I’ve only discovered Wendell Berry lately; I asked the Facebook hive mind where I should start, and ‘Jayber Crow’ was the recommended beginning. Berry describes his novel as the ‘life story of Jayber Crow, barber, of the Port William membership, as written by himself.’
I don’t want to summarise the story, but a little background is needed to inform the quote. Somewhere in the 1930s, Jayber returns to the small town where he was born, to eke out a living as a barber and, in time, gravedigger. He attends the local church -his thoughts on its proceedings are well worth reading- but he dwells on how the town never keeps a preacher for long. Port William is too small to sustain a married man with a family, so, after a few years, the young preachers move on. Some have little of importance to say; others have a little more substance to them. Jayber wonders:
“And what, maybe, would Port William have done with them if they had stayed? Port William tends to prefer to hear what it has heard before.”
There it is; truth in twelve words.
“Port William tends to prefer to hear what it has heard before.”
How much of our current societal stagnancy, reflected in political stagnancy (the polarisation of US politics, the collapse of government in Northern Ireland or the chaos of Brexit) can be attributed, at least in part, to our inability to hear other perspectives?
Except, that last line isn’t actually true. It’s not an inability to hear other perspectives; it’s a choice.
It is often said we use social media in a way that becomes an echo chamber. I think there’s some truth in that. It doesn’t have to be, however. Social media can allow us access to perspectives we have never heard before, but only if we let it.
There’s not necessarily anything wrong in preferring to hear what we’ve heard before. It’s why we hang out with certain people, or reread certain books or watch certain films over again. Familiarity has its place. But it can also be a prison; we can be trapped inside a certain narrative.
We know what they really want…
He can’t be trusted…
This is the only way we can describe God.
She always behaves like that…
Nothing they say is worth listening to…
I’m not suggesting we give up every moral position we’ve ever held, or exclude previous experience entirely every time something new comes along. But, if what we believe really is true, surely it can withstand the challenge of other perspectives? And, if what you previously believed to be true can be modified by new information, that can only be a good thing, right?
I’d prefer to live in a place that listens and reflects. I’m tired of living in a place that prefers to hear what it has heard before.