Our actions matter. All of them do. And that’s a lesson most often learned from the more unfortunate of our choices, rather than through the better things we produce.
In the novel, A Place on Earth, by Wendell Berry, a father has long taught his son to farm, and the time has come to turn over a patch of land to the young man to let him plow and plant it on his own. The father is later reminiscing on the event, and ruminating on how much topsoil has been lost over the years to bad decisions—from mistakes he saw his own father make, as well as from his own misjudgments. He then tells what happened with his son:
“Anyhow, Virgil broke his ground farther over the brow of the hill than he should have. Like a boy, you know. Didn’t stop in time. But he got his rows laid off about right, and got his crop out—and I didn’t say anything, hoping he’d have luck and get that mistake free. Thought I’d show him later what he’d done wrong, soon as I could do it without hurting his feelings.
"But there was an awful rain one night after his crop had been out, I guess, two weeks. I heard it begin and lay listening to it, knowing what was bound to be happening. And the next morning I said, ‘Let’s go look at your crop.’ So we went, and walked all the way around it. It was hurt. Bound to have been. There’s no way to plow sideline ground so it’ll hold in a rain like that. ‘Virgil,’ I said, ‘this is your fault. This is one of your contributions to the world.’ That was hard for me to say. And he took it hard. I saw he was about to cry. And bad as I hated to do it, I let it work in him while we stood there and looked. I knew he was hating the day he ever thought of raising a crop, ready to give up. Finally I put my arm around him and I said, ‘Be sorry, but don’t quit. What’s asked of you now is to see what you’ve done, and learn better.’ And I told him that a man’s life is always dealing with permanence—that the most dangerous kind of irresponsibility is to think of your doings as temporary. That, anyhow, is what I’ve tried to keep before myself. What you do on the earth, the earth makes permanent.”
I love the words: Be sorry, but don’t quit. What’s asked of you now is to see what you’ve done and learn better.
We can recover from most mistakes. But the world somehow records them all. And that’s a serious thought. Equally important is the idea that we’ll all make mistakes, and our job then is to keep going, learn, and improve. We’re not here with the expectation of perfection, only with the hope of improvement. Our actions do matter. One way or another, they're all permanent. And we have to live with that fact.