Gardening runs counter to all this. Gardening is, in perhaps the strongest way I can imagine, counter-cultural. It requires everything that modernity eschews: littleness, slowness (you can't make a plant grow fast), constructive solitude, detachment. Most of all, it requires humility because, let's face it, it's just a garden. It might be a great garden, it might be a productive garden, it might be a beautiful garden: but it's still just a garden. Anybody can make a garden. It's about as special as making a meal or maybe putting your pants on in the morning.
It doesn't matter, though. You're not gardening for anybody else. You're gardening because it's an existential pursuit: an activity that correlates well with your existential predicament. Indeed, when it comes to earthly activities, I suspect it's the best existential pursuit. There are higher and better activities--prayer and service come immediately to mind--but they're tainted with holiness and spirituality. Gardening is wholly mundane, but in a way that complements our pursuit of holiness and spirituality because it keeps us properly focused and disposed.
It also anneals us from modernity and that, as Taleb teaches us, is a very good thing. Like Taleb, I, too, want to live happily in a world I don't understand.
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