It’s been coming around more often lately. There are rare days when it hangs sullen and gray over everything, like a drop ceiling of stratus clouds. Usually, though, it’s a kernel of feeling at the cusp of some worthy pursuit that my lesser nature does not want to do—exercising, cleaning out the chicken coop, working with my daughter on her fractions. And as my higher nature stretches up, my lower nature in protest stretches down, and I yawn open somewhere in the middle and arrive at the utter impossibility of action. I stand there frozen for a moment and wonder how anything in the world ever gets done.
It is a habit of mine to split things into two camps. Higher nature, lower nature. Good feelings or bad ones. Worthy vs. unworthy pursuits. Well-used time and time that I have wasted. Months ago these categories, though misleading, still served their general purpose. In this new era, however, they have all but lost their meaning. Is it more worthy to bake bread for your family or to hold your son while he cries? Which nature needs a nap – your higher or your lower? Is it wasting time to lock yourself in the bathroom for ten minutes of relative silence, the blessed fan drowning out your children’s voices calling your name?
Wendell Berry wrote, “Always in the big woods when you leave the ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the unknown, and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into.”
Two months ago, each of us stepped off into an alternate world. The problem is, most of our new places look oddly similar to our old ones. This makes us assume that our capacities ought not to have changed. I should be able to wake early and exercise, homeschool the children throughout the morning, work as much as I need throughout the afternoon, and manage all of the daily household detritus before 5 o’clock rolls around and it’s time to cook dinner.
But in a new place, who we are must necessarily be different from who we were, and expecting oneself to maintain the same (or, for most of us, higher) standards of productivity is tantamount to expecting a displaced hunter-gatherer to glean berries from the desert. We have left one territory and entered another. Maybe how we are in this new space is how we ought to be. Maybe dread is a wise teacher bending over to whisper that at the moment we are taking too much on ourselves.
Berry goes on, “You are undertaking the first experience, not of the place, but of yourself in that place. It is an experience of our essential loneliness, for nobody can discover the world for anybody else. It is only after we have discovered it for ourselves that it becomes a common ground and a common bond, and we cease to be alone.”
Alone is a scary place to be. Alone, each of us is necessarily weaker, more vulnerable, less certain of anything. Strength will come again in time, but it is not ours yet. First we must put down roots to anchor us in this new ground. First we must go alone, gentle and brave.