Harmony and Discord

Llyod Den Boer

Imagine a serene Sunday morning in a prairie town a lifetime ago. The day being young, the town lies still in the cool of the morning. Soon church bells begin to toll, first from one area of the town, then others, saturating the air with glorious sound. As the bells toll, families gather in their churches. In time, the services start. The people rise, sit, and bow their heads at the bidding of their pastors. The pastors urge their congregations to live worthy lives. The congregations respond with hymns. Finally, as the services come to their ends, the organists throw the swell shutters on their instruments open, rattling windows with postludes that bring worship to a jubilant end. Then, if the town is like the one where I was born, the rest of the day is tranquil. All businesses are closed; no work is done. Families gather for meals, friends arrange visits, and children play quietly. The streets of the town are empty because the town agrees that Sunday is a day of repose.

That was decades ago. These days, churches in towns like the one where I was born no longer ring bells, pipe organs have fallen out of favour, and Sundays are less tranquil. Still, the deepest changes lie elsewhere. When industrialized agriculture replaced the family farms that once dotted the countryside, the rural population surrounding these towns collapsed. Some towns became derelict shadows of their former selves. In towns that prospered, family-owned businesses were closed as restaurant chains, big box stores, and factories owned by corporations took their places. In each successful town, a society built by small independent entrepreneurs — whether farmers or businessmen — changed into a society of corporate managers and their wage labourers. Soon newcomers needing work moved into these towns. The perception that everyone belonged based on a common European settler lineage no longer made sense.

According to some, progress saved these towns from rural blight. Others noticed that the pathways to individual, self-made success had narrowed, leaving only the kinds of jobs that big corporations offered. The more those who felt left behind looked about them, the more they felt like outcasts in their own towns. Sometimes, they concluded, even newcomers were shown more respect than wage labourers whose families were long-time settlers in the town. They perceived that powerful people didn’t seem to care that lives were being stolen from those left behind. In time, as their resentment grew, leaders emerged to harness and express it. Whereas before, harmony appeared to be a hallmark of these towns, now discord reigns.

We say that it takes two to tangle, meaning that responsibility lies on both sides of most disagreements. When we quarrel, we tell simple stories to defend our points of view. To move ahead, we need to accept that things are more complicated than we like to admit. Accordingly, we may need to accept that progress saved a town, but it also created winners and losers. We may need to pay more attention to what was lost and who lost it. Or, we may need to understand that there is no going back to a way of living that feels lost to us. We can shape history into the future, but we cannot freeze it in the present or turn it back. Moreover, as much as we long for the way things once were, we may need to admit that those ways favoured the people who were seen to belong. They didn’t favour everyone.

In an age prone to polarization, perhaps we need a goal that can inspire and instruct all sides, a goal like Martin Luther King Jr.’s “beloved community.” The beloved community, King taught, is not a place without differences. It is a place where everyone belongs.