Picture in your mind a less-than-glamorous hospital in an under-resourced and seemingly forgotten part of town. The place is old but operational, and still training medical students like me. One night recently I sat with one of the old physicians as we worked a shift on the Labor and Delivery service. It was quiet for a time and so we sat and he told me his life story: how he went away during the Vietnam War and then came back home. First he worked southeast of town as a family doctor, then he came into town to this very hospital to get further training in obstetrics and gynecology. And here he is now, shoulders bent, working the Labor and Delivery floor in the same place he trained decades before. He is kind and the work seems to keep him young. He serves this under-served population quietly, faithfully.These days, as the rigors of medical school draw to a close, my eyes are cast more often toward my people and my old home.
Around the same time I worked with another, similar physician on the same Labor and Delivery service. She too trained at this hospital decades before. She is established here. Her years of experience command the respect of the student doctors. Yet she sits with the nurses, kindly talking with them like a mother or grandmother. Anyone passing by would hardly know she is in charge of the operation. She can be heard counseling a nurse whose mother is dying of cancer. Her influence on the staff is palpable. Her life is intertwined with this old hospital. She is a pillar in this place.
These two doctors are a part of the fabric of this place. Their roots here are deep and inextricable. Decades ago, they found an outlet to serve, then they worked for decades. They are stable and calm. They are invested here. It is doctors like these who seem quite happy, quite fulfilled.
Not all physicians are like this, for there is money to be made and corporate ladders to be scaled. Indeed, many of the young doctors aren’t like their predecessors. They come to a place for a short time, get an education, and then move on to places that offer them a somewhat higher paycheck, a somewhat more prestigious name under which to work, or a somewhat nicer environment in which to live. These young doctors don’t put down roots. They move on after a few short years. And indeed, such a lifestyle may result in the obtaining of higher paychecks or more prestigious titles. All is not well, however: Their lives and the institutions such physicians serve are less stable. Staff turnover is increased. Patients suffer as their doctors come and go instead of serving locally for long periods of time. And notably, these younger doctors seem less fulfilled than their predecessors, the ones quietly serving in the region. These young doctors are restless, rootless. Without foundation. They are not a part of the fabric of anywhere. It was here, in this setting, between these two dissimilar groups of physicians, that I stumbled across the work of Wendell Berry.1
Berry is an English professor, farmer, social critic, and literary genius from north-central Kentucky. He is the type of environmentalist whose love for the land makes you painfully aware of your relative indifference toward the topic (no, he does not like nuclear power plants). He sounds surprisingly hip and Bernie Sanders-like in his rejection of the excesses of capitalism. He rants against “powerful people who live, or who are privileged to think that they live, beyond the bad effects of their work.” He is forcibly against military conflict. In all things, Berry is decidedly focused on the prospering of local land and local people.
It was Berry, with his simple style and keen focus on the health of local peoples and local environments, who spoke profoundly to me as I read his writing on the purpose of education. Berry laments the current state of education in our land, arguing that education at this point has become a mere commodity or private investment. He bluntly notes that schools “have increasingly advertised education as a way of getting what one wants” and have become fashioned after “the pattern of the industrial machine.” But most important, and to my point, Berry proposes a proper definition of education, contending that “education in the true sense… is an enablement to serve.” He warns:
“To make a commodity of [education] is to work its ruin, for, when we put a price on it, we both reduce its value and blind the recipient to the obligations that always accompany good gifts… To make a commodity of education, then, is inevitably to make a kind of weapon of it because, when it is dissociated from the sense of obligation, it can be put directly at the service of greed.”
Here was clarity! Here was perspective! Berry’s words, set against the backdrop of my Christian heritage, were quickly and immensely clarifying. After reading Berry’s thoughts in regard to education it suddenly and naturally occurred to me that this was the way to true, Christ-honoring, long-lasting fulfillment in my current situation: by viewing my current educational training as enablement for future service. But the impact of Berry’s writing did not stop here. This realization then helped me to quickly differentiate who I would emulate in my future career and what priorities I would have: to be fulfilled, I would have to seek to emulate those old doctors, those doctors who came to their region, found opportunities to serve, and dug in for decades, despite the possibilities of a slighter higher paycheck or a slightly more prestigious position elsewhere.
Berry’s point hit home even more as I learned that Berry himself has actually lived out his proposal regarding the purpose for education. After completing graduate work in New York, Berry returned to his homeland of Kentucky. Originally planning to fix up an old farmhouse as a weekend getaway from a university professorship, he was irresistibly drawn back to the land. He lives on the same farm to this day. To a Millennial like me, reading Berry’s argument for a renewed view of education and then seeing the testimony of his consistent lifestyle only reinforced the strength of his point.
The consequences of adopting Berry’s view of the purpose of education became clearer to me in the days that followed. First, by adopting Berry’s view on the purpose of education, one will be more likely to value people. The expertise education provides naturally threatens to produce within us a tendency toward pride or toward looking down upon those with a “lesser” education, especially if education is viewed as a private investment made in isolation from community. The view that education is an enablement to serve subverts this tendency, placing the educated individual in the servant capacity, and helping the educated individual work toward developing a rare humility and others-centeredness. My own life experience has taught me that this is true. Those around me who view their locale as a mere stepping stone to their next career objective do not seem to place great value on the people around them in the here-and-now. In contrast, those who have dug in and served for decades view themselves as a member of the local people group. It is more natural for them to love and serve those around them in regular, practical ways.
Second, by adopting Berry’s view on the purpose of education, one will be more likely to view good gifts rightly. Viewing education as a private investment will tend to make the educated individual view his paycheck merely as proper retribution for a wise personal investment. Adopting Berry’s view on education, however, particularly for the Christian, will help one view his paycheck more as Divine kindness in the midst of service. It will help one be more likely to view his paycheck with the example of the Apostle Paul in mind, who was content with mere food and clothing (1 Timothy 6:8). It will help one be more likely, after having been rewarded for service to his local people and place, to exclaim: “God is kind!” I have seen this in some old, faithful doctors. They are happy, but not because of achievements or cash. This characteristic of their lives is a contrast to the lives of those who move on continually and restlessly in pursuit of greater wealth.
Third, by adopting Berry’s view on the purpose of education, one will be more likely to be engaged in dealing with the local issues of one’s people and place. Berry himself has noted that “solutions… will have to be local,” and his life’s work has demonstrated the larger impact that consistent work at the local level may produce. By viewing education as an opportunity to serve one’s place and one’s people, the individual will naturally become involved in local affairs. This, it seems, is how larger, complex, multi-faceted national issues may be best addressed: by consistent work at the local level. I have seen this with my own eyes: The physicians who move on quickly have little local impact. Those who take their education and root themselves in the area, serving for years? They are the ones addressing the issues of poverty and disparity that plague our region. It is those who are taking the old-fashioned, Wendell Berry, strikingly biblical approach to life (whether they intend to be biblical or not) who are making a real person-to-person impact at the local level.
Ultimately, living in this manner—locally, Wendell Berry style—and seeking to view one’s education, however limited or extensive it may be, as enablement to serve one’s local land and people, will put one on the path toward true, deep-seated fulfillment. For this will be the way to practically extend justice and loving mercy, thereby quietly, humbly walking with our God at the local level. And this will be loving our neighbor in the most tangible, fundamental way. Indeed, deep-seated fulfillment in one’s career will not come solely from a prestigious background or multiple publications in one’s area of expertise or a significant paycheck. Only a biblically informed, service-oriented attitude toward one’s vocation, both during and after one’s educational training, will put one this path. I’ve seen it in the eyes of old doctors, in the eyes of those who have served quietly, for years. It is a quiet, deep-seated, peculiar kind of fulfillment. A calm joy that has great depth.
These days, as the rigors of medical school draw to a close, my eyes are cast more often toward my people and my old home. I’m beginning to see, thanks to Wendell Berry, the emptiness of merely taking what I need from a place and then moving on. Now I admire individuals like the local physicians serving on the inner city Labor and Delivery floor. They value the people around them. They have a proper view of life’s blessings. They serve and love those around them. They have a quiet, deep-seated fulfillment that many of us young trainees do not have.
And so my eyes are turned homeward. Mom and dad and the siblings live here. Ancestors are buried nearby. And there is the small church the family attends. It is beginning to age. Fresh blood is needed. Thanks to Berry, the time may soon be coming for me to return to my people and my homeland with diploma in hand and, approaching the familiar landscape, ask, in Wendell Berry style, “How can I serve these people? How can I serve this place?” This is the path toward fulfillment. And it’s an old path. It didn’t just start with Wendell Berry.
Postscript: Of course, one does not need to literally return to one’s place of birth in order to find the fulfillment that comes from being rooted to a particular place or people. Perhaps you have already developed a home away from home or you are in the midst of raising a family separated from your homeland. Or perhaps you are an immigrant without hope of ever returning to your people or place of origin. These situations do not make Berry’s suggestions irrelevant or erase the possibility of finding fulfillment through committed service to a particular people or place. Each of us can begin to put down roots by asking the people and land immediately around us: “What do you need from me?” Developing a deep-rooted, service-oriented, Gospel-centric relationship with time and people and place is the fulfillment we all seek and need.
1. I must credit Drs. Baker and Bilbro of Spring Arbor University for first exposing me to Wendell Berry in their article “Putting Down Roots: Why Universities Need Gardens” in a recent edition of Christian Scholar’s Review. It was Baker and Bilbro who first introduced me to Berry’s essay, “Higher Education and Home Defense,” quoted here as in their article, which I have found to apply so aptly to my current situation in medical school.
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