Gracy Olmstead is senior staff writer for The American Conservative.
“Learning made a boy leave the farm to live in the city—to consider himself better than his father.”
John Steinbeck wrote these words 65 years ago, in his classic work East of Eden. Even then, he sensed the deep schism growing between rural America and the elite, urban enclaves that housed many of the nation’s universities and colleges.
But if such things were true in Steinbeck’s day, they are only more common now. Our nation’s top universities have embraced a detached, globalized approach to education—one in which youths are unlikely to be sent home, and rather encouraged to join a larger sphere of success and influence.
On its website, Yale assures visitors that it is training “the next generation of world leaders.” Harvard boasts that it develops leaders “who make a difference globally.” The University of Virginia, meanwhile, promises to foster “illimitable minds,” and “endless pursuit.”
In his classic consideration of American society, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the United States contained an “innumerable multitude of those who seek to get out of their original condition …. There are no Americans who do not show that they are devoured by the desire to rise.”
But the consequences of such attitudes have been staggering. In America’s rural towns and communities, “brain drain” is sucking away talented youth, leaving an economic and social hole in its wake. According to a 2008 Pew poll, college graduates are far less likely to live in their birth state, and most young people still living in their hometown want to move in the next five years. Seventy-seven percent of college graduates change communities at least once.
Few in the world of higher education are taking a stand against this tide of exodus and globalization. But in their new book, Wendell Berry and Higher Education: Cultivating Virtues of Place, Jack Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro explain the dangers of a higher education that is placeless and, in the words of UVA, “illimitable.”
Baker and Bilbro work in the English Department at Michigan’s Spring Arbor University. Both professors have long studied the life and work of Wendell Berry, and his writing and thought serve as primary inspiration for this book.
Berry himself, via both his fiction and essays, has considered the deleterious impact of higher education on small farming communities. As his protagonist Hannah Coulter notes in a novel of the same name, “After each one of our children went away to the university, there always came a time when we would feel the distance opening to them, pulling them away.”
Higher education fosters what Wendell Berry has termed “boomers”: individuals who “are always on the lookout for better career opportunities in better places.” He contrasts this group to “stickers”: those who root themselves in a place, and dedicate themselves to its wellbeing. Wallace Stegner first used these terms to describe the pioneers who settled in the West in the 19th and early 20th centuries; but our universities have long fostered boomers instead of stickers.
Coulter’s children, like most American youths, bought into “the destructive ideology of the university as part of an industrial economy—an economy in which schools bring in customers and send out displaced individuals with immense debts, having taught those individuals that the good life can be found anywhere but at home,” write Baker and Bilbro.
Many in and outside America’s universities don’t see a problem with this sort of displacement. Upward mobility, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, has always been a present and accepted part of the American psyche. We increasingly strive to be cosmopolitans, global citizens, people who exist outside of place and its tribalistic ties. Today, as never before, the virtues of contentment, gratitude, and loyalty have fallen into disrepute.
But resurrecting such virtues, Baker and Bilbro suggest, is critical for the health and happiness not just of America’s small towns and communities, but also of its young people—for although independence may appeal for a while, living as a “global citizen” and “world leader” can be rather lonely and alienating. Cultivating opportunities for homecoming is not just a romantic or reactionary notion. It is a recipe for holistic healing and reintegration, in a nation that sorely needs it.
To foster this sort of reintegration, Baker and Bilbro suggest, we need to tell different stories to our youth: stories that foster the aforementioned virtues of place, stories that suggest home is in fact a beautiful place worth preserving. Baker and Bilbro thus begin to lay out a vision for reforming higher education—for cultivating a university in which students are encouraged to love their place.
While education means “to lead out from,” Baker and Bilbro argue that the university’s direction in times past was more metaphysical and intellectual than it was geographical. Universities in Athens and Rome served the polis. After the rise of Christendom, universities sought to serve the church, and most of America’s first colleges were theological in both their education and ends. As American society has grown increasingly pluralistic, however, the purpose and end of the university has shifted once more—this time to focus on economic success.
“The institution that began with the purpose of leading students out of ignorance to better serve their communities and the church now primarily serves the nation-state’s industrial complex,” Baker and Bilbro write. “In the absence of any higher purpose, the multiversity defaults to serving the economy, to training students to be effective cogs in a capitalist machine.”
In contrast, Baker and Bilbro suggest that universities ought to work like a rooted tree,providing students with a “trunk of truth,” which is surrounded and informed by a geographical context. They suggest that a strong core curriculum—the classical liberal arts’ trivium and quadrivium—is the best such trunk.
The classical liberal arts do not dictate or specify success to students. Instead, they cultivate wisdom and understanding—and from these seeds, students can and must cultivate their own, particular vision of the good. Great, classic works of the past—such as Paradise Lost, The Odyssey, or newer works such as The Lord of the Rings—foster a “rooted imagination.” But they also prompt questions of application that students must answer for themselves.
“We have found that our students struggle with imaginative work because it doesn’t provide neat, tidy answers,” note Baker and Bilbro. “In fact, it acknowledges that some, perhaps many, of their questions will remain unanswered.” But this sort of learning fosters prudence: the ability to apply certain virtues and skills within a variety of disciplines and places. Whereas others forms of education spit out machine cogs, the rooted university fosters diverse and multifaceted human beings.
As Berry once wrote in his essay “The Loss of the University,” “Underlying the idea of the university—the bringing together, the combining into one, of all the disciplines—is the idea that good work and good citizenship are the inevitable by-products of the making of a good—that is, a fully developed—human being.”
In the second part of their book, Baker and Bilbro consider the four key dimensions “in which humans ought to be placed”: tradition, hierarchy, geography, and community. They then detail the virtues which ought to be fostered within these dimensions: fidelity, love, gratitude, and memory. They turn here to Alasdair MacIntyre, who has argued in After Virtue that virtue is “an excellence or quality intelligible only within a community’s tradition and story, oriented toward a common good.” Without this orientation and context, virtues become mere “skills,” which may not in fact further the good.
Baker and Bilbro thus argue that love and service are contextual disciplines; abstract love, “empathy” without subject or context, is not the proper end of human existence. And in a world in which the placeless, roving humanitarianism of Angelina Jolie and George Clooney receive highest accolades and praise, such a vision is both unique and deeply needed.
“When professors tell their students the wrong stories, stories of heroic success rather than quotidian faithfulness, it reinforces the boomer mentality of the broader culture,” write Baker and Bilbro. Such narratives, according to Berry, convince “good young people … that if they have an ordinary job, if they work with their hands, if they are farmers or housewives or mechanics or carpenters, they are no good.”
Baker and Bilbro contrast the heady, aspirational virtues of modern academia with what they call “the sticker arts”: the arts of “right livelihood” that focus on stewardship, sustainability, specificity, and love. In so doing, they aren’t just trying to convince students to stay home—they are also encouraging them to make a home wherever they may land. After all, as both Baker and Bilbro acknowledge themselves, Spring Arbor is not their original hometown. Although their vision is to cultivate students who can remain rooted in place, they are also aware that many may move away. But the virtues they present here—stewardship, sustainability, love, loyalty—should not only be applied to our birthplaces. They are deeply needed everywhere. Anywhere boomers have ravaged a community, seeking only to consume and procure, stickers are needed to foster healing and wholeness.
As our country increasingly becomes a fractured republic, a nation divided and splintered, it is such virtues that are most likely to bring wholeness and healing back. “Berry remains convinced that genuine change begins locally rather than in the halls of centralized power,” note Baker and Bilbro. And it is only the sort of vision this volume provides that can bring such change back to the communities that so desperately need it.
This book is not just for college students or professors. It is for all those who toil within a specific vocation. The thoughtful wisdom of Baker and Bilbro convicted and inspired me, prompting me to consider whether my work is as place-centric, thoughtful, and prudential as it ought to be. These thoughts will likely occur to any who spend much of their time behind a computer, who commute to work, or otherwise engage in labor than can often feel divided and displaced. The authors also encouraged me to keep fostering the “sticker arts” in my own life: the quotidian labor of mending and repairing, gardening and canning, cooking and cleaning. This book is more than a treatise on higher education. It is also, at least to some extent, a manual for the place-centric life.
There is no easy way to turn the tide of youthful exodus plaguing America’s communities. But the seeds of change are here. Perhaps the first step, as Baker and Bilbro suggest, is to reconsider the stories we tell, and the visions we cast. Perhaps, instead of telling students they ought to be “world leaders,” we should encourage them to be good neighbors.
Gracy Olmstead is associate managing editor at The Federalist and the Thursday editor of BRIGHT, a weekly newsletter for women. Her writings can also be found at The American Conservative, The Week, Christianity Today, Acculturated, The University Bookman, and Catholic Rural Life. You can follow her on Twitter @gracyolmstead
I still remember learning Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E major. My violin teacher was a stickler for technique, especially when it came to playing Bach. She called this particular piece a “marathon”: it required careful pacing and a good deal of commitment. There are a lot of fast passages that, if learned too hastily, sound rushed and fitful. The key, she affirmed week after week, was to practice the piece slowly with a metronome, paying excruciating detail to rhythm and fingering. She assured me that once I grew intimately acquainted with the notes and bowings, the speed would come by itself. Like second nature.
She was right. And to my surprise, the more time I spent practicing that piece, the more I came to love it. Whereas at the beginning of my study I was only mildly interested in Bach, the more I played this and other pieces by him, the more I came to love his music, with all its delicacy and finesse.
Perhaps it’s this remembrance that helped me identify so deeply with James K.A. Smith’s new book You Are What You Love. Smith begins his book with a classic quotation from St. Augustine’s Confessions, in which Augustine declares that “You [God] have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” There is a teleological bent to human nature: we are dynamic beings in search of a specific end. And while philosophy since the Enlightenment has conditioned us to believe “we are what we think” (thanks in large part to René Descartes), Augustine’s statement positions the seat of human character and creaturehood in the heart, not the head, suggesting that our proper end is devotion, not cognition. “What if, instead of starting from the assumption that human beings are thinking things, we started from the conviction that human beings are first and foremost lovers?” Smith asks. Then, the question becomes not “whether you will love something as ultimate,” but rather, “what you will love as ultimate.”
We are in fact creatures most often shaped by our gut instincts and desires—governed by eros, not thought. Smith doesn’t use this term in a merely sexual sense: eros, for him, refers to the entire spectrum of human desires and loves that pervade our lives. But if our loves and motivations are governed by the heart or the gut, not the head, how do we know what we really love or want? Can’t we all too easily deceive ourselves?
Smith says yes—but adds a word of assurance. Our hearts are not unnavigable and unknowable: they bend to the tunes and rhythms we set for them. The key is to know that love is a habit, not merely a choice. In order to foster proper loves, we must consciously choose to immerse ourselves in the correct “liturgies”: defined here as daily rhythms, stories, and habits that shape us.
This is where that Bach Partita comes in: to foster virtuous love is “more like practicing scales on the piano than learning music theory,” writes Smith. “The goal is, in a sense, for your fingers to learn the scales so they can then play ‘naturally,’ as it were. Learning here isn’t just information acquisition; it’s more like inscribing something into the very fiber of your being.” Learning to love God is like learning to play Bach: it requires daily immersion in habits and practices that train the “muscles” of my heart to desire, and thus do, what it ought.
Smith points to the ancient liturgies of the Christian church as guiding voices that can sculpt our loves and pull us toward God. He pays careful attention here to the work that ancient musical worship, prayers, baptism, sacraments, and the liturgical calendar all do in shaping our loves. To take our faith beyond the realm of head knowledge requires “the recalibration of our heart-habits and the recapturing of our imagination”—something that happens when we regularly engage in “embodied, tangible, and visceral” practices. The order and cadence of a worship service begins to shape our imaginations, and thus our loves.
While he doesn’t unequivocally castigate modern churches, Smith strongly argues for a return to ancient ecclesiastical customs and traditions. He suggests that the disillusionment driving record numbers of young people from the church today has more to do with an abandonment of ancient liturgies than with “boring” tradition. Modern youth groups—offering doughnuts and grungy worship bands, hip youth pastors and foosball tables—tend not to reinforce the liturgies. Packaging a teaching in the trappings of pop culture treats young people like “thinking things” who just need the right verses and a few good allegories to stay in the church. But if Smith’s premise is correct, these ministries negate their message by reinforcing secular liturgies on a subconscious, gut level. Youth aren’t nourished by biblical arguments: instead, they walk away with stomachs sated by doughnuts, ears filled with popular music, and emotions fixated on the conversations and flirtations of their peers. This is not how we build ecclesiastical discipleship and community. This is how we lose young people to pop culture.
In contrast, the traditional liturgies of the church reveal to young people a depth that transcends cliché and a community “that is ancient, thereby connecting them to a body that is older than their youth pastor and wider than their youth group.” Indeed, Smith says his experience as a professor at Villanova University suggests that young people will be drawn and kept within the church by high church liturgy and ancient traditions—if the church is brave enough to embrace them once more.
But Smith’s examination doesn’t end with the ecclesiastical. If liturgy is to be defined as the habits and messages that undergird our lives and foster our loves, it cannot be confined to the four walls of the church. So he carries this examination onward: first to the family, calling parents to pay careful mind to the ethos they’re fostering in their homes. “Every household has a ‘hum,’ and that hum has a tune that is attuned to some end, some telos,” Smith writes. “We need to tune our homes, and thus our hearts, to sing his grace.” We can affirm the true, the good, and the beautiful through what we eat, watch, play, and pray.
A Christian home should be mindful of formative liturgies—“story, poetry, music, symbols, and images”—that foster children’s spiritual growth “under the hood” of consciousness. “Children are ritual animals,” he writes, “who absorb the gospel in practices that speak to their imaginations.” Participation in the liturgical calendar—using candles, colors, feasts, festivals, and stories—can help integrate our children into the family of faith.
But quotidian home practices matter, too: a family that regularly gathers around the dinner table is practicing a liturgy. So, too, the family in which gardening or other household chores are done together, bringing order and beauty to the home and its surroundings. Such practices help shape and cultivate the life within.
In education, there are also proper liturgies we can foster. Smith notes that from Sunday school to the university, there are stories of the good life, of what we ought to love, that are constantly propagated to our kids. He suggests fostering their moral imaginations at every opportunity, whether learning economics, U.S. history, or social studies. If we believe there’s a telos to human existence, and we want our children to recognize it, we should craft their education in such a way that they learn to trace its patterns throughout life. A “holistic, formative approach to education … is bound up with a teleological purview—embedding the tasks of teaching and learning in a bigger vision and ultimate Story that guide and govern learning.”
Smith warns that, if we do not tell such stories, we run the risk of our children tuning their hearts to culture’s alternative messages—to what he calls “rival liturgies.” These have their own vision of the good life and man’s telos and are often fostered in specific spaces: the shopping mall, for instance, fosters a worship of materialism and consumerism alongside deification of the self. One could also point to habits of worship fostered around the television, the soccer fields, or football stadiums, and the ever present smartphone. Pornography is a steadily more pervasive influence on American society, shaping views of sex and intimacy in adolescents and adults. This is an example of how a secular liturgy can shape our loves.
Because “our idolatries … are more liturgical than theological,” our daily habits and haunts reveal more about us than the statements of faith we might post on Facebook. Regardless of where you go, what you watch, what you listen to, there are liturgies to consume. And their messages—full of poignancy and life-driving potency—will direct your life goals and shape your character. If Smith is right, you become them because you are what you love.
Much like C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, Smith’s book bridges denominational divides in order to urge a deeper appreciation and embrace of catholic, historic Christianity. He aims to foster practices that will encourage our faiths on an individual and church-wide level, without condemning a specific set of Christian believers. Such a project seems very timely, as legions of millennials leave the faith and an increasing number of American churches are shorn of their liturgical, theological splendor to become gyms and apartment complexes. American families, often driven apart by divorce, alienation, or generational division, are here reminded why they must hold fast the rituals and customs of their faith. We’re urged to keep on the lookout for secular, consumerist liturgies that might tempt us to improper loves.
It’s worth noting, too, that this book is palatable and engaging for those not sold on ancient church liturgies. I’ve spent the past couple months reading it aloud with my husband, who does not have a high church background and has expressed valid reservations in the past concerning its cadences of worship. This book helped him understand why I love liturgy and gave him a larger vision for the role liturgy can play in the church, regardless of one’s denomination.
Every night, as I tuck my baby girl into bed, I sing hymns and say the Lord’s prayer with her. If you think of her as just a tiny “thinking thing,” the ritual wouldn’t make sense. She’s too young to yet understand the words. But if we are indeed “first and foremost lovers,” creatures shaped by practice and liturgy, then every song and word has a purpose.
Gracy Olmstead is a senior writer for The American Conservative.
Dear Ms. Rowling,
I just read Harry Potter and The Cursed Child. And I was a little disappointed.
To start with, I do appreciate the format: plays are rather fun to read, and a nice change of pace from the novel. It’s not something we see every day, especially in YA or fantasy literature. It’s obvious that—with a careful and creative hand—this could be a really fun production to watch live (if one had the $10,000 necessary to buy a ticket at this point). And I’m sure that the production will inspire and excite those who did not grow up with Harry Potter, giving them new characters—such as the protagonists, Albus and Scorpius—to identify with.
Additionally, I should applaud you for continuing to set forth important virtues and thematic concepts in your work. Since the beginning of the Harry Potter series, you’ve talked about the importance of membership and friendship: suggesting that no one person, however talented, can (or should) ever act alone. The characters in your book are supporters of the idea that men are social animals, that “a cord of three strands is not easily broken,” that familial relationships are important, no matter how torn or fraught they might be. And these themes are refreshing in our increasingly solipsistic, solitary world.
But the praise ends there. Because this work is such a poor offering in contrast to the literary greatness and sparkling prose of your previous books, it’s really not worth mentioning in the same sentence.
To some degree, I understand why you’d want to keep proffering Harry Potter works to your fans. They’re loyal, dogged fans. When you created Hogwarts and the Harry Potter universe, you created something truly special and unique, and the millions who’ve read your books just don’t want to let go. You have continued to answer their questions and speak to their yearnings for Harry Potter creations over the past nine years, whether on Twitter or via Pottermore or in various interviews.
That said, I think you should stop—now.
I think your series will always be a classic, on the level of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But only if you cease and desist from publishing mediocre fiction to supplement the original greatness of the Harry Potter series. The seven volumes were unique, sparkling, creative, and endearing. They were about as perfect as a seven-volume children’s series could get: aging with their audience, developing complexity and thematic intensity as Harry, Ron, and Hermione grew. The books were engaging for old as well as young (my father-in-law just finished reading them, and loved them), and the characters therein grew to be as loved and admired as any in the classical canon.
But whether for love of fans or fame (or both), you’ve continued to spin tales associated with the original seven books—keeping yourself ever in the limelight, proffering viral comment after viral comment over the past nine years. There were your notes about Dumbledore’s sexuality, your suggestion that Harry should have wed Hermione, your prediction of the drama surrounding Draco’s wife, your discussion of the fate of the Longbottoms, your revelation that Ron almost died, etc. etc. Then you helped create a film about an American wizardry school (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, set to release in November), wrote a short story about the 2014 Quidditch World Cup, helped assemble this new play about Harry’s son Albus, and released three new books about the world of Harry Potter.
Here’s the problem: although it’s impossible to know how excellent Fantastic Beasts will or will not be, the rest of your revelations have been decidedly mediocre. They’ve done little to accent or highlight the best of your written work—instead, they’ve served mainly to provide you viral attention and literary limelight every few months. And that’s frustrating and saddening to those of us who truly love the work and world you’ve created in the Harry Potter books, and don’t want to see it cheapened or degraded in the name of pop-culture praise.
Perhaps you’re afraid of being a one-hit wonder. It’s true that The Casual Vacancy received decidedly lackluster praise—it was a decidedly lackluster book. The Cormoran Strike novels (written under the pen name Robert Galbraith) began to garner attention only once it was revealed that you were, in fact, the author. The books don’t come close to the greatness of others in their genre. The Harry Potter series alone remains excellent, memorable, enjoyable. It’s one of the most bestselling series of all time.
For that reason, I don’t think you’re necessarily doing it for the money—after the success of the first seven books, it doesn’t seem you’d be all that worried about producing more blockbuster hits. But surely, after bursting onto the literary and cinematic scene with such resounding, celebrity success, it must be difficult to let go.
But let go you must.
It would be one thing if the additional works you were creating were of the caliber of Tolkien’s accessory works to The Lord of the Rings. Some consider The Silmarillion to be as good as or even better than LOTR; some prefer the joyous, childlike wonder of The Hobbit to the darker, more intense nature of his other works (and to be clear and avoid the wrath of Tolkien fans, The Hobbit was published before LOTR). Regardless, one thing is certain: Tolkien was fastidiously careful in crafting these works. They’re masterpieces in their own right, interesting and detailed works with characters and plots that speak to the detailed genius of their author.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is no such work. As other countless fans have pointed out, the writing of the work is mediocre, at best—full of clichés and halfhearted character development, with a plot that is absolutely riddled with holes. Many of the original characters (especially Hermione) are not true to their original selves, serving as two-dimensional copycats.
So what does the book do? Well, it keeps the Harry Potter series alive and in the limelight. It serves to inspire new fans to return to the original books. And it definitively makes money—lots of it. But that’s the extent of its virtues.
I caution you, because I think there’s a point at which truly excellent authors know how to say “enough.” Their fans can content themselves with the simplicity and beauty of a finite offering (be it one book or seven). Limiting the scope of a fictional creation enables it to stay mysterious, enchanting, and delightful. Limiting the scope of Harry Potter serves to inspire and foster the imagination of its fans more than coughing up another 20 volumes ever would.
Some will disagree with me here: they’ll point to the world of Star Wars fan fiction, perhaps, and argue that these creations—while some are better than others—continue to inspire and delight fans of the universe that George Lucas created. And that could be true, to some extent. But Stars Wars isn’t on the level of The Lord of the Rings. And if you want your work to be more of a Star Wars, that’s great—I just think it could be something better, something more important and lasting in the literary canon. If you let it stand on its own, without any more additional works or Twitter revelations or viral interviews.
You keep saying that’s what you intend—and then you keep changing your mind. I would urge you to stick to your word on this one: for your own sake, and for the sake of Harry Potter’s lasting legacy. Because I’m a huge fan, and love the world you created in the Harry Potter series. And I want it to remain extraordinary and beloved for years to come.
Are today’s college students especially sensitive?
Debates over trigger warnings seem to indicate such a tendency, though it would be unfair to paint an entire generation of young adults as dainty, tremulous orchids. In a Tuesday New York Times column, David Brooks argues that—without stereotyping too much—a large number of today’s university-bound truly are not as resilient as their elders:
When I ask veteran college teachers and administrators to describe how college students have changed over the years, I often get an answer like this: “Today’s students are more accomplished than past generations, but they are also more emotionally fragile.”
That rings true to me. Today’s students are amazing, but they bathe one another in oceans of affirmation and praise, as if buttressing one another against some insecurity. Whatever one thinks of the campus protests, the desire for trigger warnings and safe spaces does seem to emanate from a place of emotional fragility.
Some have suggested that this fragility emanates from the excesses of helicopter parenting: a generation gone soft and thin-skinned from pampering. But Brooks thinks the trend has its roots in a deeper, more philosophical dimension:
[Emotional fragility] … is caused by anything that makes it harder for people to find their telos. It’s caused by the culture of modern psychology, which sometimes tries to talk about psychological traits in isolation from moral purposes. It’s caused by the ethos of the modern university, which in the name of “critical thinking” encourages students to be detached and corrosively skeptical. It’s caused by the status code of modern meritocracy, which encourages people to pursue success symbols that they don’t actually desire.
We are all fragile when we don’t know what our purpose is, when we haven’t thrown ourselves with abandon into a social role, when we haven’t committed ourselves to certain people, when we feel like a swimmer in an ocean with no edge.
If you really want people to be tough, make them idealistic for some cause, make them tender for some other person, make them committed to some worldview that puts today’s temporary pain in the context of a larger hope.
On the one hand, this is a rather sweeping generalization. Surely students can be sensitive and easily offended while still embracing some telos or larger purpose for their lives. And while the university tends to tiptoe around the personal, fostering various degrees of disillusionment and cynicism, it is also oftentimes ideological and optimistic to a fault. It all depends on the subject.
At the same time, Brooks’s argument—that a defining telos or purpose makes us strong and resilient—resonates with examples I’ve seen in my own life. My grandmother had a troubled childhood, but she responded to hardship with tenacity: she raised her siblings almost by herself, learning how to nurture safety, stability, and comfort in her wake. As she grew older, Grandma continued to foster these things in her own life, and in the lives of others. Her home was a place of security and stability, a “safe space” in which anyone could feel at home. It emanated comfort, beauty, and gentility. Hers was a story of overcoming—not just economic difficulty, but emotional and personal hardship.
Her life became focused around the cultivation and nurturing of family, and she fulfilled that vocation well until the very end. A tenacious love and loyalty directed her work ethic and private pursuits. It spilled into what she purchased, and into how she structured her schedule. Her telos was faith and family, and it showed in everything she did.
I recently read a book (review forthcoming) about a Cambodian Christian who survived the Khmer Rouge regime: barely eking out survival amidst the horror of prison camps, the devastating loss of almost his entire family, the constant shadow of starvation or violent death. What kept him going? A promised word, whispered in the lonely night: “I have a plan for you.” This was the telos that animated and inspired hope, despite all the challenges.
Christians are known for being tenacious despite persecution (and here I’m speaking not of cake-baking controversy or bathroom wars, but of torturing and beheading for one’s faith). Why is this? Because they have an animating purpose—a telos—that makes them, as Brooks writes, “strong like water”:
A blow might sink into them, and when it does they are profoundly affected by it. But they can absorb the blow because it’s short term while their natural shape is long term.
There are moments when they feel swallowed up by fear. They feel and live in the pain. But they work through it and their ardent yearning is still there, and they return to an altered wholeness.
Emotional fragility can result from a lack of confidence in who you are, or ignorance as to where you’re going. The one makes us debilitatingly vulnerable to the jabs and barbs of our world; the other leaves us despairing and forlorn when hostility tears away our societal, familial, or scholastic supports.
Christians have historically combatted these tendencies through a strong understanding of the self as loved and redeemed by God. The confidence of a Christian does not rely on moral superiority or self-righteousness—quite the contrary. The Christian views him or herself as already guilty of sin and insufficiency, but as loved, treasured, and redeemed anyway. So when the world accuses or makes fun or belittles, the Christian can stand firm. There’s no perfection in the self—but the self can still be perfectly loved. That gives stamina and endurance.
Christians also combat despair through believing they have an immortal purpose and end: communion with God. This gives a teleological direction to their life, as they seek to live in a manner worthy of this calling. It means that if their jobs dissipate, their families desert them, or their health fails, they still have a telos. There’s still a purpose worth pursuing.
That said—there’s another reason for emotional fragility that Brooks just doesn’t fully explain or acknowledge in his story: trauma. For some, emotional fragility is the result of a coddled childhood or lack of personal purpose. For others, it’s the result of a truly troubled past—one that fosters vulnerability and hurt in its wake. Not every member of the “orchid generation” is entitled or privileged. And for these people, our answers must lie beyond “tough it out,” or “make sure you have a telos.”
The solutions we present to such people must be different than the ones currently on offer. An elimination of controversial material or insensitive speech in the name of fostering a “safe space” surely won’t stretch or strengthen the modern student. It will, instead, prevent them from cultivating the necessary virtues and resiliency needed in the harsh and insensitive world that lies beyond the university.
I wish I could ask my grandmother how she conquered the fears and pains of her past. How did she build tenacity despite hardship? While it’s impossible to know what her step-by-step journey looked like, I do believe—through observation and reminiscence—that her faith did play a large role. It offered comfort and love, while also bolstering her and giving her a larger purpose to live for, to fight for.
The cultivation of confidence and common sense were also important: she had dignity and grace, a sense of poise and assuredness that lifted her above the petty and painful. She knew better than to take everything personally: she was more likely to say “oh for pitys’ sake” and move on than to reprimand or take offense.
As Brooks points out, the blows suffered by children in prior generations may have made them tougher—they may have also, however, made them more callous and susceptible to despair. Women like my grandmother, who emerged from the hardships of childhood with combined resiliency and delicacy, are quite rare. It’s hard to remain empathetic and open to others’ hardship, while still managing to steel ourselves against the suffering and disappointments this world is sure to throw at us. Compassionate courage: that’s what we need. But how do we foster it?
It is important to teach students to see the value they hold within themselves: to not consider their own worth too lightly (this is something I’ve explored in writing about sexual assault). But it’s also important to instill in them a love and charity that is willing to overlook and forgive: to show mercy, compassion, and care.
The university is a place where it’s all too easy to get focused on the self. Independent from family constraints or social responsibilities, young adults can throw themselves into personal concern and acclaim without thought. But if we strive to make our collegiate experiences about more than just the self, we can start fostering virtues—and start building a telos—that will give us hope and direction in days to come.
In order to do this, it’s important to seek holistic knowledge, not just a temporally satisfying GPA. College can all too easily become about vocational and career acclaim. And while it’s hard to deny the importance of these in times of economic hardship and instability, the sort of knowledge that will give us a telos extends beyond grade point averages and perfect exam scores. College should be about asking important philosophical questions, and finding the answers through diligent study and consideration. It should be about embarking on a quest for knowledge and discernment, striving to build a healthy understanding of the world—in all its horrors, as well as in all its goods. The university should, true enough, help us develop a vision of the true, the good, and the beautiful: but it should also confront the complexities of sin and suffering head-on, so that we can best consider how to fight them.
Second, it’s important that we do not become too solipsistic in our scholastic pursuits, but rather continue to dedicate time to fellowship and service: seeking to help others, whether through extracurricular pursuits, student life involvement, tutoring, or other forms of mentorship or voluntarism. These things will take our eyes off of ourselves, showing us that our own vulnerabilities or sensitivities may, in fact, be trivial things compared to the difficulties of others. It will give us perspective, and help us cultivate grace.
Finally, college is an ideal time to foster friendship—the sorts of friendships that last a lifetime, not just a semester. All too often, relationships during college fixate on the sexual. But there’s no better time to begin building a collective of soulmates who will foster accountability, camaraderie, and fellowship in days to come—helping provide the emotional and relational rapport necessary to direct and define your telos, helping remove some of that emotional vulnerability you’re likely to experience during college and beyond.
We don’t have to be a Corrie Ten Boom or Louis Zamperini to live tenaciously and well. But examples such as these show us that—even if we’re victims of intense trauma and hardship—it is possible to overcome. We need a telos to undergird our actions and pursuits: a purpose, a hope, that gives us strength despite difficulty. With this, emotional fragility is not eliminated, but instead finds its proper sphere.
TAC commenters are the best commenters. Thank you for all of you who offered thoughtful input and commentary on my last piece regarding the church and declining attendance.
Here are some responses to those comments—because they offered excellent food for thought, and I wanted to give some deeper thought to them. 1,000-or-so-word blog posts aren’t adequate to address the depth and complexity of the issues the U.S. church is facing, and it’s worth considering these issues in greater detail. So without further ado, here’s a look at some of the main objections I received Wednesday:
It’s About Catechesis, Not Community
This is true to some extent: don’t go to a heretical church, even if it’s just across the street. Don’t abandon doctrine or orthodoxy in your efforts to connect with a body of believers. When referring to “denominational difference” in the original piece, I was referring more to minor issues of worship or layout than core doctrinal considerations. If we’re considering two churches that are both Bible-preaching and doctrinally sound, then choosing between them becomes a matter of other, more gray issues: such as location, size, and communal integration.
Because we’re discussing this issue in the public sphere, and because logistics are what people pinpoint as keeping them from church on Sundays, I think it’s important not to simply say, “The right doctrine and sound preaching will keep people in the pews.” It should—that’s true. We would hope that, as one commenter points out, “the Church that preaches repentance and hope” would draw and keep a congregation. It’s about the Gospel, first and foremost.
But if people say that they are “too busy, have a crazy work schedule,” or are “too lazy” to attend church, it could also be that they need physical checks and balances (such as church proximity and member connectedness) to get them out the front door on Sundays. This isn’t unspiritual or belittling of doctrine: it’s an acknowledgment of the sinful proclivities of our nature, and the need for support and accountability.
In her book Got Religion?, Naomi Schaefer Riley considers millennials’ abdication of church (as well as the synagogue and mosque, which have also seen a decline in attendance). Many of the deterrents she pinpoints are social and communal: if a young person’s friends leave the church, they are likely to leave, as well. “When a group of friends who are coreligionists starts to dissipate, the religious observance starts to fall off,” writes Riley. “Practicing a faith does not, on its surface, seem like a team sport. There’s no reason you can’t go to synagogue or church alone. But people don’t.”
Thankfully, this isn’t a temptation for everyone. One commenter said, “We attend a Church that is 40+ miles from our home, passing roughly eight others on our way. It takes up approximately 4-5 hours of any Sunday. It’s where we feel the focus is where it should be and the liturgy is delivered in it’s purest form.”
When you have the conviction and church allegiance necessary to attend church 40 or 50 miles away, that becomes a salutary and acceptable practice. Geographic and logistical concerns are more important for people who find it difficult to “stick” with a church, and need some extra accountability.
This plays into the “communal” aspect of a church, as well. Fruit is important—as so many commenters pointed out, there are a lot of Christian churches out there that have produced bad fruit, and it’s debilitated or decimated the faith of many. But let’s not forget that church isn’t a social club or humanitarian nonprofit: it is, first and foremost, the church. We should not become so focused on the political or social (or geographical) facets of our faith, that we lose sight of the deeper philosophical and theological truths necessary for a church to thrive. “Church shopping” is symptomatic of someone looking for a laundry list of experiences or services that they think it ought to provide. But church is meant to be more serious, more metaphysical than this: church is meant to delve into the deepest subjects, the ones that have to do not just with this world, but with the next.
Don’t Pick On The Megachurches
One commenter said: “Many megachurches actually do the ‘personal, communal’ thing better that smaller churches by having really good small group ministry. Sunday morning becomes a kind of modern version of big, cathedral Christianity with small groups filling the need for smaller, communal groups (many of which are often geographically-centered) during the week.”
I hadn’t thought of it this way: perhaps the “megachurch” is the best evangelical response to an absence of the awe-inspiring beauty and reverent ethos offered by a cathedral. It gives members that sense of collective solidarity, along with an impression of towering greatness and beauty. That said, it seems that without the ancient, embodied rituals of the cathedral, a megachurch cannot offer the same depth and lasting reverence that a cathedral can. It may be able to foster some emotional goods via its inspiring service, but whether these responses will blossom into lasting devotion and discipleship is difficult to know.
It isn’t fair to disparage all megachurches. But there are some interesting findings worth considering for people who want to worship there: the Hartford Institute for Religious Research reports that people who attend megachurches are most often younger, single, wealthier, and have a higher level of education. Most attending a megachurch have been doing so for five years or less, and 45 percent of the church’s members never volunteer. While social and communal outreach programs exist, the Hartford Institute found that these are largely set up to help members “craft unique, customized spiritual experiences” by providing a “multitude of ministry choices and diverse avenues for involvement.”
These words—a “unique, customized spiritual experience”—are symptomatic of, I would argue, one of the biggest problems with modern Christianity. They’re indicative of a consumer church, one that’s set up more like a Build-a-Bear Workshop than as a body of united and serious believers. Members are likely to fall prey to what Rod Dreher has called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”: asking what their church will do for them, how it will appeal to their needs and wants and desires, and not really committing themselves to the truths of the Gospel or the demands of Christ.
In January, Jonathan Aigner shared some of his reasons for disliking megachurch worship services. Focused on the experiential and personal, he said, they do little to foster the unity of their congregants or the longevity of their faith. Worship, he argued, is “about unity, not choice. It’s about Holy Scripture, not self-help. It’s about theology, not experience. It’s about participation, not consumption. It’s about liturgy, not jesusy entertainment.”
A megachurch that accomplishes the former without falling prey to the latter is defying the stereotypes and tendencies of its brand, and will (hopefully) overcome the difficulties of size and potential alienation to build a strong, healthy membership.
The Damage of Scandal
As one commenter put it,
People who call themselves Christians and publicly proclaim their love for the Lamb of God and Prince of Peace and then treat defenseless kids with stern cruelty are not a good advertisement for their beliefs.
People who spend millions of dollars to make themselves more comfortable for an hour or so each Sunday and no money on local people who might need help are not a good advertisement for their beliefs.
People who act as church leaders and commit crimes or cover up for others who commit them are not a good advertisement for their beliefs. … These people either have never read the Sermon on the Mount or, if they have read it, they have rejected it.
This is so true, and such an enormous problem to face. Rod Dreher has written well on this subject before, as he spent a lot of time researching and writing about the Catholic church’s child sex abuse crisis. He knows firsthand how faith-crushing such horrific evil can be.
This is why I did emphasize a loving, serving church in my first post: because we need to see fruit. We need to know that the truth of the Gospel is being acted out, that loving service is happening in the body of Christ. The only way healing can come to those wounded and marred by poor doctrine and cruelty, is by the true, real Gospel being administered to the hurt and wounded.
However, there’s another important point worth mentioning here. No church is perfect, and it’s important that we differentiate between scandalous, evil behavior and the everyday pitfalls and weaknesses of a body that has yet to be sanctified. A worship service that is less than perfect, a message from the pulpit that rubs you the wrong way, a couple of congregants who gossip after church—these are issues that need to be sanctified, but are not necessarily grounds to run away from the church. Here are some thoughts from an article I wrote on this subject a couple years ago:
The truth is, the longer you are part of a church, the more you will begin to notice its dust and dimness, its fake smiles and half hugs. Many have memorized rituals that have no heart or purpose behind them. You will begin to see the church’s flaws, and they may frustrate or even disgust you. But if you seek church (or religious experience) somewhere else—reveling in all its polished “authenticity” and golden sheen—it will not take long before there, too, you will see the fatal flaws, the pretensions. And they may again drive you away, urging you into a “free range” faith that is ever seeking the authentic.
But you can choose to stay and to love this flawed and marred church, still so far from perfection. You can choose to walk amongst the faltering limbs of this body, this ailing bride, because you know that you too are a flawed limb. You know that you, too, have caked makeup over your raw sores, and have attempted to look “normal,” even perhaps “authentic.” You know that you’ve whitewashed your tombs.
Church is not about our perfection or authenticity. There are layers of sin and blindness that we have yet to uncover. But church is about Christ… . It’s about the Gospel. And that truth reaches out to us in our states of inauthenticity, giving us a chance to rise above the facades.
Why aren’t people going to church? It could have more to do with the car drive than with philosophical agnosticism or disillusionment. Emma Green considers a new Pew survey on religious participation and church attendance over at The Atlantic:
While Americans on the whole are still going to church and other worship services less than they used to, many people are actually going more—and those who are skipping out aren’t necessarily doing it for reasons of belief.
… First, people who report going to worship services less frequently now than they used to overwhelmingly say the logistics of getting there are the biggest obstacle. Second, a significant number of people who said they’re not part of any particular religion expressed mistrust of religious institutions, suggesting these organizations’ reputations have something to do with why people are dropping out of public religious participation.
… While it’s easy to empathize with the hassle of trying to wake up and rally kids to go sit still for several hours every Sunday morning, this explanation is interesting for a slightly different reason: It suggests that many people view religious services as optional in a way they might not have in the past. Fifty or 60 years ago, churches, in particular, were a center of social and cultural life in America. For many people, that’s still the case, but the survey suggests that many people may be creating their social lives outside of a religious context—or perhaps forgoing that kind of social connection altogether.
To some degree, these findings are indicative of a society in which churches increasingly sit on the sidelines of cultural life. Geographically, they’re distanced from the actual places where people live and work (a consequence, some might argue, of suburban sprawl or consumer-centric urban planning). Culturally, they’ve grown increasingly segregated from the dominant political and artistic voices of our time. Communally, many churches have invested less in the needy and destitute than in building bigger church buildings or organizing short-term mission trips overseas (not to denigrate international ministry—but it does seem that many churches invest more internationally than they do locally).
It’s also true that people’s lives have become increasingly career-centric: with Americans working more hours than ever before, weekends have become a time to “veg” and relax—not wake up early and drive to church. Sunday is the one day we don’t want to commute or rush out the door in a frenzy.
But there are ways to combat these tendencies—and most of them have to do with where we choose to attend church. Consider these questions:
- Are you more likely to attend a church a half mile from your home—close enough to walk on a cool morning—or a 30-minute drive away?
- In which scenario are you more likely to skip church:
1) There are 700 people there on a given morning, and you’ll never be missed.
2) There are only 100 to 150 people there on a given morning, and you know almost all of them by name.
- Which are you more likely to attend:
1) A church that only offers a Sunday service
2) A church that does various outreach and community activities during the week (not just youth get-togethers and cookouts, but also ministry-geared events like soup kitchens and clothing drives)
My guess is that most people prefer the church that’s closest to them, the church full of familiar faces, and the church that’s eagerly serving its community. People will attend a church that is local, personal, and communal.
People will not attend a church that is distant, giant, and solitary.
Unfortunately, it is often difficult to find a church that fulfills all three of these requirements equally. Depending on where we live and our own personal proclivities and weaknesses, many of us have to determine which of the three above attributes are most important—and most likely to keep us at church.
For those who feel drained and tired on Sunday mornings (not a tendency to be ignored or sneered at in today’s workaholic world), it may be salutary to find a church that is in or extremely close to one’s own neighborhood. If church is less than a couple miles away, it lessens the logistical and personal burden necessary to get from one’s front door to the church pew.
This does mean, however, that the local churchgoer may have to overcome some denominational and personal biases in order to embrace what’s nearby. Many Americans have gotten used to “church shopping,” hopping from pew to pew until they find a congregation that “fits” them best. Unfortunately, this can either disincentivize our church attendance altogether, or put enough miles between us and the church doors to decrease our chances of regular attendance. Committing to the local church requires an ability to overlook these rather consumerist tendencies, choosing a church in spite of its weaknesses.
That said, it could be that the nearest church is a giant megachurch, with thousands of members and four to five services on a given weekend. Stepping in the front doors, you immediately feel like a lost face in the crowd. No one greets you by name; no one knows your children. There may be donuts and artisan coffee in the foyer, but social and emotional connection is scarce.
In this case, it makes sense to move further afield to find a church that is more personal and communal—a space in which members know each other, proffering both fellowship and accountability. Some seem to find great value in the megachurch, arguing that such “seeker churches” have an important mission. But in practice, it seems that a church characterized merely by emotive worship music and a finishing altar call will have little lasting impact on the “seekers” who visit its doors—because there is no potential for lasting, deep fellowship or accountability amidst the sea of faces that drift to and from the worship hall.
A church that is personal should also be communal: focusing its resources and attention not merely inward, but also displaying an eagerness to find and address needs in one’s local community. Many American communities are broken and hurting, dealing with the deleterious effects of poverty, drug use, and family breakdown. This is where the church can and should work—and a church that is deeply involved in its local community will both attract and keep members, because it gives them a purpose beyond mere self-absorption and back-patting.
This is also one of the most powerful ways to combat the widespread distaste for “organized religion” mentioned in the Pew poll and Green’s article: “Among people who were raised religiously and who fell away from religion in adult life, roughly one-fifth said their dislike of organized religion was the reason,” Green writes. “Insofar as the decline in U.S. religious affiliation is an intellectual or philosophical story, it seems to be this: Fewer people are willing to sign on with the rules and reputations of institutions that promote faith.”
“Organized religion” can often connote a corrupt and insensitive institution, a group that is both callous and shady in its everyday work. Many Americans have been hurt by a church or other religious body at some point, and they’ve seen firsthand the damage that results from corrupt leadership or a wayward pastor.
But a church that truly roots itself in its community, loving and serving its neighbors unconditionally, can combat some of these judgments. It can help demonstrate the goods that flow from a religious group that is investing its resources in helping the needy.
Ultimately, a lot will have to change to draw record-breaking numbers back to the church. But combating some of the apathy felt toward America’s churches may be as simple as proffering options that are local, personal, and communal: showing people that the joyful fellowship and service they find at church on Sunday morning is worth getting out of bed for.
If you’ve been disappointed by TV’s latest offerings, there is hope. Netflix’s new eight-episode series, Stranger Things, is an exciting new project that revels in the past, while offering a novel story and splendid characters.
Set in small-town Indiana, Stranger Things chronicles the supernatural, eerie events that unfold following the vanishing of a little boy named Will Byers (Noah Schnapp). After an evening spent playing Dungeons & Dragons with his best friends (an eccentric, nerdy, and delightful band of brothers), Will disappears. As his mother and brother search frantically for him, the town sheriff and his best friends join in. A mysterious girl named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) also turns up, tied somehow to the inexplicable and sinister Department of Energy lab that sits broodingly nearby.
It’s a thriller and 1980s-themed masterpiece, reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s E.T., Richard Donner’s The Goonies, and (more recently) J.J. Abram’s Super 8. Its reverence for 1980s culture and art—especially film, music, books, and games—also reminded me of Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One.
When the Netflix series first came out, Stephen King admitted he was totally addicted. This weekend, my husband and I joined the legions of hooked fans, as we followed the journey of Will’s mother Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) and his faithful cohort of best friends—Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin)—in their quest to find Will. Ryder has (rightly) received an outpouring of accolades for her role: tender yet resolute, strong yet vulnerable. David Harbor’s troubled and brooding sheriff, Jim Hopper, is also fantastic. But without Byers’s trio of friends, the film would fall flat. They add pathos and humor to the film. Without them, it would all too easily become an eerie, depressing horror flick. With them, the film transcends mere spookiness, offering sweetness, tragedy, humor, and delight.
Beyond the (fantastic) acting, this film is made by its nostalgia and attention to detail. It is truly a homage to the 80s: the films, the board games, the music, the clothing, the food, the tv commercials, even the political paranoia (some of the Department of Energy “experiments” referred to in the film actually happened back in the day). Not to mention the wonderful retro fonts, especially the title sequence font. The Duffer brothers carefully, exactingly recreate the world of the 80s, one piece at a time.
But more than these outer accoutrements, this film reflects on a time when kids rode their bikes around town without parental concern, considering the beauty of a small community in which people know each other: where there is a shared history and context undergirding everything. As Mark Steven writes over at Tech Central,
My sense is that, in this instance, the nostalgia runs deeper than form. Stranger Things is nostalgic for a certain kind of filmmaking, certainly, but it is just as attached to something at the very heart of 80s horror: the communal ethos that comes when social outcasts join forces to face off against cosmic evil — the primitive communism of childhood friendship.
Stranger Things reminds us what it was like to have that sense of safety and camaraderie. It reminds us of the communal threads that hold us together, lending context and beauty to our lives. But it also—importantly—hints at that mystery and wonder that also thread their way through childhood, transmitted in fables and films and games. It suggests (as so many other stories have before them) that these tales are not to be taken lightly, but convey something vitally important to the next generation. It’s their attention to tales and lore that help Will’s friends find and save him, in the end.
In the past, I’ve suggested that younger people (especially millennials) crave mystery and enchantment in a largely disenchanted world. If this is true, then Stranger Things is an answer to that longing, and its success is indicative of its resonance. Despite the fact that we roll our eyes at the endless sequels and remakes that fill movie theaters these days, it’s also true that we seek films that offer us this sort of nostalgia. As Todd VanDerWeff put it for Vox, “When we say we want something ‘original,’ what we really mean is that we want something familiar, but just different enough to feel novel.”
But Stranger Things is more than just a “nostalgia fix,” as the New York Times put it in their review. The series hints at our (very human) desire to transmit and preserve a cultural tradition, to reverence and emulate past cultural works and artistic masters. Paying homage to such a “canon” helps us make good art.
In his book Tradition, Josef Pieper wrote that “To hand down does not mean simply to give somebody something, to bring it, to share it, or deliver it. It means rather to deliver something that has previously arrived in your hands, which was consigned to you; to share something that was handed over and handed down; to hand on something that you received—so that it can be received and handed on again.”
Many of the people who watch Stranger Things will not remember the 80s, or associate any fond remembrances with the cultural tokens it offers up. And yet, by watching it, they may feel the same yearning and delight that older generations feel—the same longing for something good, resonant, “classic” in its rhythms. That yearning is a sign, I would argue, of enduring art. It makes the past meaningful and identifiable, while still proffering something new.
“Again and again there are ‘renaissances,’ which attempt programmatically to win back something forgotten or suppressed and to restore it to esteem,” writes Pieper. “Admittedly, the usual result of such ‘rebirths’ is the unintentional creation of something completely new.” Unintentionally or no, the Duffer brothers seem to have achieved this with Stranger Things—and we hope their future seasons of the show will be just as laudable.
To prevent sexual assault, we’re going to need to start teaching consent earlier—much earlier, argues Tovia Smith over at NPR:
Kate Rohdenburg, who runs a violence prevention program in Vermont and New Hampshire called WISE, says even 5- and 6-year-olds can be taught basic principles of boundaries and autonomy.
“Of course, we’re not saying the word ‘autonomous’ to kindergartners,” she explains. “But we talk about who here likes hugs, and some kids raise their hand and some don’t. ‘Well, how are we supposed to know if this person wants a hug when they’re feeling sad or not?’ And kindergartners will tell you that you should ask them.”
… “I think it’s reasonable to think that parents, even when they have babies or toddlers, they start using language like, ‘I’m going to change your diaper now. Is that okay with you?’ ” Rice says. “Obviously it’s OK, but it’s reinforcing the concept of consent really from a very early age.”
There are some good points in Smith’s piece about teaching the consent and politeness to high school students. But the above two points are ridiculous. Asking my baby if it’s alright to change her diaper is not going to educate her on issues of sexual consent, or help her set “boundaries.” Talking to kindergarteners about respecting the space of others is an obvious issue of etiquette, like learning to share toys and use “inside voices.”
The problem with the culture we’ve crafted surrounding sex isn’t ultimately about consent—it’s ultimately, and more deeply, an issue of respect and charity. We don’t need to ask our kids whether they want their diapers changed: we need to teach them about character.
The seeds of sexual assault are going to start young, Smith is right about that. But talking about consent to a kindergartener is not going to solve the problem—because a young man like Brock Turner doesn’t care whether or not a woman gives him consent. He’s already decided that his desires trump the needs or desires of anyone else around him. We need to reach beyond sexual politics, and seek to guide the hearts of our children: teaching them what is right, and stirring in them a desire to do what is good.
When I was a young girl, I remember reading Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Say what you will about the romantic, embellished prose or stereotypical characters—it taught me what it looks like to be a lady, and what it looks like to be a gentleman.
Take, first, the character Rebecca: noble, valiant, stubborn, virtuous. She has self-respect and nobility. When others treat her badly, it doesn’t upend her security or confidence. When she’s threatened by a man who wants to her to become his mistress, she firmly, resolutely tells him “no.” It doesn’t matter what the world thinks or what the consequences might be: she knows what is right. And she has the dignity and courage to pursue that unflinchingly.
Then there’s Ivanhoe: a valiant knight, caring son, loyal lover. He also does what is right, no matter the consequences. Near the end of the book, Ivanhoe seeks to rescue Rebecca from her tormenter and be her champion—even though he’s in love with someone else. This is what a gentleman is: someone who seeks the wellbeing and safety of vulnerable people around him, regardless of whether it’s in his own interests.
Stories like this—be they fairy tales or histories, biographies or novels—foster virtue. They shape our loves and desires, pointing us toward the good. Between a video game such as World of Warcraft—in which violence is promoted and women are portrayed in an objectifying and sexualized way—and the above story, which do you think would encourage boys more toward gentlemanly behavior? Toward seeking the consent and comfort of women they’re attracted to?
Words like “lady” and “gentleman” seem antiquated in today’s society; and it’s true, they’re derived from a time in which gender roles were less fluid and sexual mores were more strict. But I’d argue that ladylike and/or gentlemanly behavior needn’t be consigned to the history books, because these words capture what it means to have a virtuous balance of self-respect and deference, dignity and charity. Being a lady has nothing to do with acting “feminine” or wearing frilly clothing. Being a gentleman has nothing to do with lording one’s might or “manliness” over others—quite the opposite. These words describe a person who prizes their own self-worth and dignity, while also caring deeply for the wellbeing of those around them.
And it’s these two ingredients that—when well-balanced—enable our sexual relationships to be healthy and prosperous. Women need to have the confidence necessary to say “no” when they want to, to be stubborn in pursuing what they know will make them happy. Men need to have dignity and self-worth to see certain acts as evil and abhorrent—to see sexual assault as repulsive and beneath them. At the same time, men need to care deeply for the wellbeing of the women around them. They need to seek their health and happiness, first and foremost. And women, too, must exercise this sort of kindness toward the men in their lives.
This isn’t something that a Youtube video about tea or a discussion about hugs in kindergarten will fix. It’s something that requires regular, thoughtful, intentional investment in a child’s character: seeking to put virtuous role models in his or her life, striving to foster habits of virtue through intentionality and love. It’s about fostering children’s moral imaginations, not just teaching them how to set boundaries or say “yes” and “no.”
Admittedly, this makes things a lot harder: it’s a more three-dimensional response to the issues of sexual assault we’re confronting. But it will give us better long-term solutions to this problem by fostering self-respecting, charitable individuals who seek the good of those around them, no matter the circumstances.
Who to vote for in November? Neither presidential candidate particularly appeals to me. In the past, I’ve been tempted to ignore the presidential race altogether, and focus instead on local elections this fall. Indeed, I still think that’s where my focus should be: there is a lot of work that can and should be done to revitalize our politics at the state and local level.
But if a good argument for either Clinton or Trump is out there, I want to consider it. Thus far, many of the most common arguments I’ve seen for Trump have seemed rather lackluster and unconvincing. I share the top two below, with a third that I take more seriously. If you feel you can trump any of the three (ha), feel free to share in the comments below.
1. “Yeah, Donald Trump has issues—but so does Hillary Clinton.”
When I posted a piece by Michael Brendan Dougherty on Tuesday that pointed out the many concerns voters should have with Donald Trump’s character, my Twitter followers responded en masse with, “Yes—but look at Hillary!” I understand their concerns, but the flaws of the one do not excuse or negate the vices of the other. Or as Dougherty put it, Trump’s character is not the “differentiating factor”—but it is, or at least could be, the “disqualifying factor.”
You are entitled to say, “I find Clinton more offensive. Her email scandal frightens me more than anything Trump’s done. So I’m voting for Trump.” But someone else could easily point to a myriad of controversial or offensive actions and statements by Trump, and say that—because of these things—they’re voting for Clinton. And I can’t blame them.
For me, this vote comes down to some extremely difficult questions:
– Am I willing to overlook the blatant pro-choice past of both Clinton and Trump, in voting for one or the other?
– Do racist, misogynist remarks and past actions on Trump’s part have any bearing on his qualifications for the highest political office in the land? Is he the sort of person I want to be the diplomatic and domestic leader of our country?
– Do the alarming privacy and security stumbles of Clinton have any bearing on her qualifications for the highest political office in the land? Is she the sort of person I want in charge of our national security and military?
At least at this point, my answer is leaning toward “NO” in both cases. Which leads me to the next, all-too-common, argument spilling forth from the Internet…
2. “You have to pick your poison: Trump or Clinton.”
You have to vote for one or the other—to do otherwise is to “throw away” your vote, to automatically cast it for Clinton/Trump (whichever is, in your mind, the worst).
This idea that a presidential debate boils down to a “lesser of two evils” decision makes sense if you adhere to the pilot theory of presidential politics. In sum: there’s going to be a pilot flying the U.S. plane for the next four years, it’s just a question of which you’re going to choose. If you don’t choose one of the two pilots offered, one of them is still going to fly the plane. So why not just pick one?
But what if the vote I cast now matters less for the here and now, and more for a candidate four or eight years down the road?
As David McPherson argued in his piece for First Things about the American Solidarity party, it could be that—instead of “throwing away” our vote—we can be part of a reconfiguration of American party politics, making it loudly and abundantly clear that we refuse to ally ourselves with parties that refuse to look out for our interests or concerns. We can be a vocal minority with a mind to change the current political quagmire—looking to the future, as well as to the present. “If we are to work fully toward the kind of politics we need, we must first break from the political status quo,” McPherson writes.
It could be that, while we do not achieve what we would like in this election cycle, we could help push for more palatable and trustworthy politicians in 2020, 2024, or 2028. And that would be something worth voting for.
But there’s one argument for Trump that makes me question all that.
3. “It’s the Supreme Court, stupid.”
That’s the actual headline of a piece in the Washington Examiner by Hugh Hewitt. He writes,
If Hillary Clinton wins, the Left gavels in a solid, lasting, almost certainly permanent majority on the Supreme Court. Every political issue has a theoretical path to SCOTUS, and only self-imposed judicial restraint has checked the Court’s appetite and reach for two centuries.
That restraint will be gone when HRC’s first appointee is sworn in. Finished.
This is not hyperbole. I have the advantage of having taught Con Law for 20 years, of having argued before very liberal appellate judges like Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the very liberal Ninth Circuit, of practicing with the best litigators in the land, and I know what a very liberal SCOTUS means: conservatism is done. It cannot survive a strong-willed liberal majority on the Supreme Court. Every issue, EVERY issue, will end up there, and the legislatures’ judgments will matter not a bit.
It’s actually one of the better arguments for Donald Trump, in my opinion—though as Matthew Lee Anderson argues at Mere Orthodoxy, there’s no guarantee that Trump would pick a Supreme Court nominee who would make any substantive difference for conservatives. This month, Trump has made it abundantly clear that he doesn’t intend to passively kowtow to the GOP. What makes us think that he will adhere to their recommendations for a Supreme Court nominee, or take into account the wishes of pro-life voters who he has historically ignored or even sided against?
The argument that a Supreme Court nominee matters more than anything else, because it’s a lifetime appointment, does make sense. And it’s true that with Trump, there’s a chance that appointment would be more favorable to conservatives than anything Hillary would come up with. So I need to decide whether that one decision is more important than any other questionable decision—on national security, on domestic or foreign affairs—that could be made by a President Trump over the next four years. And that’s a tough gamble to make.
I don’t believe—can’t believe—that voting is merely a matter of picking your poison. That we are required to vote against our conscience.
“Why is a vote for your ticket not a wasted vote?” one person asked Gary Johnson during CNN’s Libertarian Town Hall last night.
“A wasted vote is a vote for someone you don’t believe in,” Johnson responded. “If we’re going to continue to vote for a lesser of two evils, that’s still evil.”
On the opening night of the Democratic National Convention, speakers and video clips focused a good deal on our children: Michelle Obama spoke of the love she and her husband share for their daughters, and said her support of Hillary Clinton is largely influenced by a concern and care for their future.
A video segment showed children watching Donald Trump on television, making fun of a reporter with a disability. It asked viewers to consider the impact such comments have on American youth. Yesterday, nine grieving mothers gathered on the DNC stage to share how they lost their sons and daughters in “racially charged incidents.”
Yet in all the Democrats’ discussion of children, they are ominously silent about the unborn. As the most pro-choice party in America, they emphasize the autonomy and freedom of the mother, but ignore children in the womb. Hillary Clinton has endorsements from Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice, and America PAC. Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards spoke at the DNC yesterday evening, emphasizing paid family leave alongside women’s right to abortion.
The Democratic platform often feels disjointed: overflowing with compassion and empathy on a plethora of issues—from LGBTQ rights, to paid family leave, to affirmative action, to income inequality—but deathly quiet when it comes to the rights of the unborn, the most powerless and vulnerable of us all.
Yet this silence was also largely present during the Republican National Convention. As Ruth Graham wrote for Slate, “This week’s Republican convention in Cleveland barely tried to pretend that its candidate cares about abortion, sexuality, or God.”
Donald Trump is the man who once described himself as “very pro-choice,” and has yet to demonstrate his alleged change of heart on the abortion issue. “His past positions on abortion and clear lack of interest in the subject, which seems to be reflected in how little the issue has come up at the Convention, is making it difficult for even single issue voters to trust that he is the real deal,” Millennial Journal editor Robert Christian told the Catholic News Agency.
Some expressed hope that Trump’s selection of Mike Pence—a pro-life politician—would reflect a broader pro-life platform in the future. Pence was one of the few to even mention the issue during the RNC, noting in his acceptance speech that “for the sake of the sanctity of life … we must ensure that the next president appointing justices to the Supreme Court is Donald Trump.”
But watching the Republican and Democratic national conventions over the past couple weeks has only emphasized our country’s absence of a strong, vibrant pro-life platform. This, despite the fact that a significant group of Americans label themselves as pro-life, and would say that, if they were to be a one-issue voter, their “one issue” would be abortion.
Because of this, Ben Domenech suggested in June that there could be room in our politics for a third party—a Pro-Life Party—in the U.S. He wrote for The Federalist,
There are effectively no pro-life candidates for the presidency in 2016. Not Hillary Clinton, not Gary Johnson, not Jill Stein, and no, not Donald Trump.
This is a telling moment in the history of the pro-life cause, which has despite long odds retained a strong position in the American political fray in the 43 years since Roe v. Wade. For decades, the pro-life litmus test has been something Republican politicians with national aspirations had to pass, and pass convincingly. Failure to do so helped doom the presidential hopes of Rudy Giuliani and other candidates deemed too weak on the issue, and as recently as 2008 and 2012, Mitt Romney had to repeatedly beat back opposition borne from his earlier support for abortion.
The Trump nomination changes that. His judicial nominations may be acceptable to pro-lifers, but the only presidential candidate in American history on record as urging his past girlfriend to abort his unborn daughter is most certainly not pro-life. His personal evolution on the issue is nonexistent—he has not even bothered to pander to those who oppose abortion on demand by pretending to oppose taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood. Coupled with his desire to weaken the GOP platform on the issue and the clear weakness of national Republicans on issues of importance to abortion opponents in recent years, Trump’s nomination is a clear indication that Republican politicians no longer need to even pretend that the pro-life cause is a priority in their agenda.
… The pro-life movement today has been successful by many measures at the state level, but its Washington, DC-based incarnations have been too willing at times to give the Republican Party a pass. Pro-life Americans are already completely ignored by the Democratic Party, thanks to the great sort that has pushed them out of the coalition. Now they are being ignored by the Republicans as well.
This creates an opening for a third party that would follow in a different tradition from Libertarians or Greens. Instead, it would hold to the old-fashioned approach to third party efforts: an agenda that is unified around a single issue, and otherwise open to a wide degree of differentiation among candidates on every unrelated issue.
Domenech goes on to parse what such a party would like, practically, and what it might achieve. “The point of transforming this cause into a single issue party would be to reassert the importance of the pro-life agenda after decades of it being a low priority for politicians,” he writes. “It would also be an attempt to undo the great sort that has led pro-lifers into a monopartisan alliance with Republicans, an alliance that has produced little good in the past three decades.”
The absence of any vibrant, winsome pro-life politician on our national stages over the past couple weeks reveals a stark disconnect between the interests of national politicians and the passions and principles of their base. Their emphasis on our “children”—whether the children of Donald Trump or Michelle Obama, the children watching Trump, or children struggling with disabilities—has seemed ironic and saddening, as those of us who care about the pro-life issue look toward November with frustration. We need a party that acknowledges this disconnect, and addresses it.
As Corey Booker put it during his speech at the DNC, “Love—love knows that every American has worth and value, no matter what their background, race, religion, or sexual orientation.”
Perhaps we should add that “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”
Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly called Robert Christian the editor of Millennial magazine.
The future of Christianity in the U.S. is looking bleak, if current Pew polls and trends are accurate. As Rod Dreher referenced in a recent blog post, millennials are more likely to reject religious labels or affiliations than any other generational cohort—and even those who call themselves Christians are, in Dreher’s words, “shockingly illiterate, both in terms of what the Bible says and more generally regarding what Christianity teaches.” He quotes the late blogger Michael Spencer, who argued the following in 2009:
We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we’ve spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.
Is Christian faith simply doomed to dissipate and die among America’s young people, or is there something we can do to reverse this trend?
As a millennial myself, this is something I’m putting a lot of thought and consideration into. And while—considering I can never speak for the entire millennial cohort—the following prescriptions are neither comprehensive nor foolproof, I think they might be useful in fighting … perhaps even reversing … the trends we are seeing today. I offer them up for the consideration of my peers, and for the consideration of those who work in religious ministries and/or outreach.
1. Appeal to the Past
In his excellent new book You Are What You Love (full review coming soon!), author and Comment editor James K.A. Smith describes the stereotypical youth group one is likely to encounter in most churches throughout the U.S.:
You walk into a kind of loft space that combines various elements of an arcade, a coffee shop, a dance club, and a family rec room. The room is dripping with energy, an unrelenting sense of scripted happiness that is synonymous with being ‘upbeat’—even while trying to communicate that this is a place where young people can ‘chill.’ … A raucous band takes center stage, a routine widely familiar from concerts and music clubs. The band leads the group through a rousing set of triumphant praise songs and then into a quiet set of introspective, heartfelt, eyes-closed, hands-raised meditations.
… Having been fed a vaguely biblical message, though in a more palatable package—kind of like choking down medicine hidden inside a piece of candy—the young people are dismissed with promises of more fun next week.
You wouldn’t know it, but the entire ‘program’ we’ve just witnessed is designed by fear—not for fear, by fear. It is the creation of a generation of parents and adults who are terrified that their children—the proverbial next generation—will leave the church and leave the faith. … But we need to face a sobering reality: keeping young people entertained in our church buildings is not at all synonymous with forming them as dynamic members of the body of Christ.
Smith is right. In this “chill” yet “upbeat” space, young people sense they’re being catered and acquiesced to. They sense that the adults are trying to make the Bible more palatable and interesting to them—which implies that it isn’t all that palatable and interesting on its own. Meanwhile, the youth group’s layout and ethos reinforce pop-cultural messages about the self, community, and consumerism. It’s reminding kids that the real purpose of life (at least life when you’re young) is to have fun, enjoy your friends, and not take things too seriously. Thus, by extension, it suggests to them that they shouldn’t take God all that seriously, either.
In practice, this sort of messaging distances youth from the church, rather than drawing them to it. It reinforces secular messages rather than fighting them.
This is why, Smith argues, we should look backwards to the historic rhythms and rituals of the Christian faith, and work to break down the progressive and anti-traditional messages of the modern youth ministry. “In my experience, many young people are intensely ritual animals without realizing it,” he writes. “And when they are introduced to the habit-forming practices of Christian faith, invited into ways of following Jesus that are ancient and tested, their faith is given a second life.” In order to fight the addictive trappings and messages of our secular world, we need to “re-enchant” the church in the minds and hearts of millennials.
The idea of enchantment is quite common in the history of Christian thought (read G.K. Chesterton and you’ll see the wonder and beauty of it). But I’ve especially appreciated Richard Beck’s recent blog posts (over at his blog Experimental Theology) on the subject, as they break down the disenchanted world we currently live in, and suggest a myriad of ways in which we can “re-enchant” our faith, and thus our world.
In yesterday’s post on the subject, Beck suggests the following: “Life demands … a hallowing that pulls us out of the entertainments and consumptions of capitalistic culture. We want more from life than fun. We want life to be holy. We want life to be sacred. And it is this demand for holiness that makes us human.”
In this series, Beck has suggested that “We are disenchanted with living in a disenchanted world.” And it is this disenchantment I’ve recognized among many of my peers. When I wrote “Why Millennials Long for Liturgy” in February 2014, Lee Nelson, co-chair of the Catechesis Taskforce of the Anglican Church of North America, told me he believes a sacramental hunger lies at the heart of many millennials. “We are highly wired to be experiential,” he said. In the midst of our consumer culture, young people “ache for sacramentality.”
“If you ask me why kids are going high church, I’d say it’s because the single greatest threat to our generation and to young people nowadays is the deprivation of meaning in our lives,” a Greek Orthodox convert told me. “In the liturgical space, everything becomes meaningful. … We’re so thirsty for meaning that goes deeper, that can speak to our entire lives, hearts, and wallets, that we’re really thirsty to be attached to the earth and to each other and to God. The liturgy is a historical way in which that happens.”
As an evangelical reader told Rod Dreher in 2013,
I believe that Millennials are looking for someone to tell them the hard truths that they have long suspected were there. So if it looks like young people are flocking to ancient faith, it’s probably because they are searching for a faith that has foundation. I believe that nondenominational churches tend to disappear because they are just islands in history. When you are disconnected from the historical Church, you are pretty much guaranteeing your own demise. Churches with no past are churches with no future and if evangelicalism is going to survive, it desperately needs to learn the story of the Church. It needs to reconnect itself to history, to the traditions of thousands of years of prayer and worship and teaching and music.
In order to keep millennials in the church—or invite them back into it—we must re-enchant our faith. We must not offer them a copycat, religious replica of pop culture rituals, but rather an ancient, deeply meaningful faith that rescues them from the meaninglessness and disenchantment they sense all around them.
2. Appeal to Their Hungers
Another important argument in Smith’s book is that faith isn’t caught or kept through head knowledge (at least not by itself). Faith is transmitted and bolstered through daily, tangible habits that form our desires. We are, after all, physical beings—and a church that falls prey to gnosticism will find itself ill-suited to counter our culture’s potent consumerist ideology. Thus, we must not just appeal to millennials’ heads: we must appeal to their “gut” as well, to the hungers and desires that form and guide their hearts.
This is done in the church, through the cadences of worship, prayer, communion. But it can also be transmitted, powerfully, through the outreach and fellowship we offer.
In his book A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken speaks of a ritual he and his wife began when he was a professor: they would invite his students to come over in the evenings to discuss religion and philosophy—around food, drink, and the comforts of home. The students gravitated to the Vanauken’s home as a tangible place of refuge. They craved comfort, human fellowship, good food. In the Vanauken’s home, these embodied, physical trappings lent winsomeness to the message of Christian faith.
In order to reach young people we need to resurrect the art of hospitality, and understand the importance of breaking bread with others in order to show them the truth of the gospel. This is one way we “re-enchant” the world; it’s also a vital way in which we assuage the “sacramental hunger” of millennials.
Orthodox convert Jesse Cone told me in 2014 that, while reading through the book of John with friends, he began to notice the “conversational and sacramental” way Jesus related to people. “There’s a lot of bread, and wine, and water,” he says. From Jesus’s first miracle—turning water into wine—to telling his disciples “I am the True Vine,” the mundane, communal ways in which in which Jesus connected with people “confirmed in me a sense of sacramentalism—that everyday aspects of life are important, in a way the modern mindset doesn’t share,” Cone says. “I started looking at the world with more sacramental eyes.”
The Christian message does not fixate on the metaphysical and spiritual to the detriment of physical, embodied hungers. In fact, it redeems the body and its desires. From the giving of manna to the wedding feast of the Lamb in Revelation, Scripture is resplendent with the potent imagery of food and drink, hospitality and fellowship. The gospel needn’t be reserved to pulpits on Sunday mornings. It can—and must—be shared over big bowls of stew and crusty bread on dark wintry nights, or alongside a large mug of steaming coffee and fresh cookies, or in the laughter and joy of a late-night movie and bowls of buttery popcorn. This is how we show people the joy and love that bubbles up from a faith that is incarnate, tangible, embodied, and “enchanted.”
3. Appeal to Their Minds
All that said: millennials need to understand how the Christian faith responds to their fears, doubts, and questions. We live, after all, in an exceedingly uncertain and troubled world. We’re surrounding by faiths that result in decay, death, and despair. Fundamentalist creeds and cults have ravaged and torn apart human community, sowing seeds of death and anger. We need thoughtful Christians—the G.K. Chestertons and C.S. Lewises of modern Christianity—to reach and reason, to share their perspectives on how and why Christianity offers a balm and alternative to hate and horror, as well as to relativism and moral confusion.
We need to show millennials why moral absolutes exist and cannot be ignored. We need to offer them a faith that illuminates good and evil, truth and falsehood—without the totalitarian, hateful tendencies of other religions they may be familiar with. Many “nones” in the millennial generation associate Christianity with a distasteful relative, friend, or acquaintance with whom they associate a degree of backwardness or vice. Perhaps they have an uncle who stocks his basement with canned goods and assault weapons, spewing angry, condemnatory statements about the government, the culture, and anyone who disagrees with their version of life and faith.
As a church friend once told me, the life of a seed depends entirely on its soil. And if the soil millennials are immersed in only serves to castigate and condemn Christianity, any words offered regarding the faith will choke. This can be true of a young adult immersed in a vehemently atheist family, social group, or institution; it can also be true of a young adult who finds herself in the noxious and repellent soil of fundamentalist or rancorous Christians (or other religious faiths). She is likely to transplant herself as far away from that soil and its influences as she possibly can—and unfortunately, is likely to associate any religious faith she encounters with the radicalized, bellicose messages of her youth.
Thus, the words and arguments we share for Christianity 1) must be rooted in good “soil,” as mentioned above, and 2) must be well thought out, reasonable, winsome—offering answers to the manifold doubts and frustrations young people have today. For the questions we cannot answer well, it’s good to have a solid repertoire of reading material on hand. You may not be able to answer a young person’s question about evil—but perhaps G.K. Chesterton or Henri Nouwen or Timothy Keller can.
4. Appeal by Example
In her book Got Religion?, Naomi Schaefer Riley considers millennials’ abdication of church (as well as the synagogue and mosque, which have also seen a decline in attendance). Many of the deterrents she pinpoints are social and communal: if a young person’s friends leave the church, they are likely to leave, as well. “When a group of friends who are coreligionists starts to dissipate, the religious observance starts to fall off,” writes Riley. “Practicing a faith does not, on its surface, seem like a team sport. There’s no reason you can’t go to synagogue or church alone. But people don’t.”
Many young people have grown up outside a two-parent family, grappling with the effect that divorce or single parenthood might have had on their conceptions of stability and security.
But the church, throughout Scripture, is referred to as “the bride of Christ.” Marriage is meant to be a reflection of “the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church.” It’s also meant to remind us of the communion at the very center of the gospel: the relationship between the members of the Trinity, the love offered to us in Christ, the eternal community we’re offered through his death and resurrection. Thus, this shift in our understanding of marriage, the family, and community impacts youths’ ability to build a proper relationship with the church: they view church, and God, through the same eyes with which they view secular marriages and families.
But our world is increasingly chaotic and polarized. Whether it’s haunting violence and shootings in our cities and towns, the graphic horrors of global terrorism, or families falling apart and fraying at the edges, millennials are seeing whatever was once concrete and simple in their lives fall apart. In this world, messages of narcissistic consumerism and independence will begin to lose their sheen.
As a result, we need to offer millennials the security and comfort of homes, family, community. The world cannot offer these things. But we—members of the church, no matter our denomination or creed—can. By God’s grace, we can offer stable marriages, happy homes, strong families, rituals of togetherness and hope. We can invite disillusioned young people into these communities, and let them know there is always a place for them in our homes and at our tables. By example and inclusiveness, we can give them rest, nourishment, and hope.
5. Appeal With Joy
We live in a time fraught with insecurity, tragedy, and loss. And yet, at the same time, most millennials I know are obsessed with the search for beauty. Their aesthetic sense is strong, and they are always seeking the silver lining in life. It’s why, I think, they’re drawn to games such as Pokémon Go; why they watch reruns of their favorite childhood shows; why they love to travel to new and beautiful places; why they so carefully stage and filter their Instagram photos.
They are seeking re-enchantment. They are seeking the materialization of a longing that they just can’t quite put their finger on. They want their dreams, their fairy tales, their favorite pieces of nostalgia to find embodiment; they want to recapture the incandescent wonder of their childhoods.
This desire reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s classic consideration of “joy” in his autobiography, Surprised By Joy. He describes the first moment it hit him—”a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? … before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased.”
This “desire”—a yearning that fades almost as soon as it is felt—kept popping up along the narrative of Lewis’s life. He kept wondering where it came from, and how to find it again, how to fulfill that deep, blissful yearning. But no matter how he pursued this “joy,” it would reply, “It is not I. I am only a reminder. Look! Look! What do I remind you of?” These moments, Lewis says, are like signs along a road, “pointer[s] to something outer and outer.”
Finally, after he became a Christian, Lewis found the answer: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
When I read this as a teenager, I felt my heart say, “YES. This is what I’ve been trying to tell you. This makes sense of all the longings of your heart.”
Perhaps I was lucky to read this when I did—it probably helped me hold onto my faith, helped me associate the yearnings of my body and spirit with deeper religious truths that gave it meaning, history, and context.
But other millennials need this. They need to understand that a hipster love of vintage items, bohemian zest for travel, nature, and aesthetic beauty, youthful desire for peace, love, tolerance, kindness, and joy—all these things make sense when you view the world as enchanted, and view our lives as a quest for “joy” and its actualization. It means that every material desire that goes unfulfilled is a hint, a taste, even a portkey of sorts offering to usher us into a more enchanted, divinely inhabited reality.
“Parenting” should never have become a verb, Alison Gopnik argues in an article for the Wall Street Journal.
“After all, to be a wife is not to engage in ‘wifing,’ to be a friend is not to ‘friend,’ even on Facebook, and we don’t ‘child’ our mothers and fathers,” she writes. Yet, alas, we’ve turned “being a parent” into “parenting” as our understanding of the vocation has changed. Gopnik suggests that, because many modern parents start having children after they’ve pursued higher education and a career, their lens on childrearing is changed. They approach their offspring with a task-oriented mindset. They think of themselves as carpenters, she says, and treat their children like chairs to be built, maintained, and polished.
“The promise of ‘parenting’ is that there is some set of techniques, some particular expertise, that parents could acquire that would help them accomplish the goal of shaping their children’s lives,” Gopnik says. But this promise gives parents a dangerously flawed impression both of their children, and of their role as parents. Rather, Gopnik suggests that “caring for children is like tending a garden, and being a parent is like being a gardener”:
When we garden, we work and sweat and we’re often up to our ears in manure. We do it to create a protected and nurturing space for plants to flourish.
As all gardeners know, nothing works out the way we planned. The greatest pleasures and triumphs, as well as disasters, are unexpected. There is a deeper reason behind this.
A good garden, like any good ecosystem, is dynamic, variable and resilient. Consider what it takes to create a meadow or a hedgerow or a cottage garden. The glory of a meadow is its messiness: The different grasses and flowers may flourish or perish as circumstances alter, and there is no guarantee that any individual plant will become the tallest, or fairest or most long-blooming. The good gardener works to create fertile soil that can sustain a whole ecosystem of different plants with different strengths and beauties—and with different weaknesses and difficulties, too.
Perhaps the simplest and most profound reason this metaphor works is that children are living things, not objects. The more we see them as projects, inanimate or vacuous “things” we can control, the more flawed and potentially dangerous our attempts to raise them.
But when we understand that children are live, sentient, unique souls—with autonomy, with creativity, with passion and character and dynamism—we see them truly, and raise them differently. Because—as any gardener will tell you—caring for a garden requires humility and patience. We must recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each plant, and understand that no one approach will work with all of them.
This summer, I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s excellent book about gardening, Second Nature, and read a passage yesterday that fits in beautifully with Gopnik’s gardening allegory:
The more common varieties of garden failure … I divide into failures of under- and overcultivation. … Failures of undercultivation usually indicate that the gardener has been reluctant to alter the landscape to the extent his plants require; he has not sufficiently tamed nature. Perhaps because of his romantic notions about animals or weeds, he didn’t do enough to protect his plants from their incursions. Or he assumed the soil in its unimproved state was adequate to the needs of his trees or tomatoes.
… Of course the gardener can push nature too far, and when that happens, he is prone to … failures of overcultivation. The gardener who uses large quantities of fertilizer to coax quick growth from his plants will find them more susceptible to insects and disease. If he adopts an inflexible line on insects, he’s apt to spray so much pesticide that he deadens his soil; the bugs are gone, but suddenly nothing seems to grow very well. Plants healthy only to the extent they are wild—‘able to collaborate with earth, air, light, and water in the way common to plants before humans walked the earth,’ in Wendell Berry’s sensible definition. When cultivation is too intensive it compromises wildness and thereby courts failure.
… The green thumb is the gardener who can nimbly walk the line between the dangers of over- and undercultivation, between pushing nature too far and giving her too much ground. His garden is a place where her ways and his designs are brought gracefully into alignment. To occupy such a middle ground is not easy—the temptation is always to either take complete control or relinquish it altogether, to invoke your own considerable (but in the end overrated) power or to bend to nature’s.
The above seemed like a perfect description of the extreme dangers most parents are prone to: the excesses of helicopter parenting on the one hand, and the defects of heedless or even neglectful parenting on the other hand. The one threatens to choke out the life, autonomy, and freedom of the plant; the other leaves it susceptible to all sorts of soul-crushing weeds, pests, and dryness.
Yet between these two extremes, there is beautiful flexibility and diversity. Every plant and every gardener is unique. As our seedlings grow, they take on their own unique shapes, proclivities, desires. A rose and a carrot need completely different styles of care and attentiveness. The parent, like the gardener, must learn to see these differences as their children grow, learning to be attentive to the needs of their disparate differences, strengths, and weaknesses. Learning when to be firm and supportive, when to let go and allow a child to spread his or her wings … there are times and ways in which to do this, and it will look different with every family, as well as with every child.
Every parent’s garden is going to look a little different—and as long as it doesn’t fall prey to the types of excess and defect described above, that’s okay. Some gardeners prefer wildflower gardens, bushy and lush and very laissez faire; others cultivate manicured English gardens, with carefully trimmed shrubs and thoughtful, shapely plants. Each are beautiful, in their way.
Similarly, the fights parents often have regarding birth preferences (natural or epidural?), the care of infants (cloth diapers vs. Pampers, cheerios vs. gluten free, swaddling vs. no swaddling?), the education of their children (public school vs. private vs. homeschooling vs. unschooling?), and discipline (spanking vs. timeouts vs. grounding vs. no punishments?) are all, when done within moderation and for the good of their children, good and fine. The methods may raise different children—but there is beauty in diversity. Gopnik agrees with me on this point: “Should you co-sleep with your babies or let them cry it out? Should strollers face front or back? How much homework should children have? How much time should they spend on the computer? There is almost no evidence that any of this has much predictable effect on what children will be like when they grow up.”
There are some things every parent-gardener must do. They must care for the soil surrounding their plants (fostering a home environment that is safe, nurturing, supportive, and healthy). They must prune and weed around their plants (promoting healthy discipline and fostering social and educational atmospheres that help, not hurt, their children). They must water their plants (providing verbal, physical, and emotional cues that encourage their children and let them know they are loved).
If you’re doing these things, it’s likely your plants (a.k.a. kids) will flourish. They may turn out differently than you might expect—but as any gardener will tell you, just because you thought you’d planted a gardenia doesn’t mean you’ll be disappointed when it turns out to be a rhododendron. Each plant is gorgeous, sweet, and awe-inspiring in its way.
Gracy Olmstead is senior staff writer for The American Conservative.
How do we save America’s dying towns? This is a question of increasing importance in today’s society: though some U.S. cities (such as Detroit) have experienced upheaval over the past several years, it’s post-industrial and rural towns that seem to be suffering most. Binyamin Applebaum illuminates many of these struggles in a July 4 New York Times story about a former factory town that’s fallen into decay:
Thirty years have passed, almost to the day, since the last blasts of the steel furnaces that were the reason for this city’s existence. The steel mill is gone — used to film “RoboCop,” then demolished. Most of the people are gone, too, and those who remain are struggling to find a new purpose for this place.
Last week, Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, came here to declare that as president, he would revive the fortunes of the American steel industry — and, by implication, Monessen.
“We are going to put American-produced steel back into the backbone of our country,” Mr. Trump told 200 invited guests at an aluminum recycling facility that occupies part of the old mill complex. “This alone will create massive numbers of jobs.”
In fact, about 71 percent of the steel used last year in the United States was made in the United States, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute. The mills in Monessen and other cities along the Monongahela River were not replaced by Chinese factories but by smaller, more efficient factories in other parts of the country.
Having lived through that transition, the people here surrendered hope of a Trump-like revival long ago.
But that hasn’t stopped other similar towns from rallying behind Trump, in hopes that the nostalgic dream he presents of revivified commerce may, in fact, come true. J.D. Vance notes for The Atlantic that many of these places have been trampled, broken, and disenchanted: “A common thread among Trump’s faithful, even among those whose individual circumstances remain unspoiled, is that they hail from broken communities.” He continues,
These are places where good jobs are impossible to come by. Where people have lost their faith and abandoned the churches of their parents and grandparents. Where the death rates of poor white people go up even as the death rates of all other groups go down. Where too many young people spend their days stoned instead of working and learning. … There is no group of people hurtling more quickly to social decay. No group of people fears the future more, dies with such frequency from heroin, and exposes its children to such significant domestic chaos.
This is something Kevin D. Williamson has written about for National Review in the past. He’s noted the “welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy” pulling these communities apart. “The culture of the white underclass in America is horrifying,” he says. “It’s brutal. And its products are obvious.”
Is this just the way America is going to progress (or more accurately, fall apart) in the next decade—or is there some way to breathe a vision and telos back into crumbling buildings and deserted downtowns?
Trump’s popularity stems from nostalgia for the strong blue-collar community of yesteryear. But in his excellent new book The Fractured Republic, Yuval Levin points out that putting one’s hopes in reviving the past is romantic at best—disastrous at worst. “Whatever the argument being advanced about America’s challenges in our politics in recent years, it is a pretty good bet that it has been rooted in an understanding of [a] lost era of American greatness,” he writes. For Democrats, it’s the Great Society years in 1960s America. For Republicans, it’s the golden years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. But regardless, Levin argues, people “are focused less on how we can build economic, cultural, and social capital in the twenty-first century than on how we can recover the capital we have used up.” And that presents some very considerable problems for towns like Monessen or Middletown.
Levin suggests that we need “a modernized ethic of subsidiarity,” which would bring “incremental revival” to America’s broken communities. In a Tocquevillian appeal to the importance of local, mediating institutions, he suggests that deconsolidation and federalism would add substance and telos to the hollowed-out towns filling our country. “A decentralized approach to social and economic policy would not only recognize the limits of our knowledge but also speak to the particular problems we now confront,” he writes. “It embodies not just an epistemic humility but also a commitment to subsidiarity—to empowering institutions at different levels of our society to address those problems for which they are best suited.”
But what sorts of institutions could possibly breathe life back into these communities? Here are a few Levin lists: families, schools, churches, local civic groups, nonprofits, charities, fraternal groups, and unions. Local libraries and community colleges can also play significant roles, and many local businesses have an institutional impact on their communities.
Levin’s overarching point, one that can’t be emphasized enough, is that nostalgia for midcentury America’s admitted strengths will not save the towns now suffering from a collapse of economic and cultural capital. Rather, an honest and clear-eyed understanding of the post-industrial trends rocking our nation—along with a healthy appreciation of the diversity and localism sprouting in their wake—will help us move forward in a healthy way.
We must also note the toll “brain drain”—especially brain drain of the young—has had on these communities. Something must be done to draw them back, if we want rural towns to survive. In a recent story for The Atlantic, author Alana Semuels writes, “Kids and grandkids move to the cities, coming back on holidays, inheriting their parents’ homes and leaving them empty, wondering what will happen to the towns their parents say used to thrive.”
Part of the problem seems to be a generational disconnect, re: what makes a place livable and appealing. As Applebaum notes in his New York Times piece, “[Monessen’s] younger residents are frustrated that the older generation still dreams of factories. They want to replace some of the old mills with waterfront homes and restaurants. They would like to see the city and the river meet, instead of being almost entirely separated by the old industrial strip.”
The suggestions made above are not radical—they actually seem to echo the work of New Urbanists (chronicled and considered at length here at TAC on our New Urbs blog). This vision attunes itself to pre-World War II urban development, eschewing some of the excesses of midcentury America (the time that most baby boomers in these communities are pining away for). It calls for greater walkability, mixed-use neighborhoods, and vibrant parks and city squares where people can congregate, as well as a renovation and preservation of (as opposed to demolishing and replacing) the old buildings and blocks that make up historic districts and downtowns. These are just some of the puzzle pieces that fit into a larger New Urbanist blueprint for revitalizing America’s cities.
But in Monessen, these young people haven’t made much leeway, says Applebaum: “Mr. Mavrakis, the mayor, has little patience for these dreams. A blunt and forceful man who spent much of his life as a union organizer, he would like to demolish much of the remaining downtown and offer the land for new development.”
Emphasizing the historic and human-scale neighborhood may take some time to catch on. But trying to spread this vision will help knit together some of the fraying threads that are damaging U.S. towns and communities. Good urban planning will not, by itself, redeem a dying factory town. But it may help stimulate and foster the other important strands of community growth necessary for a flourishing place.
There are other ways we can consider saving America’s towns. One I have been mulling over lately is the role wealthy individuals can play by boosting local commerce via their patronage (providing microloans, sponsoring vocational programs, providing grants and endowments, et cetera). I also wonder what recent trends and changes in agriculture might do to boost commerce and congregation in small towns and cities.
One thing’s for certain: there’s no cure-all, no single way to transform and resurrect towns like Monessen. And the belief that a presidential candidate (be he orange-haired or socialist) can solve all our societal ills will only serve to exacerbate the problems we face. As Vance puts it,
The great tragedy is that many of the problems Trump identifies are real, and so many of the hurts he exploits demand serious thought and measured action—from governments, yes, but also from community leaders and individuals. Yet so long as people rely on that quick high, so long as wolves point their fingers at everyone but themselves, the nation delays a necessary reckoning. There is no self-reflection in the midst of a false euphoria. Trump is cultural heroin. He makes some feel better for a bit. But he cannot fix what ails them, and one day they’ll realize it.
This isn’t my body.
The first time I thought these words was at eight weeks pregnant, when we had our first ultrasound. We got to hear our baby’s heartbeat and see her tiny form for the first time. I cried, with relief as well as joy, because I could feel this baby’s existence.
The feeling intensified each time I heard her heartbeat at the doctor’s office, each time I felt her flutters and kicks and jostling as she grew. Amid the queasiness and exhaustion and annoyance with ill-fitting clothes, I would pause and remember that there was a human being inside me. The way I lived on a daily basis began to shift: I went to bed early—but not for myself. I rested, ate healthy, and tried not to push too hard in order to nurture the life inside me.
This slowly built a re-imagining of my body as a vessel, and not my own. My body began to seem more like a shell, a sustaining cocoon, rather than something that was “mine.” It was a strange, yet wonderful sense of emptying and humbling.
Then came childbirth: with the pangs that felt as if they would tear me apart. But here, too, I felt an assurance that my body was doing what it ought to do: serving, loving, giving of itself in order to bring a new and precious life into the world. And despite all my misgivings, it performed the task—and healed, and repaired itself—in a miraculous way. As a nursing mom, I learned that even post-birth, my body was a vessel, continuing to nurture and provide life for the child it had grown. My physical and emotional self was tied inextricably to this vulnerable little life—committed to the well-being of a soul not my own.
Over the last year and a half, I’ve begun to realize that this is, really, the struggle and essence of the pro-life movement: to comprehend and appreciate the souls around us, to be as aware and cognizant of their existence as we are of our own, to sacrifice our own comfort and pleasure in order to nurture the life and well-being of others. It has prompted me to ask the question: do I treat the existence, the individuality, and the essence of other people with the same sort of grateful awe I showed my unborn baby?
These thoughts have been particularly on my mind in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision regarding Texas’s HB2 law, a measure that attempted to create further restrictions on abortion clinics throughout the state. While some say HB2 was meant to bring greater safety to the women visiting clinics, most pro-choice advocates saw it as a snare meant to close as many abortion clinics as possible, creating (as Mother Jones put it) “a crisis in abortion access.” Says Vox,
Under the landmark 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, which upheld Roe v. Wade but weakened its legal standards, states were allowed to pass laws designed to convince women to change their mind about having an abortion. But, crucially, those laws couldn’t actually stand in women’s ways and present an “undue burden” to accessing the procedure.
“In our view, the record contains sufficient evidence that the admitting-privileges requirement led to the closure of half of Texas’ clinics, or thereabouts,” the majority opinion read. “Those closures meant fewer doctors, longer waiting times, and increased crowding.” … As Ruth Bader Ginsburg put it in her concurring opinion, “It is beyond rational belief that H. B. 2 could genuinely protect the health of women.”
Though HB2 would likely have been overturned even with his presence, Justice Antonin Scalia’s absence was sorely felt: “The outcome would almost surely had been 5 to 4 had Justice Antonin Scalia not died in February, and in his dissent, Thomas quoted his friend,” noted Robert Barnes for the Washington Post. “Monday’s decision ‘exemplifies the court’s troubling tendency “to bend the rules when any effort to limit abortion, or even to speak in opposition to abortion, is at issue,”‘ Thomas wrote.”
The response from pro-choice advocates has been loud and victorious, while at times also horribly insensitive. In a statement released by the White House, Obama said he was “pleased to see the Supreme Court protect women’s rights and health today. These restrictions harm women’s health and place an unconstitutional obstacle in the path of a woman’s reproductive freedom.” He added that he believes in protecting a woman’s “right to determine her own future.”
This is your body, says the culture.
In a thoughtful piece for TAC on the decision, Robert VerBruggen acknowledges that “Unless and until the Supreme Court’s balance tips, that [pro-life] side has remarkably few avenues through which to pursue its agenda—especially now that the most promising avenue has been closed.”
I wonder, however, whether HB2’s avenue for furthering the pro-life agenda is (or was) indeed the most promising. I believe the people who advocated for HB2 cared about women’s health, and hoped their measures would indeed protect them. After the horrific case of Kermit Gosnell, it should be abundantly clear that high standards are vital to the health and safety of the women who frequent abortion clinics. But it’s also true that most pro-life advocates wouldn’t mind Texas abortion clinics closing and becoming harder to access. Because remember, in our minds, every abortion = a life lost.
By focusing primarily on the women’s-health argument, and not also on the “fetus = baby” argument, we end up destroying our own efforts. Because pro-choice advocates can point to HB2 and say, “These measures are meant to protect women’s health, but they’re making clinics harder to access, and thus they’re not protecting women’s health. There, you see?”
We live in the age of hookup culture and casual sex—yet we’ve also seen TV shows like Jane the Virgin and films like Juno present a case for carrying unexpected, unwanted babies to term. Our culture keeps telling people (men as well as women) they can “do what they want” with their bodies—have sex whenever they want, use or not use birth control as they will, abort the unborn children resulting from the aforementioned decisions whenever they want. This is why we need to direct our energies toward the dominant cultural narrative, and craft our own winsome, thoughtful, truthful rebuttals.
Unless we can begin to shift attitudes on this issue at a cultural level, it will become increasingly difficult to make advances on a political level. As long as the idea that “I can do what I want with my body” dominates our discourse, it will be difficult (if not impossible) to see the pro-life movement truly gain ground. Because being pro-life—in a thorough, unequivocal, passionate way—means acknowledging the personal cost and sacrifice involved in supporting life. It means choosing the difficult path, more often than not. It means admitting, This is not (or at least not just) my body.
We also must work on building a strong-yet-winsome voice within the pro-life movement, teaching and exhorting people to combine grace with truth. There is a strong contingency of the pro-life movement that can be extreme, cruel, even murderous. This contingency consistently undermines the movement as a whole—not just because it’s unkind at best, but because it’s often anti-life at worst. In trying to support the pro-life movement, this contingency actually undermines it. The Atlantic ran a story Monday telling of the death threats and unkindness suffered by a Planned Parenthood clinic CEO in a small Texas town. While the story is obviously biased in a pro-choice direction, it also shows us the great damage we do to the pro-life cause when we are not loving, choosing to castigate rather than convince.
In the aforementioned Atlantic story, abortion clinic CEO Karen Hildenbrand says, “If you have forced pregnancies all the time, you can’t ever succeed. You can’t ever be free.”
How do we fight that argument, that pervasive cultural mantra?
By telling our own stories of empowerment. By letting women know: you don’t have to be childless to succeed. You don’t have to abort your unborn baby in order to find freedom. There can be freedom, and power, and success, in your pregnancy. There can be joy and excitement and passion in motherhood. If you need financial, emotional, or spiritual support, we will help provide it. If your life circumstances are far from ideal, we understand—and we want to support you. Because just as we would argue that it isn’t just “your body” to do with as you please, so too these aren’t just “our lives” to dispose of in sheer selfish pleasure. Being pro-life means living to serve: the unborn, and the born.
What are we most addicted to? “We are addicted to one another, to the affirmation of our value—our very being—that comes from other human beings,” suggests Alan Jacobs for Comment. “We are addicted to being validated by our peers.”
Election years make this addiction profoundly obvious: all politicians seek the favor and accolades of their constituents, but none more fervently or self-consciously than the presidential candidate. And no other presidential candidate has sought this more incessantly and blatantly, one could argue, than Donald Trump. When he isn’t bragging about poll numbers or past approbations, he’s on Twitter: trolling, bragging, and posturing, hunting for affirmation from the vast sea of followers the internet provides.
I thought of Trump when reading about a new study on the self-delusion often evident in selfie-taking. Pacific Standard reports that we think we look more appealing in our self-portraits than we actually are: “participants who habitually take selfies perceived themselves as ‘more attractive and likable in their selfies than in others’ photos.'”
But in reality, “external raters actually perceived the targets’ selfies to look less attractive and less likable than the photos taken by others,” said the study’s creators. For those who regularly take them, selfies apparently “produce the photographic equivalent of a meta-perceptual blind spot.”
Our “meta-perceptual blind spot” needn’t be induced by taking selfies, and it needn’t be relegated to the realm of physical appearance. Social media is full of self-curation, honing a particular image or “brand” that we broadcast to the world. And it seems altogether too likely that the picture of the self we’re putting forward is less appealing than we think it is.
Trump (if he is who he appears to be) reveals the worst tendencies and temptations of our nature: a desire for praise and followers, a need to always be right and never have to ask forgiveness; but most of all, perhaps, he displays the dangers of constantly putting a curated persona on display, without pausing for self-reflection or examination. Who knows whether the belligerent, rough comments we see on Twitter via @realDonaldTrump are always truly indicative of the real Donald Trump—or whether, like a poorly-postured selfie, Trump is just showing us what he thinks we want to see.
One could argue that much of this culture-wide obsession with others’ favor, and corresponding discrepancy between real and broadcasted selves, stems from the mediums we use. Facebook/Twitter/Instagram make us do it. But perhaps our addiction has more to do with what we aren’t doing than with what we are.
Teddy Wayne suggests for the New York Times that we’re suffering from the loss of the contemplative mind: “There are many moments throughout my average day that… were once occupied by thinking or observing my surroundings,” he writes. “Walking or waiting somewhere, riding the subway, lying in bed unable to sleep or before mustering the energy to get up. Now, though, I often find myself in these situations picking up my phone…”
This is something Louis C.K. has brilliantly commented on in the past—in one of his comedy acts, he explains why he won’t let his children have cell phones. He suggests that it impedes their ability to be alone, to be still, and thus to be aware of the world around them. Jacobs summarizes the skit well:
He described a day when he was driving along as an emotionally intense Bruce Springsteen song came on the radio, and he started to feel a certain melancholy welling up in him, and his instant response to that melancholy was to want to grab his phone and text someone. “People are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own, because they don’t want to be alone for a second,” he said.
But on that day when, in his car, Louie felt the melancholy welling up, he resisted the temptation to grab his phone. As the sadness grew, he had to pull over to the side of the road to weep. And after the weeping came an equally strong joy and gratitude for his life. But when we heed that impulse to grab the phone and connect with someone, we don’t allow the melancholy to develop, and therefore can’t receive the compensatory joy. Which leaves us, Louie says, in this situation: “You don’t ever feel really sad or really happy, you just feel . . . kinda satisfied with your products. And then you die. And that’s why I don’t want to get phones for my kids.”
Why is it that our solipsism is, in Wayne’s words, “frequently given outward expression rather than inward exploration”? Perhaps because we’d rather be surrounded by virtual presences than alone with ourselves. To contemplate the self is, eventually, to contemplate sin, suffering, and mortality. To see one’s weaknesses and regrets, and come to grips with them.
This, it seems, is what many of us are afraid of. And thus social media becomes a balm to troubled minds and hearts. The selfie indicates a need for others to see us, and to applaud what they see. It suggests that we need to be “liked,” literally and figuratively.
To conquer our meta-perceptual blind spots does not necessarily require a full retreat from social media, disbanding Facebook and Snapchat and Twitter and Instagram in a mass shedding of internet usage. While the medium obviously has power, as mentioned above, it’s what we aren’t doing that often makes us especially susceptible to the temptations of social media technology.
What would happen if, when in line at the grocery store, stuck in rush hour traffic, cleaning the house, doing the laundry, working out, or mowing the lawn, we paused all the social media and technology and embraced some thoughtful, quiet “alone” time? What if we pulled out dusty journals (the real physical ones with pages) and put words to paper before penning tweets or statuses? What if we decided to spend half an hour less time on social media, and instead spent that time reading a book or going on a quiet walk?
The above acts shouldn’t necessarily replace social time. But they should replace social media time. Being alone without the disruption of a buzzing phone, letting ourselves seep into contemplative silence, these can give room to the melancholy, meaningful, and honest thoughts that matter. They can help us build a proper sense of self, one not tied to the accolades or acerbic comments of others.
If that selfie study is correct, what you think is most palatable and enjoyable about yourself may, in fact, be less appealing than the real “you” that exists away from the social media filters. Turn off your phone and contemplate on that.
Gracy Olmstead is senior staff writer for The American Conservative.
In the weeks after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, I remember an outpouring of defiant, soul-inspiring patriotism and love. The American flag was flying from every building and home. People wore “God Bless America” t-shirts everywhere. Rallies, prayer vigils, and fundraising campaigns brought people together. Under all these actions and words surged the conviction, “You can’t crush us.”
At the same time, a lot of constitutional liberties were undermined in the months and years after 9/11. Fear of terrorism fomented our current surveillance state, putting in motion a “panopticon” that Edward Snowden helped uncover back in 2013. In response to terror, many in our government responded with terror: funding and instituting practices in the name of “safety” that many have come to regret or condemn.
Here, too, in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Orlando on Sunday, we are at a crossroads of decision: what practices or measures should we recommend in the wake of disaster—and what decisions are merely reactionary or fearmongering?
Donald Trump has argued that this is all the result of Muslim immigration into the U.S., noting that he’s “right” for calling for a ban on immigration in the past, and fomenting an attitude of fear with conspiratorial claims, as Michael Brendan Dougherty notes in an article for The Week.
It is true that ideology fosters a certain demeanor or outlook on the world. Islamic extremism does this, just as atheism or Christianity do. G.K. Chesterton once said, “A man can no more possess a private religion than he can possess a private sun and moon.” What we believe fosters our character, our conception of the world, and our reactions to events in that world. Thus, the shooter’s beliefs cannot be separated entirely from his acts. Extremism may have helped foster his mental instability, or perhaps the instability fostered the extremism. Either way, it played a role.
Many—some on the left, some from the Muslim faith—have acknowledged this. Their attitude, however, is more balanced and accurate than that of Donald Trump. Immanuel al-Manteeqi explains for The Federalist why ISIS has tortured and killed homosexuals, but also writes that “reformist-minded Muslims have leeway, even within their own Islamic paradigms, to consign these anti-homosexual traditions to the dustbins of history.”
“The killer of Orlando was a homophobic Muslim extremist, inspired by an ideological take on my own religion, Islam,” writes Maajid Nawaz for The Daily Beast. “This global jihadist insurgency threatens every corner of the world and has killed more Muslims than members [of] any other faith.” Instead of denying the existence of extremism or blaming the horrific attack on other things, such as mental illness or guns, Nawaz urges his fellow liberals to confront the ideology involved head-on:
Liberals who claim that this has nothing to do with Islam today are being as unhelpful and as ignorant as conservatives who claim that this represents all of Islam. The problem so obviously has something to do with Islam. That something is Islamism, or the desire to impose any version of Islam over any society. Jihadism is the attempt to do so by force. This ideology of Islamism has been rising almost unchecked among Muslims for decades. It is a theocratic ideology, and theocracy should no longer have any place in the world today.
But it is as if we liberals will stoop to anything to avoid discussing ideology. We will initiate state sanctioned presidential kill lists and launch unaccountable targeted assassinations. Yet, no amount of drone strikes under Obama—at a rate that far exceeds Bush—will ever solve the problem. We cannot shoot our way out of an ideology. We cannot arrest our way out of an insurgency. Yes, law and war have their own place, but they will never solve the problem.
In the long run, only reducing the local appeal of this ideology will solve the problem. Whereas Islam today requires reform, the Islamist ideology must be intellectually terminated. To do so requires first acknowledging it exists, isolating it from Muslims, devising a strategy to challenge it, and then backing the voices that do.
Nawaz notes here the importance of separating out the extremists from the mainstream believers. This is something that all of us should be careful to do. I am pro-life. There are some extremist pro-lifers who have murdered abortion doctors in the past, in horrific acts of violence. Should their actions impede the ability of peaceful pro-lifers to gather in public places? Should I be banned from coming within a certain distance of an abortion clinic? It is wrong to paint all people with a radicalized brush.
Hillary Clinton has also acknowledged that radical terrorism played a role in the Mateen’s motivations, but she has focused her energies and arguments on the role played by guns: “It’s essential that we stop terrorists from getting the tools they need for carrying out these attacks,” Clinton said at a speech in Cleveland. “If the FBI is watching you for suspected terrorist links, you shouldn’t be able to buy a gun with no questions asked. … If you are too dangerous to get on a plane, you are too dangerous to buy a gun in America.”
Yet as Edward Morrissey shrewdly noted for The Week, “Hillary Clinton herself is under investigation by the FBI. … [It] has been investigating her use of a secret and unauthorized email server and the transmission of highly classified information through it ever since last summer. If Clinton were held to the same public standard she demands, just a suspicion and an investigation would disqualify her from the office she now seeks.”
But that, he notes, would be unjust—Clinton “is entitled to a presumption of innocent,” just like the rest of us. Just like the Orlando shooter himself.
“Exactly how reducing law-abiding citizens’ legal access to weapons will stop a jihadist bent on a suicide mission or even a garden-variety nut job from a rampage is something politicians don’t pause to explain,” Nick Gillespie writes for The Daily Beast. “The one thing that they—and perhaps us, too—cannot countenance, especially in an era when violence is at a low ebb, is that evil cannot be fully exterminated from our lives.”
Evil. A word we don’t like to use, in this day and age. A word that suggests tolerance, liberalism, and relativism can’t and won’t ever fix all our problems. A word that hints at an irrational component to violence, something that cannot be fixed by any political, institutional, or contextual reforms. In the words of Michael Caine in The Dark Knight, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
“Tragedy doesn’t have a single moral. It can be about many things,” notes Noah Millman. “Maybe we’ll get more sensible gun laws and more resources for mental illness and a better system for monitoring jihadi groups. But would any of those actions, even if worthy, have prevented this particular massacre? An explanation isn’t the same as a diagnosis. And even a diagnosis doesn’t imply a cure.”
When we remove sin from the equation, we’ll always look for institutions, objects, or people to blame. But if we are willing to admit that evil exists, we will understand that no ban—be it on guns, Islam, or fill-in-the-blank—will ever remove violence and tragedy from our world. And while we can consider balanced and thoughtful ways to mitigate evil people’s ability to do wrong, we will also remember that evil often wears a benign or even kind mask, and can be difficult, if not impossible, to detect.
Yet instead of leading to despair, this response can often lead us to show more grace, empathy, and love in the wake of terror and tragedy. As Jacob Bacharach wrote for The New Republic yesterday,
The proper response to terror is not to be terrorized, and that means taking a coolly actuarial position on attacks: they will be relatively rare, but that they cannot be stopped entirely by more police, metal detectors, intelligence sharing, vague strength, gun registries, invasions, drone strikes, or God forbid, internment camps and deportations. It’s no admission of defeat to admit that cars crash, houses burn, some people get cancer, hurricanes make landfall. Tomorrow, you could be hit by a bus. We live every day on the precipice of death. Reasonable caution is advisable; hysteria is not. The faux manly toughness that sells everything from the AR-15 to the Donald Trump candidacy is really a form of terrible cowardice, a surrender of reason to fear, a failure to do the one thing that the killers, whatever their unknowable hatreds, do not want the living to do: carry on with their lives.
We must respond to evil with good, and we must respond to evil with defiance. We must keep singing, dancing, loving, rejoicing in goodness and truth and beauty. We must stand tall and shout, “You can’t crush us.” We must love our neighbor, especially if our neighbor is Omar Mateen. Because for every life transformed by light and grace and love, another life—or perhaps even 49 lives—might be saved.
We mustn’t let terror take away our joy.
The summer has always been about reading for me: curled up on the porch swing, sneaking off to sit under a tree when I was supposed to be doing my chores. I remember staring up at rustling tree branches and listening to my mom’s voice as she read The Little House on the Prairie, or Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, or Hank the Cowdog. I remember cuddling on the couch with my siblings as my dad read us Little Britches. I remember trips to the library, bringing home my little pile of books full of promise and mystery.
Summer can be an expensive time for parents, writes KJ Dell’Antonia for the New York Times: there’s pressure for kids to participate in dozens of extracurriculars, to pay for expensive summer camps and activities. But instead of spending hundreds of dollars on summer learning programs, why not challenge your kids to read books—and read a couple with them?
A New Yorker article from last Tuesday collected various parents’ accounts of reading with their children: it’s a delightful compendium of reminiscences and hopes about summer reading, with anecdotes about children spanning a variety of ages. They read everything from the Harry Potter series to a delightful little cardboard book called Click, Clack, Moo.
Reading with your kids needn’t be a time intensive task. It’s easy to institute this ritual in the evening, as part of a bedtime routine. And getting children to read by themselves is also possible: it just requires establishing the right incentives. Say, for example, a local library reading challenge: many award prizes to children for reading a certain amount of books, or for reading a certain amount of hours.
If programs like that aren’t locally available, parents can still organize challenges for their children. Challenge them to read 10 books by the end of the summer; challenge them to read the whole Harry Potter series, or the whole Chronicles of Narnia series. Challenge them to read one book in four or five different genres (mystery, science fiction, history, fantasy, et cetera). Challenge them to memorize five poems, or to discover one new author they love. For the child who loves facts over fiction, consider a biography, a history book, or a book about science.
When they meet a reading achievement, reward them. Reward them with a gift card to a bookstore, or a hardback copy of a new book they might enjoy. Reward them with a visit to their favorite restaurant, or (if possible) a visit to the historic home or town of a famous author. Reward them with a trip to the local ice cream place, or a favorite meal. Store up incentives that are experience and learning-related, ones that will stick with them longer than a toy or a dollar bill.
I remember participating in my first reading challenge as a kindergartener. I got a medal, and a free meal at Pizza Hut. Later on, in high school, a group of friends put together a summer reading competition: whoever read the most books by the end of the summer would get a prize (a gift card to a local bookstore, I think).
If we keep kids reading during the summer, it can help stem some of the decline in learning that can often take place during those months, while simultaneously building reading comprehension and writing skills, serving as distraction and entertainment, and fostering plenty of “scope for the imagination.” Personally, I cannot overestimate the impact those months of reading had on my development as a learner, a writer, and a person. They’re some of my favorite childhood memories. Those challenges to keep reading, along with the times we spent reading aloud—my mom and dad to my siblings and me, me to my brothers—were vital to formulating the love of books I have today. It’s a gift I’m hoping to share with my daughter as she gets older.
What books encouraged your love of reading? Did you have any favorite summer reads as a child? Please feel free to add more in the comments. I’ve shared some of my own below:
For young readers
Not only do these books feature wonderful characters and stories—the illustrations are delightful.
Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, by Virginia Lee Burton
This book—along with The Little Engine That Could—emblazoned upon my young mind the shining power of persistence over all incredulity and doubt. It’s also a lovely story about friendship, camaraderie, and loyalty.
Make Way for Ducklings, by Robert McCloskey
The story of a delightful duck family, braving the perils of urban life in Boston, Massachusetts.
The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf
The tale of a bull who doesn’t want to fight—because he prefers smelling flowers. Delightful, simple, and sweet.
The House at Pooh Corner, by A.A. Milne
Winnie the Pooh is a classic character—but many children, while familiar with the Disney films, may not have encountered A.A. Milne’s original masterpieces. The original Winnie-the-Pooh and House at Pooh Corner are well worth the read (as are his collections of poetry: When We Were Very Young, and Now We Are Six.)
The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
This classic story of a little prince who loves his flower is full of thoughtful, lovely passages and illustrations. There’s a beautiful pop-up book version that I highly recommend.
(Also: all of Beatrix Potter’s books are must-reads. The illustrations are beautiful, the stories are sweet and unique, and the vision Potter paints of English countryside is enchanting.)
For older readers
Many of these books—especially the latter ones—are still read and beloved by my siblings, friends, and me on a regular basis. As C.S. Lewis once put it, “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” Thankfully, we’ve reached that blessed age.
The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DeCamillo
DeCamillo’s story of bravery, chivalry, and forgiveness features a kindly mouse, misunderstood rat, spoiled princess, and hurting servant girl. Their ability to show courage and kindness brings restoration and hope in the darkest of places.
The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald
George MacDonald wrote several classics: his Phantastes was a huge inspiration to C.S. Lewis. He was also a mentor to Lewis Carroll. But out of all his wonderful novels, The Princess and the Goblin holds a special place in my heart. It’s just what a fairy tale should be: delightful for all ages, brimming over with fantastical characters, impossible to put down. If you’ve already read this book and its sequel, The Princess and Curdie, I’d recommend At the Back of the North Wind.
Holes, by Louis Sachar
Sachar’s book features a narrative that is extremely creative and unique: Stanley Yelnats and his family members are plagued with bad luck. But just when everything seems at its worst, an intricate web of events unfolds, leading to redemption and hope. The eccentric characters and tangled plot feels almost like a modern Dickens.
The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster
Perhaps my favorite children’s book of all time—a perfect read for those with synesthesia, although it’ll be enjoyable for kids of all ages and interests. Juster’s narrative features numbers, letters, colors, sounds, tastes, and smells that blend and mesh in this beautifully creative book.
Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls
The book that will make all children everywhere want a dog of their own. Rawls’s classic tale of a boy and his hounds is, I will warn you, tragic—but also sweet.
Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery
No summer reading list would be complete without Anne of Green Gables. Montgomery’s heroine is perhaps one of the most beloved of all time, and her imaginative adventures in Prince Edward Island have inspired fans all over the world. Every little girl should read this book.
The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis
Each book in this series is unique and delightful—and many of us who grew up with the stories have a favorite character or book in the series. Lewis’s classic tales about Narnia, the Pevensie children, Shasta and Aravis, Reepicheep, Eustace, and Aslan will continue to inspire and enchant for decades to come.
Laddie, by Gene Stratton Porter
A book about love of place and of nature, the importance of family and community, and the virtues to be found in a simple, well-lived life. Porter’s books are often as much about her place and its beauty—the various plants, trees, animals, and birds that made up her corner of Indiana—as they are about the characters themselves. Though perhaps best known for Girl of the Limberlost, this book and Freckles will always be my favorites.
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Of course, The Lord of the Rings is a famous trilogy, and much beloved by readers. I would also highly recommend it. But something about The Hobbit seems perfect for summer reading: it’s more lighthearted and jovial than LOTR, full of songs and feasts and laughter.
Learning to read isn’t always easy. And it isn’t always fun, not for every child. My brothers hated reading for a while. But two things that seemed to help were 1) Calvin and Hobbes comics—with their snarky humor, lovable characters, and brilliant writing, and 2) reading aloud. Both boys quickly became glued to adventure books and classics, even the big books like Ivanhoe and The Lord of the Rings, when read aloud.
So try checking out a few books from your local library, and spend some time reading beneath the trees this weekend. Your kids may thank you for it—and you might even enjoy it, too. It’s cheaper than summer camp, and builds as many (or more) lasting memories.
Some would argue that millennials are little more than glorified teenagers. Whether true or no, they’re increasingly living like them: for the first time in more than 130 years, Pew reports, the largest share of 18 to 34-year-olds are living with their parents as opposed to living with a spouse or partner in their own home.
TAC managing editor Robert VerBruggen wrote a very informative article on this trend Monday. He notes that across many sectors of society—economic, educational, political, and relational—millennials are opting for a softer, infantilized version of the life chosen by generations before them. They’re prolonging adolescence, rather than adopting the difficulties and responsibilities of their forbears.
But it’s interesting to note that in centuries past, living with one’s parents until marriage (or even after) wouldn’t cause so many raised eyebrows or eye-rolls—because extended families used to live together, or around each other, quite often. The “nuclear family” is a relatively modern construct. And in other parts of the world, extended or multi-generational family living is still the norm.
While millennials are getting most of the attention, Newsweek noted last year that an increasing number of older Americans are inhabiting their childrens’ homes, as well:
A lot of attention has focused on returning millennials, but 10 percent of all children (under 18) are growing up with at least one grandparent in the house, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In most of those cases, three generations are living together. This trend has even reached the nation’s highest office. Marian Robinson—Michelle Obama’s 77-year-old mother—has made the White House home since 2009.
“As of 2008, a record 49 million Americans, or 16.1% of the total U.S. population, lived in a family household that contained at least two adult generations or a grandparent and at least one other generation,” Pew reported in 2010.
Many Amish families host their elderly parents after they grow too old to care for themselves. In these households, the grandparents forge strong and important relationships with their grandchildren, often functioning as babysitters and helping around the house.
But the average American home has changed in its purposes and rhythms since past eras when multi-generational living was common. Nowadays, most people leave the home in order to engage in their everyday lives: work, school, extracurriculars, and other activities all take place outside the sphere of the home. In contrast, the home used to be an economy unto itself—as well as a social and cultural hub. It was a place of industry and activity, in which its inhabitants all contributed to the day’s work. Since the industrial revolution, people have increasingly commuted away from home to work. This has encouraged the sense that “real life” is happening outside the four walls of the home, not within them. And it is this sense that leads us to look at a 20-something living at home, and shake our heads. “Why,” we ask, “aren’t they being responsible, contributing members of society?” This is only a question we can ask when the home is no longer a functioning piece of society—when young people are expected to be atomistic, fledgling, career-oriented actors whose energies are focused away from the home, not within them.
But it is true that there’s an additional, more ominous, facet of this trend that separates it quite distinctly from past multigenerational living: while many of young people are living with their parents because they’re struggling with unemployment or in dire financial straits, there are also a large share of them who live at home because they are without a marriage partner. Marriage is out of vogue, it seems, with many in the millennial generation. And while their marital delay may be influenced in part by financial concerns, this trend reflects larger cultural shifts—not just economic considerations.
“For many young people across the country, putting off marriage — or even settling down with a partner long term — has become the norm,” Gabriela Barkho writes for the Washington Post. “The average age for first marriage is 27 for women and 29 for men; in urban areas such as New York and Washington, those averages are higher.”
Why? People usually give a myriad of reasons: some related to one’s career or finances, others related to the seriousness of the commitment itself and what it entails (namely, the eventual arrival of babies). We’ve seen a pretty sizable shift in dating culture and assumptions surrounding sex: “hookup culture” and the prevalence of apps like Tinder inform young people that sex is not something that should be tied to a serious, intentional relationship—but rather, something one can engage in whenever it seems most pleasant and personally beneficial.
Marriage, meanwhile, is scary and limiting. It requires work, commitment, and a whole lot of sacrifice. A certain degree of angst over “what else or who else is out there” seems to dominate young peoples’ lives. And—ironically—it’s paralyzing. It leads to stasis, rather than to a bevy of choices or growth. When we are overwhelmed by all the possible paths our lives could take, we’re unable to forge any certain path. We’re not able to do anything concrete or meaningful.
One millennial argued for The Guardian in 2015 that taking the time to explore life options would make his generation better in the end: forging individuals who engage in “identity exploration, instability, [and] self-focus,” and using such exploration to become more creative and self-actualized. “With longer life expectancies, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we are taking our time growing up,” he writes. “It’s just going to take some time for my generation to get where others were years before them. So sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. … We’ll get there when we get there.”
But will we?
Something I’ve learned about indecision and the inability to commit is that it perpetuates itself, and leads to a sort of slavery. The very possibility of “missing out” on some tantalizing piece of information leads me to scroll the news endlessly; the possibility of “missing out” on some perfect “Mr. Right” leads many to reject a committed relationship with a real, flawed person.
Identity isn’t only built around the self and its acts of discovery. It’s also built around community. And it’s contingent on our ability to make meaningful, purposeful decisions within that community sphere—decisions that give us deep roots, nourishing soil, and healthy ways to express our individuality.
Ironically, it is possible that this move homeward could shift or change the way young people work and live for the better. By planting them in a familial sphere, with a community, it could remind young people of the values and relationships that have informed and nourished them. If they have an elderly relative around, it could give them a sense of history and context—an understanding of the fact that life is short, and it’s important to build lasting relationships. It could encourage them to invest in their local community, and build a life around the friends and family that matter to them.
It could also help reinvigorate the home as a sphere of economic activity: as more elderly people move into their children’s homes, as more Americans begin to telecommute, and as more families choose to homeschool, the home may continue to become a revitalized and important sphere of life. If so, young people at home could play a vital role in that sphere: helping with everything from domestic work to child or elderly care, gardening and landscaping to repair work and maintenance.
But all of this is contingent upon the goals and attitudes young people are willing to bring to this shift. The millennial who wants to become an intentional and loving part of his or her community can’t spend every waking hour playing video games in their parents’ basement.
So to the millennials living at home, I would encourage you: Begin committing. Be purposeful. Invest in your family relationships. Be a diligent and caring member of the house you live in—whether it’s your parents, or your own. Work actively toward getting a job. If it isn’t prestigious or special, still choose to commit to it. Make something of it.
If you can’t find a job—volunteer at a local shelter or nonprofit, join a club, or participate in local church events. Babysit for a needy sibling or friend. Start taking evening classes or polishing your language skills via Duolingo. Visit an elderly relative or neighbor. Learn a new skill—like cooking, repair work, or playing an instrument.
Because living with your parents doesn’t have to be a dead end. Lack of money doesn’t mean lack of opportunity. Any home can be a center of creative and personal flourishing. It all depends on what you make of it.
Many parents have experienced that fearful moment when their child, who they assumed was right behind them, or right over there—is not, in fact, where they should be.
As Jeffrey Kluger put it for Time Magazine, children “are the electrons in the nuclear family—kinetic, frenetic, seemingly occupying two or three places at the same moment, and drawn irresistibly to the most dangerous things in their environment.”
Meanwhile, parents are set up as anxious stewards, ever trying to monitor their space, ever trying to grow “eyes in the back of their heads.” It’s no wonder that helicopter parenting has become a problem—none of us want to become that “what if” story.
Sadly, one mother on Saturday had the misfortune and almost-tragedy of becoming that “what if” story. Namely: what if your little boy slips away from you at the zoo?
A four-year-old boy managed to separate himself from his mother, climb over a three-foot barrier and slip through the four feet of bushes separating spectators from a gorilla habitat. He then fell 15 feet into the shallow pool of water right below the gorilla’s position. Zoo officials attempted to call in the animals, and the two female gorillas complied.
But Harambe, the male, did not. He was distracted, eyewitnesses say, by the splashing of the little boy and the frenzied concern of the gathering crowd. He got into the water and approached the boy—at first, in a seemingly protective way. But when he began to drag the boy around in the water violently, zoo officials decided the only safe course of action was to shoot the gorilla. To tranquillize him with a dart, they explained later, would have been a perilous and almost assuredly life-ending choice for the boy. It takes much longer for the tranquilizer to calm an agitated gorilla—and in the meantime, the sting of any such dart would anger the animal, leading him to associate that pain with the nearest possible source of pain (in this case, the four-year-old).
Despite the circumstances explained by multiple sources, public outrage has been uproarious indeed. Some have said that the gorilla was merely “protecting” the boy, and that the zoo officials should not have shot him. Others have accused the Cincinatti zoo of endangering, in the words of animal activist Michael A. Budkie, “both the public and Harambe by maintaining an enclosure which allowed a member of the public to gain access to a potentially dangerous animal.” On Twitter, PETA argued that this case demonstrates why animals never should be held in captivity in the first place. In response to these accusations, Cincinnati police are now investigating the incident, to determine whether “charges need to be brought forward.”
But it’s not the zoo that the police intend to investigate—it’s the mother, who is under heavy fire right now. A Change.org petition argued for “an investigation of the child’s home environment in the interests of protecting the child and his siblings from further incidents of parental negligence that may result in serious bodily harm or even death.” (It has received over 370,000 signatures). One person posted on Twitter, “I am SICK&TIRED of LAZY people who do not WATCH THEIR CHILDREN.” Comedian Ricky Gervais tweeted, “It seems that some gorillas make better parents than some people.” Radio and game show host D.L. Hughley said “If you leave your kid in a car you go to jail, if you let your kid fall into a Gorilla Enclosure u should too!”
Protesters gathered outside the zoo with these signs:
— Tammy Mutasa (@TammyMutasaWLWT) May 29, 2016
One meme of a gorilla reads, “I was killed because a bitch wasn’t watching her child.”
Yet eyewitness accounts tell a more nuanced story: as one woman told CNN, the boy wanted to get in the water he saw down in the moat, but his mother told him no, and “admonished him to behave.” She then became distracted by the other children in her care. “Her attention was drawn away for seconds, maybe a minute, and then he was up and in before you knew it,” said O’Connor.
Elisa Strauss noted some of the irony in this response over at Slate: “Today’s mothers and fathers are constantly denounced as helicopter parents—micromanagers and overcoddlers of their children who will never learn how to be independent,” she writes. “The finger-pointing at the parents of the boy at the zoo suggests that there is no such thing as the right amount of parenting. Things go wrong because either we’ve done too little or done too much.”
Lenore Skenazy—author of the book and blog Free Range Kids—has defended the mother over at Reason. It’s easy, she says, “to sink into the sewer of self-righteousness and pretend that if only someone had been doing what we believe we would have done in that unpredictable situation, everything would be peachy.”
What sort of stories and outrage would we be seeing if the zoo had not chosen to put down the gorilla, and it had resulted in the death of that four-year-old boy? Surely there are few who would argue a preschooler, foolish though he may have been, should have lost his life because he was a “brat” or his mother was “irresponsible.”
No parent is omnipotent, and even the best need a helping hand. Yet rather than helping and supporting parents in today’s world, many of us are all too willing to be vocal bystanders. We cast an annoyed glance at the mother with an upset toddler at the grocery store, rather than helping her pull paper towels off the top shelf. Rather than privately professing concern, we call the cops when a mom runs into a store and leaves her kid in the car. Before halting the perilous actions of an adventurous little boy, we first ask the question, “Whose kid is this?” (In the words of one eyewitness account, a woman was “getting ready to grab” the child “until she asks, ‘Whose kid is this?'” The eyewitness adds: “None of us actually thought he’d go over the nearly 15 foot drop, but he was crawling so fast through the bushes…”)
Our society has conditioned us not to touch other peoples’ kids, not to intervene in other peoples’ business. We don’t feel comfortable doing so, or are afraid we’ll make a parent angry rather than doing them any good. But there are situations in which we can express concern and support, offering quick action and a halting hand to that kid who’s wandering off. Doing so might not just save a frenzied mother a headache—it might help save the life of her child.
Hopefully the little boy will be more attentive to his mother in the future; hopefully zookeepers will be more careful about their barriers; hopefully the boy’s mother will be able to grow eyes in the back of her head. But in the meantime, it seems best that we as a society stop crying for blood, and instead offer sympathy and help to those who need it—perhaps by offering support to conservation efforts for gorillas like Harambe, or even by offering another set of eyes and ears to mothers out and about with their children.
Gracy Olmstead is senior staff writer for The American Conservative.
Is housework a mindless, unintellectual mode of employment? This is the question Mary Townsend asks in her essay for The Hedgehog Review:
Cleaning is mindless work, we say, and a task we are happy to leave to others; should we have the money, there are maid services or one of the many “Uber for housework” services to take the work off our hands. The repairman, the electrician, the carpenter, and so on, earn our respect because of the intelligent skill they put into their labor; but the sting of domestic work is that it appears to require no particular skill: doing the floors, the dishes, doing the corners, picking up all the things strewn about the house; taking out the trash not once, but again and again, on down into the grave. … But I’m suspicious of the infamous mindlessness of housework. … I suspect we can do more than praise its necessity, and that our inability to make a better case reflects an impoverished understanding of the nature of work, and of thought itself.
Townsend goes on to make a fascinating argument for the deeper mode of thought and being embedded in housework. Feminism has told us that “Housework is something to be liberated from, and something to liberate others from in their turn. The house itself is an oppressive structure, from which we hope to be free.” Yet this contempt for domestic work, Townsend rightly notes, is “all too wicked-stepsisterly, considering the movement’s forgetfulness of the women among the poor and women of color … . While we middle-class women are off pursuing the various professions of lawyer, businesswoman, and so on, who picks up the household slack? Other human beings; usually other women; and, most likely, women of color.” She continues,
The contempt for the house cultivated by this history is not easy to do away with. Personal ambition alone, and especially money alone, won’t solve the underlying problem. Although we don’t pay people enough for housework, the real problem is that we think that money will be enough to cover over our contempt and forgetfulness for the work itself—that we can somehow avoid our forgetfulness of the house itself. This forgetfulness is written into all our thoughts about the properly ambitious work outside the house that people are meant to desire; and the most pressing result is that, again, it obscures the simple practical necessity that someone—a human being—did or will do the domestic work that orders the space around you, right now, both for the place you sit to read this, and if you’re lucky, for the place you’ll sleep tonight.
The work of a stay-at-home mom—as well as the labor done by many domestic workers—is often disdained by our society because it fixates on and around the home. Yet traditionally, the home was not a place to be despised. Being a housewife was not degrading, either: as the gardener, cook, cleaner, and housekeeper, a woman was vital to the health and sustenance of her entire household—as well as, often, the other families surrounding her. What Wendell Berry has called “the essential art of housewifery” was a noble, vital practice. Proverbs 31 speaks of a diligent housewife (who is also an entrepreneur and local benefactor) who is “praised in the city gates”: the place where the leaders of the city would traditionally gather. Being a housewife required craftsmanship, skill, and prowess. Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the 19th century, said this of American women:
As for myself, I do not hesitate to avow that, although the women of the United States are confined within the narrow circle of domestic life … I have nowhere seen woman occupying a loftier position; and if I were asked, now that I am drawing to the close of this work, in which I have spoken of so many important things done by the Americans, to what the singular prosperity and growing strength of that people ought mainly to be attributed, I should reply—to the superiority of their women.
The entire family and household depended on women for comfort and survival. Unless one was very rich, and could buy such things from a store, it was the wife who created both clothing and food for her household: she kept her family warmed, clothed, fed. The home was the hub from which all comfort, sustenance, and productivity emanated. To be the matriarch of the home was to inhabit, at least to some degree, a place of prestige and honor. Much of that has changed, as Townsend points out, because of a denigration of the home, and of the life of the home, that we’ve seen since the turn of the 20th century.
Yet Townsend is asking another, very interesting, question here: is housework itself—dusting, sweeping, folding, washing—unimportant because “anyone can do it”? Because the skill involved is minimal? It’s true that, unlike the plumber, carpenter, or mason, housework doesn’t usually require the same puzzling or mental complexity. It’s a work we often repeat endlessly, even in the same day. “All work involves repetition, but cleaning rehearses the doing again and again, without doing anything—except, perhaps, for the state of the house,” writes Townsend. “And not for nothing do people find early childhood work Sisyphean as well: Children in the house don’t merely multiply the work, they constantly undo it; and they themselves require ever-renewed, constant cleaning.”
This is where, I would argue, the moral imagination comes in. The task of cleaning itself may not require a lot of intellectual prowess—but it does require a great deal of imaginative skill and understanding. The work of maintaining a home is tied up inexplicably in the question of what it means to be human, and the person who cares for the home must adhere to a set of underlying ideas and mores that make his or her work meaningful. After all, why is it that we do not wish to live in squalor? Why do we see cleanliness and order as essential tenets for human flourishing? It must be because these constitute basic understandings of what human life should constitute—ideas that have a moral and spiritual tradition.
As Russell Kirk writes, “It is the moral imagination which informs us concerning the dignity of human nature, which instructs us that we are more than naked apes.” It is the undignified work of cleaning the grimy corners of the kitchen floor and washing dirty stockings and underwear that enable the dignity of a clean, light-filled home and healthy, well-clothed body. But in order to understand the importance of that scrubbing and dusting and washing, one must have a vision for its end result and purpose: a flourishing home and family.
In contrast to the moral imagination, Russell Kirk spoke of the “idyllic imagination,” which “rejects old dogmas and old manners and rejoices in the notion of emancipation from duty and convention.” This seems well suited to describe the emancipated housewife Townsend refers to, freed from the bonds of home and housework. It is not at all wrong to work away from one’s home, to have a career. But at the same time, we must recognize that it is through the rejection of old traditions and manners—dispensing with the importance of the home, and home life—that we’ve entered into our new age of careerism.
It’s true that the home is a sphere from which little public recognition or accolades are likely to come. The good deeds and virtues that we grow there are hidden behind closed doors, shielded from the public eye. It’s often a thankless career to pursue.
Yet it is one very well suited to cultivating virtue. It requires regular exercise of the moral imagination: remembering that what one does when scrubbing floors and bathtubs is much more than menial labor. Perhaps the phrase “cleanliness is next to godliness” came about because of the virtue-carving we often do when we clean and order the same square footage, day after day after day. It requires discipline, perseverance, patience, humility—and a good deal of kindness towards the inhabitants of one’s home. There will always be the children who, as Townsend writes, unmake things as quickly as they are made. There will always be the pets, who innocently scatter filth everywhere they walk. There will always be the busy adults, who fly through life so swiftly, they barely have time to notice the piles they leave in their wake. Domestic work requires care, kindness, and daily forgiveness.
In his book You Are What You Love, James K.A. Smith argues that our daily habits reveal what we truly love. The daily rituals of virtue (or of vice) that we cultivate are most often happening “under the hood” of our consciousness. There’s a “liturgy” we’re repeating with our daily actions—one that informs our most basic desires and wants.
So what is happening, really, when we’re changing diapers and taking out the trash for the umpteenth time? On the surface, it’s a “mindless” ritual, as Townsend notes. But underneath the surface—“under the hood”—we’re repeating a liturgy, over and over. We’re building a set of mental and spiritual disciplines that grow our moral imagination, and point us toward greater happiness.
And this is true whether we’re tending to our own set of home chores, or whether we’re tending the home of another. On the one hand, caring for our own homes grows the virtue of stewardship: it is like farming or gardening. It involves a sense of ownership and pride in one’s property, a desire for order and beauty in the space we call our own. It’s done for the place itself, and for the people who inhabit it, but it’s also to some extent done for us.
On the other hand, all domestic care cultivates the virtue of service: caring for the possessions of others, being willing to scrub their toilets and do their dirty dishes, is a much harder thing (in my opinion) than caring for one’s own home. It requires a givenness and humility, a desire to serve diligently and well. It also requires a degree of love for the goods that undergird the work of cleaning itself: a love of order, beauty, and cleanliness. When we’re cleaning for others, we don’t necessarily get to enjoy the fruits of our labor—except in seeing the job well done, and in feeling pride and joy over the order we’ve brought from chaos.
Perhaps there is another way in which “cleanliness is next to godliness.” And that would lie in the very repetition of it, in the delight that one can take from daily bringing things into a state of beauty, continually bringing light and order out of darkness and chaos. As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.” The repetition of tasks often has a deeper meaning, one we shouldn’t neglect: for it’s the repeated acts that are often the most beautiful, and that grow beauty in us.