It’s natural, as humans, to look out for ourselves and our families first. Then, maybe, once our needs have been met, we can move outward and begin to care for the people and the world around us. “Us” first, then “Them.” It makes sense at first glance; how can you pour from an empty cup, right?
There’s some truth to that, but farmer and essayist Wendell Berry turns that notion on its head with this excerpt from “Racism and the Economy”:
“If we are looking for insurance against want and oppression, we will find it only in our neighbors' prosperity and goodwill and, beyond that, in the good health of our worldly places, our homelands. If we were sincerely looking for a place of safety, for real security and success, then we would begin to turn to our communities - and not the communities simply of our human neighbors but also of the water, earth, and air, the plants and animals, all the creatures with whom our local life is shared.” What of that? What if we began to think of our security as being, not secondarily, but primarily dependent on the safety and prosperity of the communities in which we reside? What if serving the health and success of our neighbors is the best way to ensure our own success?
Perhaps if we think of it in relatable terms: if my neighbors can afford to care for their lawns and their homes, it drives up the value of my home, too. I can work all weekend on my yard, but if all my neighbors’ yards have gone to seed, my work has little value. If my neighbors have good jobs and can send their kids to school, crime rates drop and we enjoy safer streets. If we manage our ecosystems with care, then our air becomes cleaner to breathe and our soil produces richer crops.
The success of the community is my success. Its health is my health. Its security is my security.
Rather than complaining about what’s lacking in my community, it makes me wonder: what can I do to assist in my neighbors’ and neighborhoods’ success?
(Excerpt from “Racism and Economy” in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays, Wendell Berry, Counterpoint, 2002.)