The Little Way To A Good Life

Ruthie LemingI have just finished reading a remarkable book called The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. The author is Rod Dreher, dubbed by David Brooks as “one of the country’s most interesting bloggers.” NY Times columnist Ross Douthat calls this book “one of the best books of the spring.”

Get this book. It’s very good summer reading. It may change the way you look at some things.

Having said that, I am curious why this book has had such an impact on me. The book is simple, at times bordering on simplistic. It tips in the direction of sentimental, something I always avoid like disease. It has very little intellectual depth, or breath, of the kind that always appeals to me. I want more theological, cultural, or historical context for the story than you will find here.

Still, in the end, there is something that rings true and good and beautiful about Ruthie’s “little way” toward a good life.

The book is about the life and death of a remarkably kind woman named Ruthie Lemming, the sister of the author. She has her faults, to be sure, but she is a model of self-sacrifice and simple faith. We go through the childhood of Ruthie and Rod in the small, rural Louisiana town of St. Francisville. We also go through the touching, sometimes exhausting, struggle of Ruthie against her cancer. She finally dies. The community of this small town is amazingly good to her and her family through it all.

The meaning of the story has something to do with community, the kind of life where we care about others without really thinking about it. That’s the secret, in this book, to a good life. Rod left town when he was very young because he felt hemmed in, constrained, claustrophobic. In the end, he moves back to St. Francisville, with his family, because he can’t find this kind of selfless caring in the cities where he has lived and worked.

I am not sure what to make of all of this. I am convinced “you can’t go home again,” as Thomas Wolfe said in the early twentieth century, a book written just as all of the uprooting of rural America was beginning. I left home too. I have lived and worked in a number of cities and places now, but I don’t have a St. Francisville to return to, nor, as a city guy, would I really want to.

But still wouldn’t it be nice to live in a place where people come by to mow the lawn when someone is out of town, where people light candles on the graves on Christmas eve because they knew and loved the people buried there, where people fix all the food, for weeks, when someone is diagnosed with cancer. If we don’t live in this kind of community, as most of us don’t, is there any way to compensate for what is missing?

What can we do with this genuine yearning to belong in community? Well, first of all, it can’t have to do only with small town, rural life, much as we might idealize this location as the key. Dreher knows this. He has been accused of an “ideology of ruralism,” to which he responds, no, it is more an “ideology of rootedness . . . to do your very best to root yourself in the community where you do live, and to do your best to stay there — achieving ‘stability’ in the Benedictine sense.” This may get closer to what I think is possible.

As I read this remarkable book I found myself wanting to be more kind and compassionate and considerate and forgiving to the ones in my own circle of community. Maybe not an ideal small town, but we all have one of those circles, small though they must be. Sounds simple, I know, but I want to live more for family and community and the people who will be faithful in the long run. There is a huge amount of loneliness loose in our culture, and the question remains, can we, as Christians, build something better? Can we create community with selfless caring at its center? Can we counter our ultra-individualized culture in this way?

Actually, when you think about it, this is what the Christian church has done throughout its history. Maybe that’s our task for this moment of a lonely culture: build our churches into communities of support and love. Maybe that’s our “little way” for this moment in time.