Conversations, VOLUME 11

J. Henderson / K. Miller – Wendell Berry and the Quiet Work of Caring


The Quiet Work of Caring:
Establishing Life-Giving Boundaries
Within and Without


An Essay by
Jenna Henderson and Kimberly Miller


“…the work now most needing to be done
—that of neighborliness and caretaking—
cannot be done by remote control with the
greatest power on the largest scale.”

Wendell Berry


[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”250″ identifier=”1400201616″ locale=”US” src=”” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”164″] The idea that there’s always more deeply drives our way of life and informs the way we think of possessions, science, knowledge, and technology. To think otherwise is horrifying to many people. In his 2008 essay “Faustian Economics: Hell Hath No Limits,” Wendell Berry mourns the effects of the “doctrine of limitlessness” on our culture and calls for “the self-restraints implied in neighborliness, stewardship, thrift, temperance, generosity, care, kindness, friendship, loyalty, and love.” He continues, “There is now a growing perception…that we are entering a time of inescapable limits.” As the illusion of limitlessness fades, we will “come under pressure to understand ourselves as limited creatures in a limited world.”

Like Berry, we are grieved by the damaging consequences of the human race’s unrestrained actions on both personal and global levels. Becoming aware of our limits is sobering, but, in the end, results in the fulfillment of our better longings. According to Berry, there’s another way to think about constraints: “Our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements…to fullness of relationship and meaning.”

Whether we like it or not, we exist in space and time. We live in one place. We are committed to certain people. We are part of a creation that is not limitless, but a finite one where we are all inextricably linked. Recognizing our limits shatters our illusions and grounds us in reality. The acceptance of our limits in our specific context moves us in the direction of establishing strong boundarieswithin which we, and those around us, can flourish. Or, as Berry would say, within which we can become most fully human.

I, Kim, am a counselor, and, according to the Internal Family Systems therapy model that I use with my clients, recognizing the limits of the various parts of our souls is an essential first step in becoming whole. Any part of the soul, when left unchecked, can do damage. For instance, sadness to the extreme can be debilitating and needs to be gently contained within one sacred place in the heart. Likewise, our well-intentioned manager parts (angry internal critics or fearful people-pleaser parts, for example), when allowed to take over, become controlling and need the Spirit’s gentle boundaries. Or, when fire-fighting parts of our souls insist we escape the inferno of painful emotions, their well-intended methods can be unintentionally self-defeating and require our redirection. We cannot escape our emotions. They are with us always, and God made us that way. Even in his final hour, Jesus agonized, “Why have you forsaken me?” He not only expressed his painful emotions, but he offered them up to God. Making room for all of the emotions within our soul enables all parts of us to work together harmoniously. Ironically, limits make room for all of our conflicted thoughts and feelings to be seen, befriended, and integratedand bring us peace.

Caring for the competing parts of our soul requires the quiet, steady work of listening to our emotions and recognizing our limitations. And, just as our interior lives need boundaries to function well, our exterior worldthe created world we depend on and are a part ofoperates within limits. As Berry asserts, the earth flourishes when we relate to it with healthy boundaries.

Working in conservation, I, Jenna, see the ways that caring for creation requires understanding and honoring boundaries. For instance, we say we throw trash “away,” but what happens to it? If it goes to a landfill, it goes to a place that will one day reach its limit. Our mixed wastefood scraps and plastic and broken or used items of all sortsare essentially stored underground. Without access to oxygen, any decomposition that happens slowly releases harmful byproducts into the air and soil. Most people prefer not to think about and don’t want to witness the consequences, but the pollution of our air and water is something we all have to face.

When we perceive our limits, Berry says “we must learn again to ask how we can make the most of what we are, what we have, what we have been given.” We can embrace our place, our story, and our God-given calling in life. Sometimes making the most of something starts with a small change. We start to compost. We process our emotions. We recycle. We pray, cry, and sing. We plant a garden. We start trying to live well within our limits. It is the rational, and life-giving, thing to do. These expressions of our creatureliness can be acts of worship, work we get to do rather than have to do.

Once we know the limits within which we are placed, we can make a choice to generate something life-giving. When we save our vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, and eggshells, we walk them out to the compost pile where they gradually transform into compost that will enrich our garden beds in the spring. When we allow ourselves to feel the pain of a wounded part, formerly exiled to a remote outpost within our soul, our tears bring forth laughter and hymns and connection and empathy for others feeling pain and loss and heart-stricken grief. We find that we are held within the constraints of our community and our place, and we see the beauty and wisdom in accepting our limits.

Neighborliness to ourselves, to others, and to creation, requires humility and does not generally draw accolades; it is the slow, rhythmic work of cultivation. Learning to live this way, with strong internal boundaries, yields full, Spirit-led lives. And likewise, learning to live respectfully of creation’s limits not only helps our ecosystems flourish, it allows us the joy of honoring creation by being the stewards we were created to be.

Jenna Henderson is the Director of Nashville A Rocha.

Kimberly Miller is a counselor in private practice and is the co-author of  [easyazon_link identifier=”1400201616″ locale=”US” tag=”douloschristo-20″]Boundaries for Your Soul: How to Turn Your Overwhelming Thoughts and Feelings into Your Greatest Allies[/easyazon_link]. (Thomas Nelson, 2018)


IMAGE CREDIT: Nicu Buculei, Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:

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