A Commentary On The Times

These are not normal times.

There, I said it. The age in which we live is unlike any other in living memory, and unmatched in the speed at which change is taking place all around us. I am not just talking about what is happening in our national political life (I would suspect that’s where your mind went first, and justifiably so). But the culture in which we live is morphing and trying to recalibrate with dizzying swings back and forth across a continuum called, “Real Life.” I hear people ask all the time, probably facetiously, “Is this real life?” It would be easy to say, “No…things will settle down soon enough.” But that’s really not possible. Too much is different than it used to be.

So what should be our response? Where do we go from here? How do we feel rooted in a culture that seems so fluid?

This post is a departure from what we’ve been posting of late—stories and photos from the past, upcoming events, a recipe here or there—all things that make us feel connected to a person, place, or thing that also provide some level of comfort. As much as I used to feel exhausted by the countless recipes, food photos, cute kitten pictures, and silly memes in my Facebook feed, I welcome those now as a balm against everything else being hurled about so carelessly and thoughtlessly. So painfully pointed at that which is other, for example.

I have been at Hindman Settlement School as the executive director for four-and-a-half years. That’s difficult to believe, really. I have watched my children grow into young men right before my eyes. I have seen my social life—my friendship circles, areas of interest, etc.—change dramatically from where they were before I moved, and all that has left me, at times, feeling very unsettled and wayward. It’s not that life as I know it has changed as much as it is that I have changed. Perhaps you have, too; in nearly five years’ time, wouldn’t that be the expectation? But if so, why is it all so unsettling?

What am I trying to say here? I have been burdened so much lately to articulate a cultural center for myself, my work, and my family. My personal worldview is informed by many things—my faith, my education, my personal narrative, my experiences, and my politics. But American cultural life seems to be boiling down to a political perspective that has become so entwined with American spiritual life that it is difficult to separate at the civic level. So, our faith, which used to inform our politics, has now reversed and is informed by politics. We have developed a distinctly American political theology which does nothing more than make us a hazy and unsuspecting bunch. We are all so confused. Our responses to the core truths which we hold as a nation and, separately, those which we hold as people of faith and conscience, have become muddy and ill informed. This should not be.

This post is my attempt at making sense of it all, for Hindman, for the region which we live in and love, and, maybe, for our vast community—our family of different types of people from all around the country who converge on Troublesome from time to time to gather, dream, sing, mourn, learn…the chance to say, “Who are we?” and “Where are we headed?”

A connection I have on Facebook blasted my wall last weekend in a very unwelcome, self-serving, and, frankly, rude way. Isn’t it funny how the uninvited seem to crash the party so very often in our social media-driven communication patterns? That’s different than it used to be. Relationships matter more now than perhaps they ever have. I am talking about good, rich, true ones—ones that provide meaning and connection and honesty. The kind that hold up a mirror and reflect one’s true self and allow the reciprocal to occur, too.  The kinds of relationships that dispel fear and encourage refuge in difficult times.

We all have moments where we don’t fit. Our views are different, we look different, we believe differently. Inclusivity is a hallmark of the postmodern, globalized world. In my experience, when I embrace that which is other, I grow to be a better person. I have found that when I look for common ground as opposed to that which is divisive, I can both give and receive grace which restores the broken parts of me and, I think, those in my friend, too. And together, we can work toward the common good.

I am a student of leadership. I always have been, really, but I value the commitment of leadership so much I decided to specialize in it as a doctoral student. The responsibilities of a leader are great and varied, but from where I sit, the aspect of moral leadership rises high across the pantheon of leadership formations. Here at Hindman we possess a number of relics from the past, days when students were on campus and in our dining hall everyday. These relics are pieces of art from the Middle Ages depicting chivalry and esteem. They seem out of place more than not, to be honest, but they’re still hanging up because I personally believe it is vital for people all around us, and for young people, especially, to have someone aspirational in their lives. It’s more than having someone to look up to. It’s about having someone in your life that calls out your better self and inspires you to be more than you thought you could be on your own and who is there—present, encouraging, being your biggest fan. I have to think that aspirational calling was a driving aspect for our founders and leadership across the decades since Hindman Settlement School was begun. When the world feels like it’s crumbling all around us in so many ways, someone who inspires us is a vital fixture and a centering force.

I believe my highest calling is to serve other people and consider others higher than I consider myself. Dissonant words in a “me first” culture, to be sure. A lifestyle of service is one I believe all of us who care about the future of our homes and communities should strive to maintain. In serving one another, we no longer say, “me first,” but rather, “me too.” We connect with others at a profound level because we know we are in this together. If I serve others and believe those around me have a servant first perspective on the way they treat others and, ultimately, see the world, I can trust that being my brothers’ keeper is a worthy calling and a foundation for my life.

For many who come to Troublesome Creek to gather, whatever their reason, nearly to a person, people experience reverence that provides a shelter when life gets hard, a sense of purpose when one feels aimless and tossed by the constantly changing winds of our culture. One of my intellectual heroes, James Davison Hunter, has identified a cultural matrix that highlights a focus on what is true, good, and beautiful for those hoping to positively impact the culture around them. I would personally add justice and service to this vital list. Virtues like these give us a sense of being part of something that is greater than ourselves. Aren’t we all seeking belonging like that? Hindman Settlement School inspires reverence, and reverence is a solace in challenging times.

Finally, it is true that Appalachian people have an unequivocal commitment to place. There is good reason for it. In this place we find our family, our ancestral soul. We find home, even when we live somewhere else. We find a culture unlike any other, one that makes us proud. We find an ethic of work that ennobles vocation more than it does a paycheck used to accumulate stuff. And even when we don’t have much stuff, we venerate the spirit that settles on this place, that calls us back, that keeps us rooted, that does not allow us to “pass beyond,” as James Still once said.

So, when you experience Hindman Settlement School, you are experiencing much more than an institution or a program or a service. You are experiencing something that has a rootedness and a heartbeat that goes beyond a simple encounter. You are experiencing a Hindman Settlement School that possesses a worldview that is far more complex than a political viewpoint or an educational philosophy or a heritage center. I wrote about a “leader of faithful presence” in my dissertation. As dissertations go, this is kind of a new idea, but is one that led me to leave where I was and take my family on this journey to eastern Kentucky almost five years ago. One such aspect of this kind of leader is “covenantal commitment.” Hunter says such commitment is “a binding obligation manifested in the relationships we have, the work we do, and in the social worlds we inhabit, and all of it is oriented toward the flourishing of the world around us.” (Hunter, To Change the World, p. 261) When you encounter Hindman, when you encounter me, may this sort of commitment be true in your experience. May our communal lives be better because they’ve intersected in such a time and in such a place. And may a higher calling than the petty divisiveness of our day draw us to create the culture we want to pass along to the generations yet to come.