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Wendell Berry on Pity and ‘Hurt Love’

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 22 August 2019

The first story in Wendell Berry's new collection (Stand by Me) is called "The Hurt Man." It is placed, as usual for Berry, in Port William, that fictional town in Kentucky on the river that is the setting for Berry's stories.

The action begins on the front porch of the Feltner house with Mat and his mother Nancy looking down upon the town. His mother has lost three children who lie under the grass in the cemetery above the town and Mat is the precious only child born after the death of his siblings. Nancy had worn black all the time that Mat had been conscious of her.

They observe a ruckus in the town street, and a man runs away towards them in obvious distress. He appears to be chased by a group of men. He arrives at the house, and he is bleeding. Nancy pushes Mat inside and keeps the front door open for the man who enters, leaving a trail of blood in the hall. She closes the door and stands before it to face down those who were chasing the man. Despite the loss of her three children, Nancy was not a frightened woman. The men before her explained that they were the man's friends upon which she led them into the house to find the man bleeding on the floor inside. Her response was immediate; "Oh my".


Nancy ordered his shirt to be cut off him and returned with warm water and clean cloths to tend his wounds.

"She began gently to wash his face. Wherever he was bleeding, she washed away the blood: first his face, and then his arm and then his chest and sides. As she washed, exposing the man's wounds, she said softly only to herself, "Oh!" or "Oh my!" She folded the white rags into pads and instructed the hurt man and his friends to press them into his cuts to stop the bleeding."

Mat crept close to his mother through the bunch of men standing around the hurt man, and he observed her face.

"What he saw in her face would remain with him forever. It was pity, but it was more than that. It was hurt love that seemed to include the hurt man entirely. It included him and disregarded everything else. It disregarded the aura of whisky that ordinarily she would have resented; it disregarded the blood puddled on the porch floor and the trail of blood through the hall. Mat was familiar with her tenderness and had thought nothing of it. But now he recognised it in her face and her hands as they went out to the hurt man's wounds. To him, then, it was as though she leaned in the black of her mourning over the whole hurt world itself, touching its wounds with her tenderness, in her sorrow. Loss came into his mind then, and he knew what he was years away from telling, even from thinking: that his mother's grief was real; that her children in their graves once had been alive; that everybody under the grass up in the graveyard once had been alive and had walked in the daylight in Port William. And this was a part, and belonged to the deliverance, of the town's hard history of love."

When the implications of this scene with his mother tending the hurt man's wound came to him, Mat fled away and wept. The implication was that loss would come to all of those around him, including himself. From that day, Mat was imbued with this knowledge such that loss never surprised him and in that he was comforted "until he was old until he was gone."

The story has a strong Christological theme. Nancy is familiar with human suffering in the most profound way that we know of: the death of her three children. Nothing is worse. It is this experience of profound loss that has made in her heart the pity that she shows the hurt man and indeed embraces the hurt of all humanity. When the boy, Mat, realises this, he flees from the scene to weep. He weeps for himself, his mother, the hurt man and all human beings who are bound to suffering and death. This is the experience that makes him the man he becomes.


Berry tells us that what Nancy feels is not just pity, i.e. the sorrow that any person might have when confronted by one in sore circumstances, but "hurt love" the kind of pity that only comes in one who has experienced the deepest pain. Nancy is Henri Nouwen's "wounded healer" who finds solidarity with human beings in their suffering.

I am reminded of the healing miracles of Jesus that are less about the miraculous and more about pity as he touched and talked to the lepers, the blind, deaf and possessed. He disregarded the mores of society, with its notions of clean and unclean, as Nancy disregarded the smell of whiskey on the hurt man's breath, and only saw suffering humanity. Jesus, like Nancy, saw beyond the person before them and seemed to reach out of the whole hurt world. Surely this is the central message of the Christian story. It is a story not founded on an idea, that, for example, "All we need is love" but on the experience of the human dilemma.

Jesus comes to us initially not as the victorious saviour but as the man of sorrows who finds himself, in the dereliction of the cross, at one with all of suffering humanity. The victory of the resurrection is to be found, not in the erasure of this suffering but in the revelation of the truth of the human dilemma. Significantly, it is the crucified Christ who ascends to sit at the right hand of the Father, not a fixed-up version of him. Suffering humanity is included in the godhead. If this were not so, then humanity is surely lost because our grief would drown us.

If Nancy is the Christ figure in this story, we are both the hurt man and the boy Mat seeing his mother's pity. We are touched and healed, but we also bear witness to the actuality of pity, without which human society could not function or could function only in the most distorted way. Much to the surprise of our triumphalist culture, we find that our suffering defines us more than our victories.

We must admit that victory is the spirit of our times. We do not encourage ourselves or others to carefully inspect the human state because we might lose our optimism. Our lives become a desperate dance of denial as we seek to distract ourselves with luxury, ownership and power. We suffer, our neighbour suffers, and the environment suffers. It is as if this suffering is in addition to the pain that we will encounter just by being human.

Before this realisation, all of the talk and the bluster of politicians who promise great things is surely just wind. What has become of the statesman who knows and has experienced the fragility of the human and bears this into office? In a society that insists on good news, he or she has no place. Forced optimism has a price. We refuse anything that threatens our positivity. There does seem to be a connection between the Right of politics and such refusal: John Howard's denigration of the history of Aboriginal displacement as the black armband version. The Liberal party's refusal to take climate change seriously or consider a raise in New Start. This is all part of Scott Morrison's happy view of the world, no doubt fostered by the "church" that he attends.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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