Living in the Worlds of Ruthie and Rod

WP_001664Rod Dreher's memoir of his sister, Ruthie, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, is a simple story as the subtitle suggests of "A Southern Girl, A Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life." Yet, it is much more. 

It is a story of many layers, dealing with the realities of small town life, how we as modern people deal with death, and ultimately, in its own way, a mirror of America in the 21st century reflecting the fragmentation into societal enclaves of rich and poor, urban and rural, communal and individualistic, and the local and the global.

The story is told through the perspective of Rod, Ruthie's older brother, who grew up as the son who sought adventure through the world of ideas as a journalist, living for two decades in Washington, New York, Dallas and Philadelphia. His ambition was viewed with suspicion by his sister, who thought him "uppity" for leaving the small Louisiana town of St. Francisville and their families corner of that rural world, Starhill. As the teller of the story, he shows his frustration at being mistrusted for his longing for new worlds, as if the world of home was not enough to build a life upon.

As Rod tells this story, this conflict between he and his sister is never truly resolved. Ruthie dies without Rod and her truly reconciling the differences that had existed since childhood.This makes their story more indicative of the way families actually are. This isn't a story with a Hollywood ending, though there is much wisdom and goodness to be discovered in it.

Their relationship rings true as symptomatic of many modern relationships. Each are individualists, even Ruthie in her singular focus on family and homeplace, could not see beyond her own individualistic preference to see that her brother was pursuing his own desire for meaning in life. Her care for her students, believing in those from the most impoverished, least advantageous backgrounds, stands in contrast to her relationship with Rod.

Having spent some time with Rod as he came to Asheville on his book tour, I identify with how family relationships are sometimes much more difficult than our social and professional relationships. In effect, there was only an upside in believing that her students could become anything that they set their mind to doing. But there is conflict within a family when the family traditions are not sufficient to hold some members at home. I see this attachment to the past, which is what it is, as a way many people refuse to address the realities of the contemporary world, and as a result end up denying not only their responsibility to a wider world, but also their potential for making a difference that matters.

For me this relationship between Rod and Ruthie is the most interesting in the book, and worth reading by families so that conversation about expectations can be had.

We also see that small town life, for all its communal closeness, is not idyllic.  There is a tendency not to be able to see beyond one's own self-interest and that that of one's clan. Urban and suburban communities can be just as self-interested, just as easily denying an obligation to care for those who are less well off.

However, what distinguishes this story is the character of Ruthie Leming. For all her narrowness about her small town, she was a woman of extraordinary love and caring for people beyond her family. In fact, it is quite evident that her impact is global and not just local because of the care she gave to her students. It is people like Ruthie who make communities worth living in. The question is why are there not more like her. I hope the book inspires people waiting for something to move them into action to become more like Ruthie.

Small towns have advantages that big city life has a much more difficult time providing. Namely the closeness of family and friends who meld into one's family in ways that a cosmopolitan existence cannot afford. The ease that people move in and out of the Leming household during and after her death from cancer; how the community rallies to raise money for Ruthie's hospital bills through a concert, and how the spirit of Ruthie served as a bond for community that made life in their little community richer, are pictures of life in rural communities.

Rod tells his own story as a contrast to Ruthie's. He is like many people I know who are very cosmopolitan in their tastes. They find it easy to move between various cultures, finding commonality with people from all points on the globe. Yet, as his sister goes through her bout with cancer, the pull of family and Louisiana eventually uproots the Dreher family from their life in Philadelphia as they move home to Starhill.

Family and place are two of the three themes that make this book a thought-provoking, engrossing read. However, it is the question of the communal and familial nature of death and dying that is played out in Ruthie's illness which may be the most important insight that Dreher provides.

As an ordained minister, who has been in and out of pastoral roles in churches over the past three decades, I can say that we American's do not deal with death well. For Ruthie, she faced it by denial. She trusted her physicians to do the right thing. She went about her life as if the cancer did not have a hold upon her. As a result, she did not talk with her daughters about her illness. As Dreher notes, she answered her daughters questions truthfully, what few questions they did ask. So, she proceeds on with life and then it ends suddenly without notice.

What is clear is that death affects families differently than one's circle of friends. Her friends come to the home and celebrate her life the next day. But her family lives daily with her absence. Life never being quite the same without Ruthie at the center of it.

Reading her story, I was taken back to my own parents' deaths. My mother at the age of 48 in her sleep while on vacation. My father just three years ago this week from a sepsis infection that he acquired following knee surgery. For my mother, I had not seen her in two weeks. She was gone without any time to prepare. I am still numb 35 years later. For my father, we knew he would not survive, so my sisters and I had the time to say good bye. In both cases, the relational vacuum created by their passing is never filled. I'm certain this remains true for the Dreher and Leming families of Starhill.

As I had time with Rod last weekend, we talked about Ruthie. I told him that I had a strong identification with her. Her relationships with people are similar to mine. Her belief in people is very much like mine. I have said in many settings that "I believe in people so they can believe in themselves." I would have loved to have known her, and even though I did not, I miss her. I understand her, her motivations and the way she led her life. I also understand the choices that Rod made as a young man, the course of his life, as I made similar choices that led me away from my family to seek a course in life that we often call ambition or purpose. There is not a simple, single choice to be made between country or city living, or between family and ambition. There are choices we make every day about the kind of person we wish to be, and the life we want for ourselves and our families. In effect, life is lived one day at a time, one relational encounter at a time, with intervening moments of decisions that mark the long course that our lives take.

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is an important book. It is a book to be read and savored in conversation with family and friends. Rod Dreher's story isn't about everyone moving back to their home town. It is rather about being much more conscious that all our decisions carry with them both positive and negative implications. Ruthie Leming's life made a difference that mattered to the people of West Feliciana Parish. Rod Dreher's life through his writing is also making a difference by the telling of Ruthie's story. And we the readers of his fine book are the beneficiaries of both of their lives, and for that reason we are richer for it.

In Addition

Here's an additional thought that I had about the book that I posted to my Facebook page.

Been thinking about The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, by Rod Dreher.

It is such a honest and real book. It is one of truth as it deals with the pain and suffering of life, which is, in large part, familial and relational.

I've been having conversations recently with people my age about how many of us in our 50s and 60s are really unhappy. The people I'm thinking of have achieved everything that wanted. Yet, to talk with them there is a hard edge of bitterness lingering in the background. They aren't happy. I've come to the conclusion that this is so because all their relationships are structured to be professional and non-intrusive. The conversations are built around opinions and making distinctions between people who are with us and those who aren't. It is such a defensive posture to life. No wonder they are unhappy.

In Rod's book, it is James Toney, son of Miss Clophine Toney, his childhood friend, who became an evangelist who says it best as he eulogizes his mother.
"She was carrying a cross, ... because let me tell you something, if you don't sacrifice for your brother, if you don't sacrifice for your neighbor, you not carrying your cross."
"Aunt Grace told me the other day that of all the presents she got from everybody, those (Miss Clophine's) meant the most. ... Why? Because there was so much sacrifice. She sacrificed everything she made, just to give."

You have to read the book to get where this is going.

I wonder about these people I'm thinking of and their unhappiness. Do they have anyone whom they truly sacrifice to love? What is it that they are giving up for others? Or do they see their giving and sacrifice as a kind of victimization?

This is the hard truth of love, that without sacrifice, there is no love, just connection.

First, I hope you'll read this book.
Second, I hope you'll give this book to family and friends.
Third, I hope you'll find someone in that group of people with whom you can talk about the wisdom that can be found in this book.

Happiness isn't a commodity you buy at the store. It is a product of relationship and living a life where giving, and, yes, sacrifice, are part of what gives life its joy.

In a recent blog post, What Defines Us? , I ended with these words,

To live is to love.

To love is to give.

To give is to live a life where meaning, happiness, health and impact flow from the daily experience of seeking to fulfill the potential that we each have to make a difference that matters.

Read the book.
Thanks Rod for the posting.

What Defines Us?

2010-11-08 13.36.32


I grew up in a family environment where family history verged on ancestry worship.

Connection to the past mattered. I have a folder in my photo file of the grave stones of family members, from both parent's sides of the family.

I regularly recognize in my interactions with people how my family has defined me. My mother's parents (below) had more to do with this than anyone in my family.


What my extended family gave me as a child, and continues to provide me as an adult, is a ground upon which to stand that defines a part of who I am. Increasingly, I am aware that this is a fading reality in our society.

It is not that family doesn't matter. It just matters in a different way. Family has become, like any social relationship, a vehicle for self-expression and social positioning.  This is a result of the fragmentation of social and organizational life.

In the pre-modern past, one's identity was less individual and more social, defined by family affiliation and community proximity. Where you lived and what your family did defined you.

Today, we are all individualists, with a choice as to how we are defined.

Recently, this question came to mind as I talked with a friend about her past, and how it was filled with traumatic experiences from early childhood into middle age. I was amazed by her ability to stand apart from the abuse of her past and see it objectively. While that did not cancel out the deep emotional trauma she felt, her pain did not define her. She was not her pain, nor the abuse she received. She was something else, something more. For her family is central in defining who she is and is largely responsible for the healing she has experienced.


As I thought about her experience and her response to it, and reflected back upon my own family experience, a number of questions began to come to mind. Here are some of them.

To what extent are we defined by ...

        What we do?

        Where we work?

        Where we were born?

        Where we went to school?

To what degree do  ...

        Our choices,

        Our actions,

        Our network of relationships, and,

        Our daily work and recreation schedule

                ... define us?      

Is our personal identity a manufactured public perception like a product brand? Or, are we the person others think us to be?

I don't think there is an easy answer to any of these questions. There are answers, however they are complex, not simple.

The Question of Potential

Each question above I've thought about often, and in various ways, for almost 40 years. I used to think that our identities are unitary, singular, only one thing, that we are born with an identity.

I, now, see us human beings as much more complex. The range and possibilities for our sense of who we are is greater that we can imagine. One way to understand our identity is to understand what our potential means.

Potential is that unexplored, undeveloped part of us, born from the talent, gifts and experience that expands our awareness and reach in life. It is all future and very little past. It is the difference that we make that has yet to be realized. 

Potential is not something fixed and set at birth. It isn't a commodity. It is unbounded openness. It is not only unknown, but undefinable before its realization.

Potential is not additive but exponential. It isn't a container of what we haven't achieved. It is a platform from which our whole life & work is built. The more we build upon, the greater our potential grows. Our potential creates opportunities for new possibilities in our life and work. 

The only limitation on our potential is time. We must apply ourselves to reaching our potential everyday. I'm not advocating for becoming a workoholic. Rather, I am suggesting we develop an opportunistic attitude about each day. We look for opportunities to make a difference, to have an impact, and to affect change within the contexts where we live and work.

If we build toward reaching our potential each day, then over the course of our lifetime we reach far beyond our present abilities. If we did not try to grow or think that potential doesn't mean very much, then a growing sense of lost time and opportunity will grow within us. I do not wish that feeling on anyone. Regret and longing are not comforting thoughts when one is old and past one's prime.

My point is that we need to see potential as an ascending line of development throughout the course of our lives. This is the inner truth of our experiences of transition in life and work. Each transition point is one where we are being pulled to change in order to fulfill our potential. In each life or work transition is opportunity, if we only see it that way. 

In order to continue to reach for our potential, we must stop doing certain things and begin to learn and master new skills, attitudes, behaviors as we move into new social and organizational contexts. This is the secret to mastering our transitions in life and work. It is the secret to being adaptive and reaching our potential each day.

The Question of Impact

To understand and identify our potential is to understand our potential Impact.

Impact is the change that makes a difference that matters.

Embedded in that statement are the values, talents, relationships, strategies, structures and ways of measurement that are required to live a full, healthy, meaningful life. 

Impact isn't just what we accomplish or what we achieve. It is also opens up new potential, fresh opportunities, and environments that may not have existed even yesterday.

Impact never reaches a final point of completion, either. It is a stage along a path of development. Our potential is the same, not a fixed quantity, but something that grows and develops with initiative and action, or, diminishes from inaction.

We are not human machines, but living systems that are constantly evolving. We are always either growing or declining physically, emotionally, and spiritually. This growth is not set, fixed or predetermined. It may show itself as a pattern of development, but it is not formulaic. We are open and responsive to the full range of experience that we have. Our potential for impact is far greater than we can imagine.

To envision our impact is to imagine our potential.

To imagine our potential is to understand better who we are as persons within the social and organizational contexts of our life and work.

To define ourselves is to see that we are both the same and always changing. This is human nature at its most basic.

The Shift in Question

It has become clear to me that the way we understand what defines us has to change. Up to now personal identity has been seen as a kind of object, a thing that we possess, and lasts our life time.

I am (fill in the blank).

One of the reasons why we viewed our identities this way is that for most of human history we lived in homogeneous communities formed by generations of families. But over the past couple hundred years, that social context has been eroding as families fragment through relocation to new places for economic, ethnic and political reasons. Identities have become more fluid as social interaction required greater flexibility and adaptation to change in society.

As a result, we must learn to adapt to the relationships as they present themselves. This shows us that our sense of self is far more fluid and maleable than maybe we once thought. In this sense, our core identity ends up having multiple expressions, which may appear to us as different identities.

The question that confronts us most directly, then, is what makes up that core identity that allows us to be the same person in very different social and organizational contexts? Or to state it differently how can I be a person of integrity who knows how to find strength for any situation?

The Question of Identity

This post, like many I've written over the past three years, has taken not minutes to create, but weeks, and in this case months, to write. They have because so much of what I write is done in a quest to discover my own understanding of what I sense or observe in my and other's life and work. This quest to understand defines me as much as anything I know. What I learn feeds the importance that integrity has for me.

What I write therefore is often much more personal than may be evident. But it is also social because I writing in the context of many conversations and experiences that I have with people and organizations.

I find that many people have the same issues or needs as I do.The need is to be clear about who we are, and how that factors into how we live each day.

The Place of Desire

A third thing that I've discovered about personal identity, along with the importance of integrity, and our potential impact, is that we are driven by desires. We often talk about these desires as passions.

I have come to this view through the work of philosopher/ theologian James K.A. Smith. He writes,

"Because I think we are primarily desiring animals rather than merely thinking things, I also think that what constitutes our ultimate identities - what makes us who we are, the kind of people we are - is what we love. More specifically, our identity is shaped by what we ultimately love or what we love as ultimate - what, at the end of the day, gives us a sense of meaning, purpose, understanding, and orientation to our being-in-the-world. What we desire or love ultimately is a (largely implicit) vision of what we hope for, what we think the good life looks like."

I find this to be true, and yet hard to get at it. It is so much easier to create a list of values or strengths or traits, and say, that is me. But down deep inside of us is a presence that is passionate for the things that matter.

As I have written before (The Platform of Desire 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5) on desire, I see that there are three principal desires out of which the whole of our identity finds expression.

Three Goals of Life-Work - Simple

These desires are for Personal Meaning, Happy, Healthy Relationships and To Make a Difference that Matters in our live and work.  These desires form the core of our identity. They do because they are ways that we define what we love.

These desires must form the core of our identity because the platform of our identities in the past is eroding.  No longer will families live in inter-generational community. No longer will we work for the same company all our lives. No longer will we find homogeneous environments where everyone finds support and affiliation with people who are like them.

The future is open, diverse and filled with constant change. For this reason our identity cannot be based on external circumstances, but rather on who I am within. And who I am is what I love and desire to create in my life.

When our desires drive us to clarifying the values that give us identity, then we know where to find meaning in our life.

When our desires point us toward the kind of people with whom we can have happy, healthy relationships, then we will know how to be the kind of person who can create those relationships.

When our desires define the impact we want to have, then we know what our life's purpose ultimately means.

As I have worked through a number of scenarios that could possibly define who we are, increasingly they became more complex. The more complex they became the more I realized that the picture I saw was a picture of all the choices from which to build our lives. As a result I was pushed back to what I had discovered before.

There is more to say, and I will in future posts. But let me leave this long post with this final thought.

To live is to love.

To love is to give.

To give is to live a life where meaning, happiness, health and impact flow from the daily experience of seeking to fulfill the potential that we each have to make a difference that matters. 

Series Note: This post is the first in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.