Of Being and Barn Raisings

Published in Underthrow Series .

Sweet music of community echoed off the hills. Chisels clanged into rock, shaping the foundation, saws sang into boards to frame a timbered skeleton.The staccato syncopation of hammers fastened walls that soon would shelter plowshares, stock and grain. A smithy leaned over his fire and forge – chiming iron into sturdy latches and hinges.

—Robert C. Howard, from Pennsylvania Barn Raising

If you have ever been to a barn raising, you are among the last of a dying breed. In rural America, you might find a few. The idea is that when a fire or severe weather brings down a structure on your property, you and your neighbors will work to rebuild it.

There’s no insurance policy—just a commitment to compassion and community.

Soon after the fire, everybody planned to show up to build a new barn. People didn’t need to reason or deliberate about it. It’s what you did. It could happen to you. If it does, you’ll get help. If it doesn’t, you’ll help the less fortunate. 

Barn building specialists worked on the more critical roles, such as joinery or dowling the beams. If anyone got a little pay, it was the specialist, but everyone else in the community was expected to turn up and work. The specialist gave the others assignments based on age and gender. Men built the barn. Women supplied water and victuals. Younger boys watched to learn the work, while older boys fetched parts and tools in an old-timey division of labor.

When the work was finished, they would put something, like a wreath, on the highest part to celebrate the community’s achievement. This was called topping. It signified not only the project’s completion, but it honored all those who participated. Barn raisings transmitted knowledge and ethos so everyone knew what to do when the next disaster struck, or newcomers arrived.

In this way, they could serve as initiations into the community, as much by rite as by right.

The communitarian part is knowing what we should do while cultivating the disposition to do it. People in proximity to one another develop a shared culture and needs. In America, people once self-organized to become a social safety net. And in such events, they knew the right thing to do. They practiced compassion daily and knew what to do in practice. So, the knowledge of when and how to do communitarian things ties in with collective intelligence.

Normativity and knowledge are connected. 

Read more of Max’s work at Underthrow.org.

Regaining Our Compassion

So what is the twenty-first-century barn raising? The Amish and the Mennonites are pretty much the only people left raising actual barns. I use barn raising as a metaphor, but unless employed in our shriveled civil society sector, most of us can only claim to be taxpayers or donors. Neither taxpayers nor donors are barn raisers. Taxpayers are compelled to give to a faraway authority. Donors give voluntarily, but the charity might be a thousand miles away. 

It’s now possible to support causes on the other side of the world with just the click of a button. When a tsunami hit Indonesia in 2004, people half a world away sent donations in record numbers. Yet when we see poverty or problems two streets over, it’s easy to think that’s someone else’s problem. Or we tell ourselves that it’s our problem, collectively, which translates as politicians’ problem.

Seldom are we active participants anymore. 

Then one by one they steered their wagons home gazing back at what their labors had wrought – knowing to the depth of their communal souls that we are more together than we are apart

—Robert C. Howard, from Pennsylvania Barn Raising

Today, most of us outsource our moral commitments to corporate charities or the voting booth. And this comes at a cost: making donations and paying taxes does comparatively little for our development as moral beings. It does even less for our communities. To become a moral being, one has to practice being good. That includes compassion. Aristotle thought of the virtues as needing to be habituated, and to a great degree, he was right. 

The paradox here is that a virtue, to be practiced, cannot also be legislated. Entering a virtue into law and policy means giving up the conscious practice. People obey the law out of fear, not compassion. At least you can say, “I pay my taxes.” Solving some social problem or helping someone is rarely as important to people as claiming you did your part.

But if genuine compassion prompts us to charitable acts, making charity compulsory destroys it as a practice

When people can outsource virtue to some authority, it makes them less virtuous. Charity as a habit of heart and mind is being lost. And that is why the breakdown of charity, community, and mutual aid in the West followed the diminishment of compassionate practice. 

Generation after generation, Americans have chosen to follow the European welfare state model, in which compassion is outsourced, centralized, and therefore less practiced. But that doesn’t amount to the total disappearance of virtue.

It just means we have to look a little harder to find it.

Max Borders is senior advisor to The Advocates. Read more at Underthrow.org.


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