When I heard about the terrorist bombings in London last Thursday, my first impulse was to feel bad for the victims and their families. My second impulse was to pray that we would be protected from that kind of evil.
But when I heard an expert on counter-terrorism from England say, “you know we will never be able to prevent every terrorist act from happening,” it got me to thinking about the farmers I have known.
Farmers look at life differently than city folk. Take this drought, or whatever it is, we are going through right now. City folk don’t like the drought, because it makes our lawn turns brown. So, we get home from work, get out the sprinkler, turn the faucet and water the lawn while we’re eating dinner. Like one commercial boasts, “You’ve got problems. We’ve got answers.”
But if you are running a thousand acres of corn and soybeans on a farm near Janesville, you can’t put out the sprinkler and make everything the way you want it to be. Every farmer I’ve ever known has acknowledged that you can do everything right when it comes to working the land, and you can still lose. You can be out in the fields, plowing, discing, planting and cultivating twelve hours a day. You can have your soil tested so you know the right formula for your fertilizer. You can pay attention to the futures market around Easter to give you an indication of what to plant.
You can do everything right, but there are many factors which are either out of your control or you don’t foresee, which can ruin everything. Hail. I remember being a kid and seeing fields of oats ripe and ready for harvesting flattened by a hail storm. Drought. I’ve seen corn that neither tasseled out nor bore any ears. Rain. I’ve seen farmers not be able to get into their fields early enough because of a wet spring and end up having a bad harvest. Machinery. You have all your equipment tuned and ready to go, and that darn John Deere combine can still break down in the middle of a corn field. The Market. You can do everything right and bring in a bumper crop, but because everyone else did, too, the market doesn’t hold up and the money you make doesn’t even pay for the fuel your tractor burned.
It’s not weak resignation that farmers have, nor is it fatalism. They know that if they do everything right, things still might go wrong. But they also know that if they don’t get out there and do what they can do, it’s a guarantee that things will go wrong. What farmers tend to have is called humility. That is, the sure and certain knowledge that you are not in control of everything, that the world doesn’t run on your agenda, and that no matter how badly you want something, there are times when you will not be able to make it happen.
This awareness helps people who work the land avoid the twin errors of arrogance and despair. In good years, when the milk checks and payments from the grain elevator are big, farmers know that good weather and a bull market cooperated with their hard work. In bad years when hail, drought or making the wrong choices in the futures market causes them to finish in the red on December 31, they can always encourage each other with “maybe next year we’ll do better.” Makes you think that Ernie Banks grew up on a farm, doesn’t it?
On July 7, we heard public officials in London and Chicago tell us not to avoid riding public transportation, because that would give the terrorists the victory that they want. What they did say was to be more vigilant. From what I think would be a farmer’s perspective, I translate that into the following:
Have the humility to acknowledge that you are not in control of everything. That is, if the blue line train arrives just as you step onto the platform, you actually find a seat and you arrive home without a suicide bomb going off in your car, don’t get deluded that you arrived home safely because of your cleverness. On the other hand, when you leave for work every day, make sure to kiss the wife and kids”even if you’ve hand an argument the night before”and be prepared to help rescue fellow passengers if”God forbid”something does happen on the way to work.
Public officials keep telling us that what we need is vigilance. Add to that the humility to acknowledge that we are not in complete control, and the courage to live our values anyway.