For most of my life, all of my life, in fact, I have had an intense desire to be extraordinary — not just to stand out from the crowd, but to be the crowd’s meaning and purpose, and the one that gives it direction. Before you convict me of tremendous arrogance, please let me explain that over the years I have come to understand that this desire is the manifestation of a psychological pathology. The degree of intensity of the desire is not “normal.”
I have worked for years to overcome, to quiet, this desire, and in the recent past — the past two years — I have had a great deal of success, on and off, in doing so. I still hear it, but the voice inside my head screaming at me to claw and scratch my way onto the highest pedestal in sight is mostly muffled, even if only by my conscious will to muffle it. In some ways, I am like the schizophrenic who knows that the voices inside her head are not real and struggles to ignore them.
My success in squelching the desire to be extraordinary is part of the reason that I have taken a break from writing for so long. Even now as I type, I struggle, I question my motives, I wonder why, exactly, I am once again putting myself on display. Is every act of public discourse for me a manifestation of this pathology, or is it possible for me to simply gather a few words together and post them to a blog without hoping that somehow they will shine on me like a halo around my head? I do not want to want to be extraordinary, and so whenever I have a desire to put myself on display, I have to wonder, is this me, untrammeled, or am I being pushed along, blindly in the thrall of pathological desire? It is not easy to know. Seeing through oneself to oneself is like looking through a glass darkly. The murky sight makes clarity impossible.
Given this difficulty, therefore, I have been saying no, I will not write that blog post, I will not give that interview, I will not host that farm tour. I even go so far as to say to myself, no I will not read that book, I will not pursue that thought, that line of thinking. This seems like a decision to treat the symptoms rather than the disease, so let me just say that at the same time, I am working on dismantling the structure of the pathological desire as well, to some effect. It will take time, however, as this is an old, old pattern, perhaps one of my oldest. As I said, it has been with me for all of my (remembered) life.
In the meantime, having come quite a long way, I have developed new desires, the strongest one being the desire to live not an extra-ordinary life, but simply an ordinary life. While swinging so dramatically from one extreme to the other might seem pathological in its own right, this newfound desire for an ordinary life doesn’t seem, subjectively or objectively, to be pathological. It is a response, even though I must admit that on some level it is a contrived response — that cannot be denied. But, even in its contrivance it feels to be a genuine response, as oxymoronic as that might seem.
When I began farming, nearly ten years ago now, I was going to be the farmer’s farmer. I was going to change the face of American agriculture singlehandedly with the force and determination of my body and my words. I was going to make it so that people would look at me and my farm as the model of how to farm and how to be a farmer.
Today, that is no longer the case. Today, I just want to farm. Whereas before I took pleasure in the attraction of the spotlight, and in the thrill of doing something new, exciting, and on the cutting edge of a burgeoning movement, today I take pleasure in the rhythmic meter of daily chores, necessary projects, and trips to the slaughterhouse. I no longer desire to farm in the limelight. I am content to farm in anonymity, seen only by my family, friends, neighbors, and passersby as they drive slowly along the road behind me as I move on the tractor from one part of the farm to another.
Each morning I look forward to the banality of chores, not because they are a means to the end of being recognized as a farmer’s farmer on the cusp of finding and describing an exciting, durable, and generalizable model of farming alternatively, but because they are an end in themselves. Daily chores are the purposive substance of the farm and the sustenance of the spirit of the farmer. It is in the very ordinariness of farming that I have found contentment. This is not to say that I don’t find this ordinariness occasionally boring; I do, but even when I find the ordinary boring, I experience a cool satisfaction in that boredom.
Many years ago, I came across this maxim of Booker T. Washington’s, “there is no power on earth that can neutralize the influence of a high, simple, and useful life.” For years, driven pathologically, I desperately sought to capture this indomitable influence, this seeming superpower, but in the recent past, I came to realize that this maxim, a maxim seeming on its surface to call for steadfast humility, is in fact deeply, and perhaps in some small way, darkly, hubristic in its evaluation of the life that it calls for. The end of the maxim is not to live a “high, simple, and useful life,” but rather to capture and wield the extraordinary influence garnered by such a life.
While I have abandoned the pursuit of the maxim’s influence, my imagination is still captured by the vision of a “high, simple, and useful life” as an end in itself, for it is the vision of a profoundly ordinary life, a life of humility, of hard straightforward work, of honesty, empathy, compassion, and kindness. I find this imaginative vision made manifest in farming, and I find this ordinary life a life worth living for itself, and nothing more.