Arthur Brooks has written a thought-provoking reflection on a new book, “Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal,” by Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska.
Brooks writes: “Mr. Sasse worries … about a pervasive feeling of homelessness: Too many Americans don’t have a place they think of as home — a ‘thick’ community in which people know and look out for one another and invest in relationships that are not transient. To adopt a phrase coined in Sports Illustrated, one might say we increasingly lack that ‘hometown gym on a Friday night feeling.'”
I know it may not resonate with everyone, but I love this image of the “hometown gym on a Friday night feeling.” I’ve always appreciated Kentucky writer-farmer Wendell Berry’s writings about the importance of place and community. The importance of place is a recurrent theme in his writing: place embraced and loved, understood and honored.
After receiving his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from the University of Kentucky, he married Tanya and studied creative writing at Stanford University with Wallace Stegner. An aspiring writer, he traveled for a year in Europe, after which he wrote and taught in New York. Then he decided to move back to Kentucky. Most of his friends and colleagues thought he was crazy. He bought a small, marginal farm and reclaimed it, took care of it, and farmed it using traditional methods. In the more than 40 years since that move, Berry has written over 40 books of fiction, poetry, essays and biography.
“How good it is to be able to say, ‘I am in the right place.'” Berry’s fictional character Jayber Crow says.
Berry compares our own “place” with topsoil; it is a treasure of millions of organisms constantly interacting, a constant cycle of death and rebirth. Topsoil is unique to particular places; it is a distinctive conglomeration of all that has come and gone in that particular place, and people who live with a real sense of place and community live lives that are rooted in a particular topsoil.
Brooks concludes his reflection by acknowledging the difficulty, even impossibility, for many of us to replicate that sense of roots and home. And then he offers a compelling invitation for all of us.
“That can be a tricky proposition for many of us. On reading the book, I asked myself where I might get that hometown-gym feeling, where I have natural roots, where I can imagine being buried. No specific place came to mind. I have no Fremont — not even Seattle, my hometown, which is a perfectly nice place, but one I unsentimentally left behind 35 years ago.
“All this is particularly germane to my wife and me at the moment, as we prepare to move from Maryland to Massachusetts in the coming months. We fear the loneliness we are sure to feel as we enter a completely new place where neither of us grew up or has ever lived. Is a thick community and the happiness it brings out of reach for rootless cosmopolitans like us?
“I recently put these questions to Mr. Sasse. He told me I had it all wrong — that moving back home and going to the gym on Friday aren’t actually the point; rather, the trick is ‘learning how to intentionally invest in the places where we actually live.’ In other words, being a member of a community isn’t about whether I have a Fremont. It isn’t about how I feel about any place I have lived, nor about my fear of isolation in a new city. It is about the neighbor I choose to be in the community I wind up calling my home.
“And there lies the challenge to each of us in a country suffering from loneliness and ripped apart by political opportunists seeking to capitalize on that isolation. Each of us can be happier, and America will start to heal, when we become the kind neighbors and generous friends we wish we had.”