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What Wendell Berry Can Show Zuckerberg Types About Making a Better World

In a recent episode of NPR’s Up First, Steve Inskeep talked to Silicon Valley correspondent Aarti Shahani about Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal. During their discussion, Shahani pointed out that “Facebook had been warned by others of abuse cases” long before Cambridge Analytica’s actions were revealed.

“[Zuckerberg and Sandberg] just caged up, they didn’t want to hear it from other people,” she said. “. . . It’s not convenient to hear that connecting the world can mean bad things, that sometimes the connection is negative, not positive.”

For years Zuckerberg has aspired to build an online global community, one that might foster empathy and activism among its users. In a long Wired magazine feature published in February, reporters Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein wrote that “people who know him say that Zuckerberg has truly been altered in the crucible of the past several months.”

These stories reminded me how much we all hate being wrong. Discovering our own fallibility and error often pushes us to frustration and denial. Having our hopes for the future dashed by reality can leave a sense of crushing defeat.

I’ve been reading The Art of Loading Brush, a book of essays by farmer and philosopher Wendell Berry published last October. In it Berry suggests that we are all Zuckerbergs: we all love to predict the future and think we can fix the world’s problems. Rarely do we submit our opinions or aspirations to the bar of history or admit the variances of reality—until it’s too late. More often than not, when confronted with our error, we burrow deeper into our own pride and refuse to admit that we (or our ideas) might be in need of change.

“We want, sometimes desperately, to know what is going to happen,” Berry writes in his essay “Leaving the Future Behind.” “We want a prognosis, a projection, a prediction, a contingency plan, a posture of military readiness.”

But, Berry warns, our “fevered obsession” with the future is both unwarranted and deeply dangerous. “We have made of the future, not a coming time, but a limitless vacuity in which we elaborate our fears and fantasies”:

Because the future is limitless, we can project without limit into it. It is limitless, to us, because we know nothing about it. Because we know nothing about it, we are free to talk endlessly about it. It is hard to imagine why we do this except to distract ourselves from the difficult things we do know about and ought urgently to be talking about. We give up the incarnate life of our living souls, in the only moment we are alive, in order to live in dreams and nightmares of the future of a world we have already diminished and made ill, in no small part by our often mistaken preparations for the future [emphasis added].

Berry’s thought applies most often to the realms of the agrarian and the ecological. But these warnings strike me as deeply personal, even spiritual exhortations. Which of us has not been tempted to spend our every waking moment worrying about or fixating on the unknown? Anyone who has studied for an exam, applied to a dream job, planned a wedding, cared for a newborn, or tended an ill loved one knows what it is to become obsessed with the “dreams and nightmares of the future.”

But we cannot live or thrive in the future. It’s only by withdrawing from the realm of the “speculative, wishful, and fearful,” Berry writes, that we can live “within our right definition, our right limits, as earthly creatures and human beings.” In this sense, Berry echoes the words of Jesus of Nazareth, who urged his disciples not to be anxious about tomorrow, since “sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

Limiting ourselves to the sphere of present work requires a modesty that acknowledges we don’t have all the answers (despite our IQs or fancy data) and cannot predict the future. In this globalized era, characterized by a pervasive Internet and endless information, it seems harder than ever to take a humble approach to life’s problems. With so much information and connection at our fingertips, surely we can make the world better. Surely we can solve life’s problems.

But Berry tears away the illusion of power that so often accompanies our increased connectivity. Quantity does not equal quality. No matter what, we are still finite human beings, full of error and hubris. As Berry puts it in his essay “The Presence of Nature in the Natural World,” “Once we acknowledge, once we permit our language to acknowledge, the immense miracle of the existence of this living world, in place of nothing, then we confront again that world and our existence in it, forever more mysterious than known.”

Berry asks us to be more humble and particular in addressing problems we face—not just global problems (such as environmental and political crises, or humanitarian conflicts) but local and even personal dilemmas, too. The conservative approach to “fixing” things should be measured and humble, cognizant of our lack of control. That’s an attitude that does not describe either political party in Washington these days; neither does it generally describe our daily attitudes when tackling life’s problems. Do we really believe that life and its workings lie beyond our control? If so, will we react in fear and denial—or will we embrace our lowly and limited place in the world? 

Instead of seeking to predict, Berry suggests we should seek to “provide”: to take up humbly and thoughtfully limited actions that will best enable us to serve our families and communities in the near (not distant) future. Provision might involve eliminating debt, living within one’s means, providing food and shelter for those we love, and otherwise seeking to steward our possessions in a virtuous manner. Provision “rests upon no guarantees, and it does not pretend to know the future.” Provision, thus, is the opposite of hubristic speculation—and characterized by a selflessness that puts others and their needs above oneself.

“To be dead to oneself is to be alive to the work,” Berry writes. “It is to be alive in the present, the only time we are alive, and to continue to live there, so long as we don’t look at the clock.”

It’s hard to emphasize strongly enough how foreign this sort of attitude is in our time. In ages past, people marked the passing of time by the sun and moon, or later on by the ringing of the church bell. But the clock brought with it a more mechanistic, future-oriented approach to everyday life. Our daily commutes, vacations, appointments, and calendars are ruled by the clock. We’re unlikely to ever detach our minds or habits fully from this mechanized pattern of thought and organization. But perhaps we can learn to pay the clock a little less mind, so that we can embed ourselves more fully in the present. Not only might this free us from worry and the temptation to predict—it might also help us to enjoy more fully the present moment. The future all too often distracts us from immediate joys: a gloriously sunny day, delicious meal, friendly company, or delightful song.

A world in which we tried less to predict the future and sought instead to work humbly in the present just might be a world with less political division and ideological clashes. It might bring back a bit more respect, deference, and civility to the public sphere. And it could help salve some of the economic, spiritual, and cultural fragmentation experienced by many communities throughout the U.S.

But of course, this is a form of prediction in itself. And if there’s one thing Berry makes clear in his books, it is that we are responsible for ourselves and our own spheres of action—not for global solutions or transformation. So I’ll modify the above statement: working humbly in the present could enable us to serve our families and communities better this week. It could spur us toward better stewardship of our homes and possessions over the next several hours. And as that sort of present-focused stewardship builds into a habit, it could help us live better lives.

But for now, let’s focus on today.


Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She's written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.


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