Choosing to Lose: Wendell Berry's Sustainable Activism

Choosing to Lose: Wendell Berry's Sustainable Activism

One of the defining features of Donald Trump’s rhetoric is its obsession with winning. As Trump made clear on the campaign trail, he subscribes to the (arguably very American) belief that winning brings happiness: “We’re going to win so much, you may even get tired of winning. And you’ll say, ‘Please, please, it’s too much winning, we can’t take it anymore. Mr. President, it’s too much.’ And I’ll say, ‘No it isn’t, we have to keep winning, we have to win more, we’re going to win more.’ We’re going to win so much… You will be so happy.”

This focus on winning leads to a fixation with the numbers and metrics that demonstrate victory: poll numbers, crowd attendance, popular vote count, hand size. These are the means by which we measure how tremendously and “hugely” we are winning.

And it’s not just Trump and his supporters who believe this. Many of the articles or social media posts written in opposition to Trump mirror his standards. In an essay about the recent Women’s March, Jedidiah Purdy identifies this “eerie echo” between Trump and those who gathered to protest him: “He is still obsessed with the numbers in attendance at his rallies and inauguration. So are we. We were delighted as estimates rolled in: three to four million nationwide!”

Both sides claim that we cannot be happy or hopeful unless “we” are winning. And both sides tend to paint grim pictures of “American carnage” to show how much we are suffering and how badly we need to do something so that we can start winning.

But what if we turned our attention away from the latest indications of whether we’re winning or losing and instead focused on practicing good work where we are? It is in this vein that Wendell Berry speaks about the need to resist both optimism and pessimism. While these may seem like opposite postures, both stem from a fixation on metrics and quantities: I’m optimistic if I expect to win and pessimistic if I expect to lose. As Berry puts it, “Optimism and pessimism are based on the idea of how things are [going to] turn out.”

Instead of either of these, then, Berry endeavors to practice the virtue of hope: “Hope is grounded in the present; it’s not about the future. It’s about the reality of possibilities, this sense of possibility that you can do better.” Thus Berry advocates for doing things that “are good now, according to [the] present understanding of present needs…  Only the present good is good. It is the presence of goods—good work, good thoughts, good acts, good places—by which we know that the present does not have to be a nightmare of the future. ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’ because, if not at hand, it is nowhere.”

Given this hopeful stance, the outcome of a presidential election doesn’t make a fundamental difference to Berry’s posture. In a December interview, he was asked to comment about the election results and whether he could be hopeful under a Trump presidency:

My personal response to the election is, “Well, I’m still on the losing side.” And that’s where I’ve taken up my residence. And I’m going to be on the losing side. I’m not going to live a day on the winning side. It may be that even the youngest people here may wind up on the losing side for a long, long time… If Hillary Clinton had won, I would still be on the losing side, and I’d just have to go to work.

Such a cheerful acceptance of loss isn’t likely to win many votes or start a movement, but it might free us from the endless cycles of facts and alternative facts, of 24/7 outrage and angst.

What these cycles of outrage obscure is that our obsessions with the metrics of victory are incredibly distracting and counterproductive. If we cared less about whether we were “winning,” we might have time to do good work where we are.

How much productivity is lost in outrage over the latest scandal? Productivity not as measured by GDP, but as measured by the quality of our conversations with friends and family, the care put into cooking a meal, the thought and attention devoted to reading a book. As Alan Jacobs claims, “Attention is not an infinitely renewable resource.” If I pay out my attention to a Twitter argument or a media brouhaha, I have less attention to give to my neighbors. Drawing on Ivan Illich, Jacobs commends “attentional austerity.” Such “austerity is virtuous because it helps us to place outside our sphere of attention those temptations that are ‘destructive of personal relatedness,’ that detract from our legitimate joys.”

Perhaps we should spend less time worrying about whether our side is winning, and more time attending to the good things that need our care. This is the kind of work that sustains hope. As Berry went on to acknowledge, the work of hope is difficult, but that doesn’t mean we should give it up:

It’s been a struggle for me to be hopeful, and all I can do is to invite other people to take up the same struggle, which is largely to find the reasons. To find something worth hoping for is a very good place to start. And there are things worth hoping for. There are good people. This is still, as badly as we’ve used it, a very beautiful world. And all these things are part of the resource for somebody who is looking for hope. But hope is a virtue; … you have to choose it…  I think you have to work for it all the time. Now there are times when I am pretty down and pretty much in need of hope, and that just puts me in the same slot with everybody else.

This search for reasons to hope—for legitimate joys that deserve my attention—differs dramatically from the search for statistics to shore up my narrative or facts to bolster my side.

One of the chief differences is that finding something worth hoping for results neither in triumphalism nor despondency but rather in … happiness. Such happiness may not seem all that significant, but in a culture of winning, it’s deeply subversive for the losers to be happy. Berry makes this point with reference to a French writer who was imprisoned twice during World War II for being a pacifist:

Happiness is a great mental faculty. It happens. One of the best things I know about happiness is that some days I’m happy…  I don’t have anything in particular to be happy about or happier than I was yesterday, but I’m happy. I read that the French novelist Jean Giono … said in 1954, 1954, “I’ve been happy for the last 30 or 40 years.” Well, you know what happened in the 30 or 40 years before 1954. I just love him for that… . That just turned me upside-down when I read that. Well, what a great thing that is. Suppose you’re supremely happy for just five minutes, that just destroys everybody who’s trying to sell you something to make you happy. How subversive. Let me tell you young people, it’s possible sometimes to go for a whole day and be happy and not buy a thing.

We are surrounded by voices that tell us we’re losing and that we cannot possibly be happy. Politicians rue American carnage, pundits insist that we become outraged over another Tweet, and advertisers lament our plight as deprived consumers who need their products. In such a climate, happiness is indeed subversive.

Subversive happiness is not quietist or passive. Berry has himself participated in sit-ins and protests and has penned his share of manifestos, but he doesn’t rest his hopes on these tactics. Indeed, happiness provides a very different motivation for our work than does optimism or pessimism. Happiness leads us to do good work because it is good; because it brings joy; because it deserves our attention and energy.

Whether our work leads to victory becomes irrelevant to us.

If we are happy, we can choose our battles, be prudent about where we invest ourselves and save most of our attention and energy for those nearby who need us. Happiness gives us the courage to—as one of Giono’s short stories has it—“persever[e] in a magnificent generosity.” Perhaps, then, the true “resistance” in Trump’s presidency will be those who find their way to the bottom, who are blissful despite the ugliest odds, who are remarkably happy losers.

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