Confused and Contented in the Garden
“I want to live happily in a world I don’t understand.” The financier/philosopher Nassim Taleb starts one of his chapters with these 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 my wife 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 in which I find myself. 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 evil demiurge that most afflicts me 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 back at least to the days of Gilgamesh, according to the Epic.
Yet as a Christian, I’m also increasingly inclined to believe that I’m called to reject the “world.” I believe St. Paul makes this clear in his condemnation of the flesh. By my reckoning, “flesh” is merely the “world” writ small, just as the “world” is the “flesh” writ large, much like Plato said society is man writ large. As men are increasingly “of the flesh,” the world increasingly becomes one to be rejected.
The modern world, I believe is all flesh. The “world” has always offered temptations of the body and mind, but the modern world brings a lot more to the existential table: its entire attitude seems antithetical to the Christian way.
A semi-naked woman has always been tempting to men. 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 (Carlyle’s “cash nexus”). We know silence is golden, but there’s noise everywhere. 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 and rich community, but now we can be lonely while interacting with electronic avatars–on Facebook, in chat rooms, or in the pseudo-lives of reality shows.
Gardening runs counter to all this. It, in Wendell Berry’s words, allows a man to “set his mind decisively against what is wrong” with the modern world. 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 on your pants 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, at least partially, defends us from modernity, hardening and setting us apart, 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.