But it is also put forward as a possible frame for a conversation for
my radio show in the Shenandoah Valley.
So I invite here responses of two sorts. First, you're invited to
share your thoughts on the ideas and questions I articulate in the
piece. Second, you're invited to give your assessment of the
merits or faults of this piece as a way into meaningful discussion with
the very audience whose interactions with me have given rise to these
ideas and questions.</em>
In every place people live, one can discern something in the air that
conveys human suffering. People express their experience, one way
or another, and suffering is part of the human condition.
But not every place --not every society, not every culture-- expresses
the same message of suffering. They don't all suffer in the same ways,
and not all the things they suffer about are the same.
Each people has its own history, and the legacy of that history
includes its own set of wounds. Thus the suffering one can
discern among the Irish is not identical to the suffering one picks up
on an Indian Reservation, or in China.
Each culture makes its own set of demands on its members, some of them
not all that friendly to the human creature. And thus the members
of different cultures grow up with different burdens from their
And each culture makes some forms of expression of people's suffering
more open, more acceptable, while closing off others ways for people to
express their suffering. Thus the suffering of the Nordic peoples
of Scandinavia manifests itself in their cultural environment
differently from the way the Jewish culture allows its members to
All of this is to lay the groundwork for my raising a question about
the suffering experienced by the people of the Shenandoah Valley of
Virginia, where I live.
It is to say, first, that in calling attention to the suffering I infer
from what I hear, I'm not singling out this culture as being unique in
having its well of suffering that people feel some impetus to express.
And it is also to say, second, that though suffering may be ubiquitous
in human groups, each particular group --such as the people and culture
of the Shenandoah Valley-- has its own particular forms of suffering
and ways of expressing it.
It is my experience of talking about politics, on the radio, with the
people of the Shenandoah Valley that calls me to this inquiry. I
have other experiences of the culture of this Valley that show me
happier, more functional aspects of the culture: there's an ethic
of dealnig with others with a kind of neighborly decency that shows
something that works and supports human well-being in this
traditionally rural area.
But in the political expressions I encounter, I hear a voice of pain.
For one thing, whatever the political subject under discussion, the
voices I hear that seem representative of the local culture NEVER seem
to be informed by ANY POSITIVE VISION of a better future to which we
might aspire. I hear fear of things getting worse, but never any hope
that the nation or humankind might make progress. Such
resignation, perhaps one could say such despair, must surely be the
fruit of some real suffering.
What is the experience that cuts off the sense of positive
possibilities? Surely the history of this nation, and surely the
record of the past century, proves that human societies are CAPABLE of
taking leaps forward in how humane and healthy they are. What has
led the people of the Shenandoah Valley to approach politics without
any evident sense of aspiration for a better social future?
For another thing, the tenor of political discussion indicates a
predisposition to believe that politics is best conducted through
conflict, and that anger is the proper emotional state to bring into
the political arena. Such a sense of the manner in which our
collective discussion should be conducted must also be the fruit of
some painful experience.