It is altogether probable that there is an executive of an air-polluting industry who has a beloved child who suffers from asthma caused by air pollution. In such a situation the Sympathetic Mind cries, “Stop! Change your life! Quit your job! At least try to discover the cause of the harm and do something about it!” And here the Rational Mind must either give way to the Sympathetic Mind, or it must recite the conventional excuse that is a confession of its failure: “There is nothing to be done. This is the way things are. It is inevitable.
– Wendell Berry, “Two Minds” in Citizenship Papers.
In this essay Berry contrasts what he calls the Rational Mind and Sympathetic Mind. This fictional example of the differences between the two ways of engaging the world is notable for how it summarizes our typical responses to critical issues. When faced with evidence about climate change or racial segregation, to take two common and easily-accessed examples, we are commonly told – or tell ourselves – that there is nothing to be done.
This is a lie, of course. There are plenty of small and big things to be done about the decisions we make that inflict harm upon our neighbors and the land. But Berry’s Rational Mind does not allow room for the sort of blunt truth that leads to creative possibilities. So we are left living under delusions about our own inability to make changes, about the inevitability of inequity. Telling the hard but hopeful truth requires a different mindset, one that privileges relational proximity and compassion over the faceless systems which benefit from our passivity.