Wendell Berry & living gratefully in the place where the past meets the future

One of my favorite authors is Wendell Berry, who has been writing novels and poetry and essays for more than 50 years. I’ve soaked in almost 30 of his books over the past decade and have been enjoying rereading his novel Andy Catlett: Early Travels recently.

In the novel, Berry writes about the ending of Andy’s childhood and the beginning of his growth into adulthood, as he begins to think and talk and act like an adult. Toward the end of the book, Andy (who narrates the story as an old man) reflects on our experience of time. The passage has a poetic quality so may require a couple of reads through to fully get, but I believe it’s worth the effort. Don’t rush it. He writes:

Time is told by deaths, who doubts it? But time is always halved — for all we know, it is halved — by the eye blink, the synapse, the immeasurable moment of the present. Time is only the past and maybe the future; the present moment, dividing and connecting them, is eternal. The time of the past is there, somewhat, but only somewhat, to be remembered and examined. We believe that the future is there too, for it keeps arriving, though we know nothing about it. But try to stop the present for your patient scrutiny, or to measure its length with your most advanced chronometer. It exists, so far as I can tell, only as a leak in time, through which, if we are quiet enough, eternity falls upon us and makes its claim. And here I am, an old man, traveling as a child among the dead.

We measure time by its deaths, yes, and by its births. For time is told also by life. As some depart, others come. The hand opened in farewell remains open in welcome. I, who once had grandparents and parents, now have children and grandchildren. Life the flowing river that is yet always present, time that is always going is always coming. And time that is told by death and birth is held and redeemed by love, which is always present. Time, then, is told by love’s losses, and by the coming of love, and by love continuing in gratitude for what is lost. It is folded and enfolded and unfolded forever and ever, the love by which the dead are alive and the unborn welcomed into the womb. The great question for the old and dying, I think, is not if they have loved and been loved enough, but if they have been grateful enough for love received and given, however much. No one who has gratitude is the onlinest one. Let us pray to be grateful to the last.

Berry’s perspective comes from a long acquaintance with grace. I love the line, “The hand opened in farewell remains open in welcome.”

When we live well in time, we don’t choose the past over the future — or the future over the past. We reach backward and forward at the same time. We are constantly saying, “Farewell” and “Welcome” at the same time, regardless of how young or old we are. Someone dies and someone is born. Second grade ends and we say, “Goodbye,” to our friends and face the long, long summer, only to welcome new friends when third grade begins in the fall. Something is always beginning and something is always ending.

Our task, according to Berry, isn’t just to love in the midst of these farewells and welcomes. It’s to be grateful.

What determines whether or not we’ve lived well is if we “have been grateful enough for love received and given, however much.”

Instead of living gratefully, do we wallow in self-pity? Do we focus on what others aren’t doing for us? Do we hold grudges for perceived hurts? Do we dwell on the things that we deserved but didn’t get, the missed opportunities, the love not received, the potential that went to waste because no one encouraged it?

What are the things and people in our lives that we need to open our hands in farewell to, grateful for their place and influence in our lives? And what are the things and people in our lives that we need to open our hands in welcome to, opening ourselves in expectancy for their new place and influence upon us? And what would it mean for us to live gratefully for all that we’ve experienced and grateful for all that is still to come?

… and grateful for all that is still to come.