Gracy Olmstead is senior staff writer for The American Conservative.
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.
When I was a kid, my mom almost got my hearing checked. There were times when she’d be standing right next to me, repeating my name, and I couldn’t hear her. Mine wasn’t a medical condition, though, it was a literary one: usually these periodic stretches of deafness involved reading.
I developed a book bubble so thick and insulated from the outside world, the cacophonous din of two younger brothers, a sister playing piano, pets running around, and the call of a mother to dinner couldn’t pull me away.
But I have to confess: my attention game has suffered as of late.
This has a lot to do with the five-month-old who takes up most of my day. My ears are very much attuned to all her stirrings and cries, and rightly so. I don’t expect, or want, to retreat as far into my bubble as I did as a kid.
That said, I think the technological environment we now live in has done more to erode my focus than any amount of baby-care could. It’s the siren call of social media, with its little red notification bubbles, constantly updated news feeds, the “ping” of texts on my cell phone—things that leave me with a paralyzing desire to see what’s happening now, and then in the midst of “now,” to wonder what’s about to happen next.
Reading online is an inherently distracting pastime. There’s the sheer amount of news we are beset with: on Twitter, Facebook, Feedly, or whatever other news aggregating site(s) you might choose. We often have several windows open on our web browsers at a time, skipping from article to article, getting through half of one before moving onto the next.
I had friends who treated music this way growing up: they’d listen to half a song, then skip to the next. It bugged me to no end—what was the use of listening to half a song? Why would you skip the conclusion, the climax and finale of the piece? One shouldn’t deny the artist the simple courtesy of listening to their song the whole way through.
Alas, I’ve denied many writers that courtesy in recent years. All too often, I read the first half of an article and move on, telling myself I’ll “read the rest later.” All too often, “later” never arrives.
It’s true that the style and structure of our news websites make reading difficult. Brightly colored advertisements flash at us from either side or within the very body of an article. Sometimes I’ll start an article, only to be disrupted by the blare of a video ad embedded at the bottom of the page. In the process of reading one New York Times article, I spotted 10 colorful, eye-catching ads, many of which pop up while scrolling through the piece. This doesn’t count the “related coverage” links, blurbs, and pictures that also pull the reader away from the article.
How is anyone supposed to focus in this environment? Long gone are the days when my ears automatically tuned out the cacophony: the din is now spiraling out from the page itself, rather than from my outside environment. And it’s much harder to mute it out.
Two recent articles offered tips on how to counter this dilemma. One from The Atlantic described a new color-coded copy method that aims to help users concentrate when reading online:
The most important feature is that each line begins with a different color than the line above or below. As Matthew Schneps, director of the Laboratory for Visual Learning at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, explained it to me, the color gradients also pull our eyes long from one character to the next—and then from the end of one line to the beginning of the next, minimizing any chance of skipping lines or making anything less than an optimally efficient word-to-word or line-to-line transition.
… The color gradients might be helpful not just with return sweeps, but simply in keeping people’s attention – so they’re less likely to dart from tab to tab. Bias sees an important role for this technology in the era of waning attention spans. He’s 64 years old and describes himself as a “slow but good reader” who “can sometimes stay with something for a long time.” But in recent years, he’s sensed a decline in his attention, and has a feeling that this is a growing problem. “Can we multitask?” he asks, rhetorically. “The research, more and more, shows that we all suck at it.”
At Microsoft in Seattle, for example, Larson has been working for 19 years studying word recognition and reading acquisition. When he started, he recalls, very few people would read any long document on screen. If they got a long email, they would print it out. “But now,” he notes, “that would be an outrageous thing to do.” The task now is to make digital reading better than reading in print.
In this case, colors and fonts function as their own incentives or sirens, keeping your attention despite the other distractions that pull at your focus. Distractibility isn’t your fault—it’s a result of your environment, and thus we merely require some pretty colors, scientifically organized, to fix the problem.
But there’s another possibility; one that will, perhaps, sound a bit curmudgeonly. It could be that “attention” is entirely up to you—to the environment you cultivate around yourself, to the willpower you are willing or able to exert. It is possible that attentiveness is a virtue, and needs fostering.
This came to mind recently while reading a piece in the New York Times titled (rather precociously) “Read This Piece Without Distraction.” Author Verena von Pfetten decries “multitasking,” noting that “humans have finite neural resources that are depleted every time we switch between tasks,” something that many of us do 400+ times a day. Instead, Pfetten argues, we should return to the old-fashioned discipline of paying attention (or, to give it a fancy modern name, “monotasking”). “It’s a digital literacy skill,” Manoush Zomorodi, host and managing editor of the “Note to Self” podcast, told her. “Our gadgets and all the things we look at on them are designed to not let us single-task. We weren’t talking about this before because we simply weren’t as distracted.”
Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct, told Pfetten monotasking is “something that needs to be practiced. … It’s an important ability and a form of self-awareness as opposed to a cognitive limitation.”
Sounds like a virtue worth preserving in the 21st century—a sort of excellence well-tuned to the times, necessary to fight off vices of inattention, laziness, and distractedness.
Larson’s color-coded text is a tool that can help us pursue monotasking. But so, too, is the simple act of printing out an article, closing out the extraneous tabs in our browser, or turning off distracting music or tv noise that might pull at our attention. It makes sense that, as long as publications rely on ad revenue, we’re not going to see a disappearance of web ads from our news pages. We can, however, employ different means—mental and physical—to attune ourselves to things that matter, and create new “bubbles” of focus that help us dismiss the siren calls of distraction, wherever they might lie.
When most Americans think about agriculture, they picture a small mom and pop farm with a few hundred acres and a small group of happy cows. Few realize that small agricultural enterprises are far from the norm today: as Leah Douglas wrote for Pacific Standard yesterday, “just four companies control 65 percent of pork slaughter, 84 percent of cattle slaughter, and 53 percent of chicken slaughter. Milk production is largely shaped by one large processor, Dean Foods, and one large cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America.” What are the practical results of this? Douglas writes,
Farmers face less competitive markets in which to sell their goods, leaving them vulnerable to any price offered by a buyer. Distributors and suppliers feel their prices squeezed as large retailers like Walmart leverage their growing power over the supply chain. Eaters are faced with an illusion of choice, wandering through supermarket aisles where dozens of seemingly competitive products might be owned by the same one or two food processors. Workers on farms and in meatpacking plants face pressure to increase production, sometimes at the expense of their safety. Animals living on factory farms are crowded into stifling barns, often receive unnecessary antibiotics, and are susceptible to disease.
Crony capitalism has been a problem in American agriculture for some time; our Farm Bill (which Jim Antle has called “welfare for the rich and politically connected”) doles out subsidies and financial supports to our country’s biggest corporatized farms. This can foster the sort of consolidation described above, while having a deleterious impact on the health of our land and communities, and a detrimental effect on competition and growth in our farming economy.
Throughout this presidential election, “big business” and “big banks” have gotten a lot of attention due to Bernie Sanders’s influence. Yet despite his crusade against large U.S. corporations, very little attention has been paid to agriculture and the role industrialized farms play in helping, or hurting, the U.S. economy. Neither Clinton nor Trump have a positive record when it comes to agriculture. Donald Trump’s only stated positions on farming put him directly in the pocket of Big Ag—he’s also attacked Cruz for his stance against ethanol mandates and subsidies, while declaring his own support for the industry. “His full-throated support for the ethanol mandate puts no room between him and Hillary, who has never met a corporate handout she didn’t like,” writes Tim Carney for the Washington Examiner.
Last month, the Obama administration issued an executive order that aims to support “a fair, efficient, and competitive marketplace.” The order condemns practices such as “unlawful collusion, illegal bid rigging, price fixing, and wage setting,” as well as other practices that “stifle competition and erode the foundation of America’s economic vitality.”
Yet despite the attention this new executive order draws to the problems in the American marketplace, it seems ill suited to address the problems therein.”When you see a headline like ‘Obama to Sign Executive Order to Ignite Corporate Competition’ you have to scratch your head at the premise,” notes Clyde Wayne Crews Jr. over at Forbes. “Igniting” or fostering competition often necessitates at least some deregulation, a freeing of the market and the players in that market—”something that doesn’t involve an executive order asking for action items from agencies in 60 days.”
As our system of agriculture has grown in size, it has also grown less sustainable. And while consolidation isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself, the obstruction of competition and sustainability are. We have begun to see this, and are starting to consider necessary adjustments. But in order to see real reform, we need to consider changes that might be made at the congressional level, specifically to the Farm Bill, which could bring greater freedom to small farmers and entrepreneurs.
With the triumph of Trump, Americans have spoken in favor of borders—not just the physical borders that automatically come to mind (the ones Trump has asserted he will protect by building a wall), but also the social and cultural borders our country has increasingly abandoned. In a recent article for Spiked, Frank Furedi argues our society has abandoned borders and limits of all sorts:
Western society’s estrangement from borders is not a progressive step forward – rather it expresses a crisis of nerve in relation to holding the line. Western society has embraced the evasive tactic of non-judgmentalism. Now it must relearn the value of making distinctions. It needs to overcome its reluctance to make judgments of value, and stop being afraid to hold the line.
This idea that our society is suffering a “crisis of nerve” in relation to holding firm reminded me immediately of an article Molly Worthen just wrote for the New York Times, in which she critiques the common expression “I feel like”: these words are symptomatic of a time, she argues, in which timidity of will prevents the speaker from making an outright truth claim. Rather than saying “I think” or “I believe”—in essence, holding or drawing a line—we fall back on the easy abstractness of “I feel like.” As a result, our public discourse has grown soft, edgeless, limitless. When emotion dominates our conversations, it is impossible to give any coherent rebuttal. We can say pretty much anything without getting in trouble. You can claim to be a seven-year-old Asian female—regardless of your age, race, or gender. (Indeed, in the linked video, a girl tells the man making the aforementioned argument, “I feel like that’s not my place, as another human, to say someone is wrong, or to draw lines or boundaries.”)
This has maddened many voters, who see this ridiculous, widespread political correctness as a plague enveloping all coherent or cogent conversation. Many of these frustrated people have flocked to Trump.
Yet ironically, despite the fact that he’s the champion of working class people frustrated with post-border politics and language, Trump is a candidate singularly suited to this post-border world. Because the appearance of genuineness—rather than the objective reliability of a truth claim—is heralded as the standard for veracity and dependability, Trump’s been able to garner a considerable following via the mode of his mannerisms alone. As David Butterfield put it in an excellent piece for Standpoint magazine, “the alarming rise of Donald Trump is intimately linked with his direct, no-nonsense talk; the travesty is that his mode of speech seems to weigh heavier with the electorate than what he actually says. Has the natural desire for clarity combined with the misguided fetish for brevity spawned an attitude that privileges blunt and unfiltered nonsense over multifaceted and nuanced commonsense?”
Social media is complicit in this, at least to some degree. Political messages have been significantly influenced by the medium by which they’re promoted and disseminated. Andrew Sullivan argued in a piece for New York magazine that much of the political upheaval we’ve seen throughout this presidential election thus far has been a result of the democratization of media brought about by the internet—a democratization that’s muddied the distinction between politics and entertainment, along with fostering the triumph of “feeling, emotion, and narcissism” over “reason, empiricism, and public-spiritedness.”
This is one of the greatest ironies of Trump’s success: the very post-border world (especially in media and culture) that he’s decrying is the very one that’s assisted him to fame and success.
But Trump has rightly put his finger on an angry sore bothering the American public, one that must be tended to lest it continue to fester: namely, the frustration with post-border society and its excesses. As Robert Nisbet wrote in The Quest for Community, if we don’t have a sense of belonging—if we’re divorced from any sort of situatedness—we fall prey to “deeply disquieting states of nostalgia and vague longing. These may transform themselves into innumerable emotions ranging from simple discontent to bitter alienation.”
This means that we need a community, a sense of belonging and distinction within a group of people, but it also means that we need a sense of right and wrong—a sense of limits and objectivity in our culture, discourse, religion, and politics. The breakdown of family and community, church and state—the creation of our post-border society—has not led to greater freedom. Instead, it’s led to a sort of slavery: to the federal government and its powers, to the self and its lusts, to the emotion and its excesses. A world without limits of virtue or courtesy is singularly suited to the bombast and bullying of a politician like Trump (as well as to the dreamy promises of a socialist like Bernie Sanders).
It’s difficult to determine how we can stem the flow of outrage, frustration, and bitterness now spilling forth in our political process—but it will be impossible to do so without recognizing the role that limits must play in healing our society, and our politics. Voters may be wrong in choosing Trump as their candidate—but they’re not wrong in believing that we need borders, limits, and distinctions in our society once more.
“Get big, or get out.” That’s the advice Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, gave farmers back in the 1970s—advice that has been predominantly followed over the past few decades.
But a growing number of farmers are defying that mantra, instead advocating through policy and practice for a sort of farming that many assumed was going extinct. These are what Forrest Pritchard calls “the unsung heroes of local, sustainable food”: the farmers who went organic before it was cool, who were “locavore” before the term existed.
A farmer himself, Forrest Pritchard runs a seventh-generation farm in the foothills of the Shenandoah mountains outside Washington, D.C. In a farm tour and interview I did with him two years ago, he mentioned a book he was working on: in it, he said, he wanted to remind people that sustainable farming isn’t trendy, but rather, “ancient, multi-generational, and multi-ethnic.”
That vision shows in his finished book, Growing Tomorrow. The farmers Pritchard talks to hail from all corners of the U.S.—New Mexico and Massachusetts, Washington and Georgia. He interviews produce farmers, dairymen, bee keepers, and a fisherman. Some have roots in farming: like the fifth-generation berry farmer who’s taking over the farm from her father, or the produce farmer in New Mexico who works land along the Rio Grande that his grandfather bought nearly a century ago. But there are also the newcomers: a beekeeper who used to be a professional soccer player, an orchard farmer who moved here from Mexico, a transplant from England who’s built a mushroom habitat in the woods of Missouri.
Interspersed between the farmer profiles are a vast array of recipes, either shared or inspired by the different farmers interviewed. A (tested and true) recipe for egg noodles, fresh tomato sauce, homemade almond milk, chili con carne, mustard-braised pork shoulder, savory peach soup… there are enough recipes in here to keep me busy all summer. Many of the recipes, too, have the distinct flavor of the farmer’s regional roots: a South Carolinian shares with Pritchard the virtues of boiled peanuts, a New Mexico farmer describes the best way to prepare a traditional chili, a hog farmer from West Virginia shares the recipe for biscuits that Pritchard enjoyed when he visited the farm.
Some of these stories are as much about renewal and hope as they are about present success: Pritchard interviews Detroit-based produce, honey, and compost farmers who are cultivating an urban farm to fight the economic troubles that have plagued their city. Their goal is to fight the prevalence of food deserts throughout Detroit by providing a local alternative and offering “food self-reliance” to city natives. Their composting initiative is meant to build soil health back into abandoned city lots, many of which are “terribly polluted.”
Then there’s the Texas honeybee farmers who are striving to keep their bees alive—battling widespread fears of honeybee extinction and frustrations with the prevalence of insecticides and herbicides that kill bees, among other things. “There’s tremendous state pride here, you can see it everywhere you go,” notes Susan Pollard. “It’s just like the old saying: ‘Everything’s bigger in Texas.’ But when it comes to agriculture, we’re getting left behind. All the focus is on huge crops of monoculture: Corn, cotton, soybeans. But how can they ignore the pollinators, the ones that make most of our food possible?”
Many of the farmers in this book have succeeded by doing a few things well: by trial and error, studying their crops or animals, expanding acre by acre. But more than this, what emanates from the pages of Growing Tomorrow is a deep and contagious passion for the art of farming. These aren’t just farmers. They’re “husbandmen,” dedicated to their vocation despite all its frustrations and difficulties. And their time, dedication, and passion have slowly paid off. We see this in the story of a goat farm that’s also a correctional facility, a place that teaches vocational skills alongside the virtues of cleanliness, diligence, and gentle care. It’s reflected in the story of Iowa farmer Steve Paul who—unlike the vast majority of his peers—is growing organic grains such as buckwheat, rye, and spelt.
These farmers face some significant challenges in today’s economy. Farmers like Paul are competing in a market that’s geared toward the big—those who’ve walked in Earl Butz’s footsteps, expanding and corporatizing. This is where the money has been, at least for the past several decades. But as hog farmer and former A&T State University professor Chuck Talbott puts it, “If we spent the same amount of money on sustainable farming that we do on big agriculture, all the R&D, and subsidies, then we wouldn’t have half the food problems we’ve got.” These farmers are advocating for a different model: one that may be more expensive, at least for a time, but one that promises long-term goods to consumers.
Part of Growing Tomorrow‘s appeal gives is that it helps readers connect with agricultural producers in their area: if I want to get produce from Washington, DC’s Potomac Vegetable Farms, profiled in the first chapter of the book, an index in the back points me to their website, the farmer’s markets they frequent, and information on their CSA program. This book is about connecting locals to the farmers who are trying to do things differently: it gives them a face, a voice, and a simple means to connect.
It’s easy, Pritchard acknowledges, to be dissuaded from supporting such small local producers because of the cost—in time, money, and effort—to procure their goods. It’s not nearly as easy as going to the supermarket and picking up a package of conventionally-produced beef. We ask ourselves, “What’s in it for me? Doesn’t this just make everything harder?”
But this is asking the wrong question, argues Pritchard. These farmers, he notes, “are people who have looked skyward, earthward, and outward. In doing so, they guide us to greater, more important questions: What do we value? How can we participate? What more can we do? Questions like these must grow our tomorrows.”
Last Saturday, I went to the farmer’s market to purchase some eggs. Umbrella and baby in tow, I stopped by a vendor’s booth I’d seen the week before. He was having a special on eggs. I ducked under the tent canopy and grabbed a couple cartons, when I heard him tell another customer that they only accepted cash. I set the cartons down in disappointment, gathered up my things, and told him I’d need to go look for an ATM. He looked at me—wet hair, baby in one arm, purse and grocery bags stuffed under the other—and he said, “You could just pay me next week. It’s raining pretty hard out there.”
This is what the local farmer gives: a human connection, an opportunity to participate in a relationship that extends beyond dollars and profit margins, and slowly develops into a sense of community and belonging.
Farming is no easy task. Farming in a way that’s both sustainable and humane is even more challenging, especially in this economy. A farmer who is willing to defy his cultural voices and the legacy of Earl Butz—someone who’s willing to stay in, and stay small—is worth our notice, and our support.
We’re all supposed to be “detoxing,” “cleansing,” or “decluttering” our lives these days. Gastronomically, the idea is that you pare down your diet to its most basic essentials, and thus cut away pounds, potential illnesses, or any lack of confidence you might feel. Mentally, we’re told to step away from the chaotic buzz of work, social media, television, and life obligations in order to clear out the clutter in our heads and become more “mindful.”
And then there’s the house-oriented version of these words, most recognized in the popular bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Author Marie Kondo tells her readers that the stuff in their homes needs paring down in order for them to really experience joy and peace in their lives. Thus, we’re advised, “If [an] item sparks joy, keep it; if not, dump it.”
In practice, this can be more extreme than it sounds; Kondo’s method involves a categorical purging of one’s possessions, winnowing things down piece by piece until only the most “joyous” items remain. And, she insists, we must do all our tidying in one attempt: no bit-by-bit cleaning, no slow and meticulous purging. Perfection is not just the ideal, it’s mandatory—and it’s demanded immediately.
I can understand what Kondo’s going for, and in a lot of ways, it makes sense. Our house is under 900 square feet, so there’s not a lot of room for “extra” stuff. Before we moved, we did a lot of paring down. But we have held onto things that give us joy: in each room of the house, there’s an object that doesn’t quite “fit.” It stands out, perhaps not comically, but with an air of eccentricity. The bulldog bottle opener in our kitchen (a favorite present from my parents), the bright green-and-pink-painted ceramic pot in our office (a gift from Mexico for our daughter, purchased by our wonderful neighbors), the “Dear America” books on our shelves (the ones my grandma read aloud to me when I was 10 years old, the Christmas before she passed away from cancer): I keep these things around not for their usefulness or efficiency, but for the sweet memories and sentiments they offer, every day.
But alongside these joyous objects, there’s also a bundle of things I hold onto not for memories past, but because of the promise of memories or joys that could be. And I wonder whether Kondo’s method leaves room for that sort of thing.
For instance: all the newborn baby clothes our daughter has already grown out of, I’ve stashed away—for baby number two, or a needy friend, or a future cousin. There’s a closet stuffed with extra pillows and bedding and blankets, because when company comes, I want to be ready. We have a huge pile of extra seeds stuffed in a pot under a shelf in the living room, because no matter how much we grow in the garden, we want to grow more. And the pantry shelves are overflowing with cans and bags and bins, because we love to eat—and we like variety.
There were similar shelves in my childhood home, piled high with canned peaches, pickled green beans, and cinnamon applesauce. My grandmother had whole closets dedicated to her treasured linens and china—things that belonged to her mother, things she had saved for special holidays and seasons. In my father’s office, I remember a wealth of papers and books piled on every imaginable space. It was a place dedicated to knowledge and diligence, study and insight. If that office had been conspicuously tidy, it wouldn’t have felt the same—nor would it have been as productive.
Whether it’s because we’re dedicated homesteaders with canned goods stashed here and there, or whether we’re avid bibliophiles with never-enough bookshelf space, we glory in little messes because they remind us why we’re alive. They help us to reminisce, or to look forward. They’re beautiful in their way, glorious in their careless grace. They offer us moments of joy, little though they may be, as we go about our daily lives.
The millennial generation is especially prone, apparently, to forsaking things for the appeal of experiences, and for the current popularity of minimalism. As Holly Ashby writes for Collective Evolution, status no longer involves amassing material possessions, but rather in projecting a certain type of lifestyle—one built around bohemian grace, virtuous minimalism, and ecological or personal mindfulness. “As technology continues to advance, conservation and ecological issues become ever more stark, and the real, material world loses favour to the one that can be found online, the concept of ownership could find itself becoming ever more irrelevant,” argues Ashby. “With Millennials gradually falling out of love with their possessions, it could be the generations that follow them will pioneer a new way of life, away from the consumerist mindset that has defined the past few decades.”
Consumerism has definitely developed a bad reputation. And for good reason: Americans are all too often obsessed with “stuff.” But it could also be that our embrace of minimalism is a sign of affluence, not a shunning of it: as Arielle Bernstein pointed out last month in The Atlantic, there are a lot of people who’ve gone through perilous circumstances or intense bouts of poverty—and for them, the concept of “minimalism” or “decluttering” is often careless, a sign of wealth and security:
Of course, in order to feel comfortable throwing out all your old socks and handbags, you have to feel pretty confident that you can easily get new ones. Embracing a minimalist lifestyle is an act of trust. For a refugee, that trust has not yet been earned. The idea that going through items cheerfully evaluating whether or not objects inspire happiness is fraught for a family like mine, for whom cherished items have historically been taken away. For my grandparents, the question wasn’t whether an item sparked joy, but whether it was necessary for their survival. In America, that obsession transformed into a love for all items, whether or not they were valuable in a financial or emotional sense. If our life is made from the objects we collect over time, then surely our very sense of who we are is dependent upon the things we carry.
This reminded me of stories my parents told me about older relatives who had lived through the Great Depression. They became hoarders, with mountains of food stashed in their basement or piles of extra clothes and newspapers stuffed in their closets. They knew what it was to be empty and needy, to have minimalism forced upon them like an anxious cloud. And they never wanted to face that reality again. To them, ownership was a promise of wellbeing.
While we don’t want to become hoarders, there is an important role for physical things in our lives: we are, after all, physical beings. An embrace of the body and physical existence enables us to live productive, artistic, enjoyable lives. It’s what results in fruitful gardens and beautiful paintings, sumptuous meals and glorious music. If canned goods piled in the pantry, shelves stuffed with seed packets, and closets spilling over with extra blankets help you create—if they help foster fruitfulness, hospitality, art, and thriftiness—then they should be treasured and lauded, not discarded.
Sometimes I call myself a “neat freak,” but I have to admit it isn’t really true. Because I prefer a pile of dishes next to the sink, if it means there’s a homemade dinner in the oven. And I prefer a big mess of books and watercolors and sketch paper on the coffee table, to one immaculately clean but empty of curiosity and creativity. And I prefer a bed only halfway made, because it usually means we were too busy playing with our baby girl and making coffee to getting the bedspread perfectly straightened. These are the experiences that bring us joy, every day. And sometimes that joy necessitates—or at least excuses—a little clutter.
Over at Aeon mag, Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell write that “innovation” is something we’ve blown out of proportion:
… Contemporary discourse treats innovation as a positive value in itself, when it is not. Entire societies have come to talk about innovation as if it were an inherently desirable value, like love, fraternity, courage, beauty, dignity, or responsibility. Innovation-speak worships at the altar of change, but it rarely asks who benefits, to what end?
One consequence of our obsession with innovation is that we constantly create new things, rather than maintaining and treasuring old ones—and often become wrapped up in consumerism, rather than in care.
Take homeownership and home-building in America: on the street my husband and I live on, the little 850 to 1,000 square-foot houses of past decades are being torn down and replaced with massive, sprawling monstrosities. Area developers don’t care that the lot in question is tiny: yard and space to grow things doesn’t matter these days. What matters is square footage—because every extra piece of hardwood and granite squeezed into that house is extra money in the developers’ pockets, while grass gets them nothing.
Yet at the same time, as Felicia Rose writes for Mother Earth News, “Tiny houses, often defined as those under five-hundred square feet, have gained purchase in recent years. Their lure is apparent. In a society of architectural obesity, they represent a clean-limbed leanness (or gauntness).” How do we reconcile this cultural obsession with “obese” houses, alongside growing desire for houses winnowed down to almost nothing?
While one may be worse for the neighborhood, both reflect our societal obsession with the new, the progressive, the “innovative.” There are plenty of old tiny houses throughout America. But most tiny house owners want something that’s still new, exciting, adapted to the latest technologies, and—perhaps most importantly—rootless. Something on wheels. Something that doesn’t require putting down stakes.
A society in love with innovation is a society that, oftentimes, has rejected the idea of limits. There’s no end to our exploring, because we don’t believe that we should stop anywhere. We aren’t content with our old smartphones or computers—we want the latest, newest thing, and expect companies to keep innovating endlessly.
Additionally, we’ve gotten used to spending money to get something fixed, rather than fixing it ourselves. This cultivates ignorance, and can turn us into discarders, rather than maintainers. Cars and houses can always be replaced with newer cars and bigger houses. Old things require a lot of work, tinkering, and upkeep. New things present us with a degree leisure and ease that is difficult to pass up.
But craftsmen, mechanics, gardeners, cooks, and cleaners—each of these trades, simple though they seem, keeps the world ordered and beautiful. As Vinsel and Russell write, “focusing on infrastructure or on old, existing things rather than novel ones reminds us of the absolute centrality of the work that goes into keeping the entire world going.”
The individual who dedicates his or her life to maintenance and repair is the one who “keeps ordinary existence going rather than introducing novel things,” they write. They are the husbandmen and housewives, plumbers and janitors, construction workers and electricians. “Brief reflection demonstrates that the vast majority of human labour, from laundry and trash removal to janitorial work and food preparation, is of this type: upkeep.”
Jobs that involve “upkeep” are not highly valued in today’s world. A farmer told me last year that most jobs—like his—that involve manual labor are viewed as blue collar and unintellectual, jobs for the high school dropouts and unambitious. Meanwhile, Capitol Hill and Wall Street and Silicon Valley receive the accolades, the geniuses, and the money. The former are, indeed, “ordinary” vocations in comparison, and rather quotidian forms of existence. But the job of maintaining—the earth, its infrastructure, and its people—is absolutely vital to our wellbeing and flourishing.
In The Unsettling of America, farmer and essayist Wendell Berry shares the memory of an interaction he once had with another farmer:
Several years ago I argued with a friend of mine that we might make money by marketing some inferior lambs. My friend thought for a minute and then he said, “I’m in the business of producing good lambs, and I’m not going to sell any other kind.” He also said that he kept the weeds out of his crops for the same reason that he washed his face. The human race has survived by that attitude. It can survive only by that attitude…
Many people associate the word “innovation” with Republican sentiment, because the party prizes capitalism, free markets, and entrepreneurship. But to be a conservative is also, importantly, to desire to conserve things. To appreciate the quotidian labor that keeps our world going—and to join the maintainers in tending our little square of earth, keeping the weeds out of our gardens with the same diligence and zeal with which we wash our faces.
It involves an appreciation for the work of creating, but also an acknowledgment that “new” isn’t always better—that there should be a limit and end (both literally and teleologically) to our innovation, because we already have good things worth tending. And even though we won’t make millions doing it, it is the simple task of maintaining that lifts us out of empty consumerism and into the realm of stewardship and care.
Waiting in line, stuck in traffic, aboard the subway: at moments such as these, we pull out our phones. We text, check Facebook, scroll through pictures on Instagram, post something on Twitter. It’s not uncommon to see a couple sitting across from each other at a restaurant, engrossed in their phones.
New technology has in many ways served as a boon to connection. All of a sudden, we can communicate with loved ones on the other side of the country—or on the other side of the world. We have an instantaneous method for discovering important life news and alerting one another to personal emergencies. Our phones and social media accounts act like leashes, keeping us tethered to each other at all times.
But are we truly caring for and understanding one another through these devices? Are these connections—mediated and interposed as they are through technology—really leading to full and flourishing human relationships?
This is the question considered by Sherry Turkle—a psychologist and the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT—in Reclaiming Conversation. Turkle began studying technology’s effects on society back in the 1980s, when she wrote her first book considering the computer’s impact on the self. Since then she has written three books on the subject, including 2011’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.
Why revisit the subject again only four years later? Turkle argues that her observations in Alone Together have only been confirmed in recent years, as social media have built an increasingly important place in the average person’s life. Beyond that, she believes we are finally beginning to see a bit of protest and backlash against the technological craze. In Alone Together, she now writes, “I knew I was describing complications that most people did not want to see.” And today “we are ready to reconsider the too-simple enthusiasm of ‘the more connected we are, the better off we are.’”
Because of our increasing reliance on technology, we have descended from conversation “to the efficiencies of mere connection,” Turkle argues. Technology promises we will be always heard, never alone, and never bored, yet the informal and virtual nature of its connections has encouraged looser familial and romantic bonds. Many young people struggle to conduct interviews, discuss their emotions, or even spend time with their friends without the assistance of technology.
Henry David Thoreau says in Walden that all of life should be set around three “chairs”: one for solitude and contemplation; two for friendship, which we share with kith and kin; and three for society. Turkle believes our relationship with these three chairs has been drastically reshaped by technology. It should be obvious that our ability to enjoy one chair—solitude—has been deeply inhibited, if not often demolished, by our new online lives. For many, it is nearly impossible to sit alone or wait patiently in line without turning to the ever-present phone. There’s a nagging feeling that comes over us in such moments of pause, an almost frenzied desire not to be without entertainment or distraction.
Some argue that we are hiding, on such occasions, from our fears and uncertainties about life: from the sorts of deep thoughts that creep up on us when we are alone. Others believe that we have developed a deep repugnance to boredom—one that is mentally debilitating. Turkle contends that we need moments of solitude in order to develop emotionally, mentally, and relationally: solitude allows us to daydream, discover new ideas, and build a true sense of self based on self-knowledge rather than on the opinions of others. When social media such as Facebook become our go-to in moments of quiet, “we risk building a false self,” while also damaging our creative capabilities.
Turkle considers friendship—Thoreau’s two chairs—in two parts. She first considers ways in which social media and smartphones have damaged our familial relationships, and her thoughts are particularly poignant when discussing the modern family’s inability to negotiate conflict or spend meaningful time together. There’s been an abdication of conversation on both sides in today’s family: while parents complain that their children are addicted to technology and out of touch, children now claim that they can’t pull their parents away from their own smartphones. We often see technological obsession as a young man’s pursuit, but it’s an addiction all generations are susceptible to.
Even though many young people Turkle talks to have a hard time envisioning life without modern communications technology, they’re also quick to admit that something is wrong with their relationships. They want to communicate better with their loved ones but feel they’ve lost both the means and opportunity to do so. The phone and computer, while prompting greater connection across the nation and globe, have failed to foster relationships between people at the most basic and important level: within the home.
Solving this problem will require intentionality, a conscious choice to put away our devices when we are together and carve out precious time for conversation. Turkle suggests designating “sacred spaces” in the home and in relationships: appointing places and times in which technology is banned. This can be a difficult decision for parents to make—indeed, it requires as much from them as it does from their children—but Turkle believes it is necessary to foster lasting relationships between family members.
Turkle’s discussion of the social and romantic lives of young people is saddening, even if what she reports is not altogether surprising. Many young adults find that, even when spending one-on-one time with their peers, their attention is constantly bombarded by the “other”: other friends, other places one could be, other potential partners one could be dating. One girl notes that following a sexual encounter with a young man she liked, she found herself checking the hookup site Tinder while he was in the bathroom. Another girl named Kati tells Turkle that “wherever she and her friends are, they strategize about where they could be. With so much choice, says Kati, it becomes harder to choose … and nothing feels like the right choice. Nothing Kati and her friends decide seems to measure up to their fantasy of what they might have done.”
Beyond the temporality and discontent this can develop among friends, technology’s mediating nature can also instill a sense of separation between its users, shielding them from vulnerability and the rawness of physical connection. The resulting interactions can have deleterious consequences. When she turns her attention to work and school—Thoreau’s three chairs—Turkle finds that much of the cyber-bullying we’re seeing today is a result of this technological connectivity. One schoolteacher told Turkle she believes “children are treating other children as ‘apps,’ as means to an end.” They see their social and romantic interactions through a utilitarian lens, and they aren’t as afraid to hurt each other because they often can’t see the immediate results of their words.
In the workplace, technology has created a barrier to interactions that formerly fostered relationships between employees, clients, and bosses. New hires, some executives complain, are unwilling to make client phone calls or to interact with their fellow employees. They sit at their desks with their headphones on and argue that this insulation actually enables them to work more effectively. But just as in personal relationships, this inability to connect meaningfully in real time begins to weigh on workplace interactions.
Some may wonder whether the progressions we’re seeing in the smartphone and Internet age are any different from those we saw at the dawn of the television age. Older generations complained then, too, of the changes such media would bring and the dangers they posed for youngsters. Such protests were, and often still are, dismissed as Luddite or old-fashioned. The arguments Turkle presents might seem to have a similarly backwards air to them.
But Turkle’s book shows that while the changes we see may not be unprecedented in kind or quality, they are unusual in scope and depth. It’s true that the television changed the way people interacted in the neighborhoods and in the home: as Wendell Berry has pointed out, the television shifted our social lives from the front porch into the living room, prompting us to greater solitude and separation. Today’s technology often fosters the same individualism, but it is more consistently present. Whereas the television inhabits a fixed and limited space, the Internet and smartphone are almost continually present in our lives. Whether at work or at home—even in the car, airplane, bus, or train—the digital world is there, beckoning to us.
While we should not neglect the goods that technology can provide, we should not embrace them without a thought to the possible consequences, either. With each stage of technological development, we’re encouraged to separate ourselves more from the physical space we inhabit. We’re encouraged to live in a virtual reality in which we can distance ourselves from both the blessings and curses of real presence. Yet technology is at its best when it facilitates instead of replaces physical interaction.
The challenges we face in the digital age have grown in scale, prompting new sorts of addiction and disconnection, but many of the underlying problems that Turkle cites are ones we have always struggled with: the fear of being alone, discontent with our lot in life, the desire to be ever entertained, reluctance to commit or be vulnerable. A human relationship has always required virtues such as gratitude, selflessness, diligence, honesty. Technology prompts an ease of interaction that can undermine such virtues, but it doesn’t have to. We must exercise caution and understand that even the most convenient technology requires limits and prudence. Turkle’s book contributes to a discussion that, while as old as human nature, must continue to resurface as our new contraptions, and new ways of spending time, threaten to shift our perception of old truths and virtues.
Gracy Olmstead is TAC’s senior writer.
Our society is characterized by great freedom: by ever-growing personal autonomy, a loosening of social and civic bonds, and a diminishing of cultural and religious value systems. But have these things made us more free, more enlightened? Perhaps not. As David Brooks writes in a Wednesday column,
The liberation of the individual was supposed to lead to mass empowerment. But it turns out that people can effectively pursue their goals only when they know who they are — when they have firm identities.
Strong identities can come only when people are embedded in a rich social fabric. They can come only when we have defined social roles — father, plumber, Little League coach. They can come only when we are seen and admired by our neighbors and loved ones in a certain way. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “Other men are lenses through which we read our own minds.”
You take away a rich social fabric and what you are left with is people who are uncertain about who they really are. It’s hard to live daringly when your very foundation is fluid and at risk.
Brooks explores the importance of “separability amid situatedness”: the ability to have independence and room to grow, within the supporting framework of a loving community and undergirding system of values. This sort of situatedness, he argues, requires a “covenant” rather than a contract. “People in a contract provide one another services, but people in a covenant delight in offering gifts,” he writes. “Out of love of country, soldiers offer the gift of their service. Out of love of their craft, teachers offer students the gift of their attention.”
Brooks’s observations reminded me of an essay Marilynne Robinson wrote for Harper’s Magazine in defense of the public university. In it, she describes the difference between the “citizen” and the “taxpayer”—and the significance of the fact that the former is used less often than the latter:
There has been a fundamental shift in the American consciousness. The Citizen has become the Taxpayer. In consequence of the shift, public assets have become public burdens. … While the Citizen can entertain aspirations for the society as a whole and take pride in its achievements, the Taxpayer, as presently imagined, simply does not want to pay taxes. The societal consequences of this aversion—failing infrastructure, for example—are to be preferred to any inroad on his or her monetary fiefdom, however large or small.
… Citizenship, which once implied obligation, is now deflated. It is treated as a limited good that ought to be limited further. Of course, the degree to which the Citizen and the Taxpayer ever existed, exist now, or can be set apart as distinct types is a question complicated by the fact that they are imposed on public consciousness by interest groups, by politicians playing to constituencies, and by journalism that repeats and reinforces unreflectingly whatever gimmicky notion is in the air. It can be said, however, that whenever the Taxpayer is invoked as the protagonist in the public drama, a stalwart defender of his own, and a past and potential martyr to a culture of dependency and governmental overreach, we need not look for generosity, imagination, wit, poetry, or eloquence. We certainly need not look for the humanism Tocqueville saw as the moving force behind democracy.
… The Citizen had a country, a community, children and grandchildren, even—a word we no longer hear—posterity. The Taxpayer has a 401(k). It is no mystery that the former could be glad to endow monumental libraries, excellent laboratories, concert halls, arboretums, and baseball fields, while the latter simply can’t see the profit in it for himself.
In The Quest for Community, Robert Nisbet wrote that the family, religious association, and local community “are essentially prior to the individual and are the indispensable supports of belief and conduct.” These associations are what make us not only “taxpayers”—autonomous individuals in a singular relationship to the state—but rather “citizens,” with a sense of civic duty and a passion for the local sphere. Without community, “you get not freedom and rights but intolerable aloneness and subjection to demonic fears and passions.” One is reminded of the sort of fear-mongering that dominates our politics these days—on the radio, the television, in many partisan publications.
Brooks believes our separation and hostility must be “repaired by hundreds of millions of people making local covenants—widening their circles of attachment across income, social and racial divides. But it will probably also require leaders drawing upon American history to revive patriotism.”
Sadly, we’ve seen some faulty conceptions of patriotism displayed in our politics in recent months; the word seems tainted and frayed by current political discourse and debates, bloated by discussions of American exceptionalism and suspicious, nationalistic belligerence. Perhaps this tendency has grown in part because patriotism without strong local covenants isn’t patriotism at all: it’s loyalty to an intangible, amorphous conception of country—one that isn’t tied to anything concrete or specific. Ian Corbin pointed this out in a thoughtful Independence Day piece last year, arguing that our patriotism must latch onto a local sphere before it can (healthily) blossom into any sort of national allegiance: “I believe we should shamelessly embrace our cultural balkanization, or to put it more gently, our cultural federalism,” he wrote. “It is nowhere written that a person ought to feel equally at home in every nook and cranny of the state she calls home. If there is a deep sense of patriotism available to us Americans, it will have to be based in local soil.”
As Nisbet wrote, if we don’t have a sense of belonging—if we’re divorced from any sort of situatedness—we fall prey to “deeply disquieting states of nostalgia and vague longing. These may transform themselves into innumerable emotions ranging from simple discontent to bitter alienation.” This words seem to perfectly describe the malaise and bitterness that currently plague our politics, pushing voters to choose anti-establishment candidates and their Us vs. Them rhetoric. “It is not merely that an orderly, predictable world of values has been replaced by the unpredictabilities and moral voids of civic life,” writes Nisbet. “Fundamentally it is the loss of a sense of belonging, of a close identification with other human beings.”
This loss leads us not only into callous individualism—it can also lead us into coarseness, into a bitter and vengeful expression of uncensored emotion: “Moral conscience, the sense of civilized decency, will not long survive separation from the associative ties that normally reinforce and give means of expression to the imperatives of conscience,” writes Nisbet. Do we not see this in the often crude and offensive banter between presidential candidates, between their adherents on Twitter or other social media platforms?
Our autonomy—the breakdown of family, community, and church—has not led to greater freedom. Instead, it’s led to a sort of slavery: to the state and its powers, to the self and its lusts, to the emotion and its excesses. “Genuine freedom is not based upon the negative psychology of release,” writes Nisbet. “Its roots are in positive acts of dedication to ends and values. Freedom presupposes the autonomous existence of values that men wish to be free to follow and live up to.”
Thus we return to Robinson’s Citizen vs. Taxpayer. They are concrete examples of what our freedom ought to be characterized by: not a complete freedom from social obligation or allegiance, but rather a freedom to give of ourselves in a larger cause, in a community and/or covenant that has deep and lasting meaning. Robinson’s example of worthy citizenship is an allegiance to American higher education, appreciation for the patronage necessary to keep the liberal arts alive. Unless we’re willing to give a little of our paychecks and our allegiances to the higher education and what it stands for, she argues, we are refusing to display the sort of civic spirit that has traditionally been the bedrock of American patriotism, of American society. Being a “citizen” requires—it does not just entitle. It involves a sort of noble attentiveness to duty and obligation. Some might argue that it would be better if, instead of paying our dues to public universities, we demonstrated greater generosity to the private university. But either way, Robinson’s point still stands: our citizenship should involve a sense of belonging: a devotedness to family, community, and posterity.
Perhaps such attitudes of love and allegiance can be a solution, at least in part, to the fragmented autonomy that Brooks is describing. Perhaps they can animate our patriotism, and save it from frenzied dogma or hostile belligerence. Because being a citizen reminds us that before we can claim anything for ourselves, we must give of ourselves in local covenant.
When the Brussels attacks happened, media coverage and popular outrage filled the days after—like the Paris terror attacks the year before, they dominated the news. And rightly so.
But what of the terrorist bombing in Pakistan on Easter Sunday? The coverage has slowly started to trickle in; the frustration is slowly building. The Vatican Insider shares some details on the bombing:
Many of them were faithful who had attended the Easter liturgy in the two nearby churches of the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal community that also runs a student college in Lahore. Christian families with children, who simply wanted to spend a peaceful Easter day at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park. Nature, picnics and children playing. This green space is frequented by students attending the nearby University of the Punjab, the region’s biggest and most important educational institution.
It was easy for the Taliban suicide bomber to take up his position by the park’s exit and carry out a massacre using 20 kg of explosives, that claimed the lives of 72 confirmed victims and left 350 injured. The death toll looks to rise given the number of people – especially women and children – currently in a critical condition.
But the response to this horrific bombing was much smaller than what we saw in response to Brussels. Coverage has been slow and sporadic. There hasn’t been any sort of statement from the White House or President; celebrities’ response has been muted in comparison. Vox is actually one of the publications that has taken note of the discrepancy in coverage, noting that a Dallas hotel’s tribute is one small exception to an overall quiet response.
People have noted this in the past: it often seems that the U.S. does not respond with the same gravity to atrocities that happen in non-Western countries. We change our profile pictures and update our statuses for Paris, but it barely registers in our news feed reading when similar—or worse—things happen in other countries.
Yet it also seems that some particular details from the Sunday blast should have caught the attention of the media with greater speed and alarm than they did: the people killed in Pakistan on Sunday were mainly women and children, and mainly Christian. They were celebrating Easter together. The bomb was set off near a playground area. At least 29 children were killed—almost equal to the entire death toll of the Brussels attacks.
Honestly, I wonder whether I would have even noticed the news headlines about the bombing, if it wasn’t for Facebook’s mistaken safety check that it sent to my phone. When it said I was near the “Lahore bombing” and asked me if “I was okay,” I Googled those words. When Facebook later issued an apology to those who received mistaken safety checks, I wanted to say, “No, don’t—if it weren’t for you, we all would’ve ignored Pakistan and gone about our Easter festivities without a thought.”
It’s difficult to imagine what the response in the U.S. might be if some terrorist or vigilante planted a bomb near a playground area—if our children were similarly targeted and killed. The president would surely issue a statement. Interviews with parents and family members would dominate the evening news. Outrage would spill over on Twitter and Facebook. Hashtags would help us all show our solidarity and sadness for the victims.
But perhaps this bombing has not been as talked about because it wasn’t an ISIS attack—it was a Taliban suicide bomber. And ISIS has been our main focus when it comes to covering terrorist activity as of late, especially considering media coverage of the 2016 presidential election.
Or perhaps the quiet coverage is a result of the fact that the event happened on a holiday. Yet the fact that those targeted were Easter celebrants, it seems this would only draw attention to the bombing. On a day when millions celebrated Holy Week and Easter in peace and comfort, one group of rejoicing people were struck down.
Perhaps it hasn’t been covered much here in the U.S. because U.S. Christians are often seen as entitled, bigoted, or intolerant. (The support of Trump among American “evangelicals” has only drawn further support to this stereotype.) Pakistani Christians targeted by an extremist don’t fit with this narrative. The media is more likely to report on the lone wolf who shoots an abortion doctor, the Christian who slams homosexuals, or the church with a misogynistic pastor. Persecuted Christians—or little children killed at a park playground on Easter—don’t quite fit that overarching narrative of the entitled, bigoted, intolerant Christian. It’s difficult for many Americans to comprehend that in a country like Pakistan, Christians are a persecuted minority.
To be fair, some publications did finally start writing about the attacks in Pakistan. The Daily Beast got out a story—a fantastic one, actually—on Monday afternoon. Writes (Muslim) author Maajid Nawaz,
Yesterday’s heartbreaking blasts made this the third time this month alone that Pakistan has been attacked by jihadists. All this just in Pakistan, just in March. And this needs to be understood in the context of the global jihadist insurgency that is upon us: unprecedented in its scale, pluralistic in its leadership, fractured in its strategy, nevertheless inspiring in its central message, and popular enough in its appeal that it is able to move masses.
… Many still deny this insurgency exists, and it is true that these countries have locally specific factors that contribute to their respective insurgent conditions. Yes, the groups behind these attacks are not under one central leadership, rather they are either affiliates or offshoots of competing jihadist groups. But they all share one cause.
They are all—including ISIS—derived from, or affiliated to just two jihadist groupings: al Qaeda and the Taliban. In turn, jihadists all drink from the same doctrinal well of widespread, rigid Wahhabism. And they share the ideological aims of popular non-terrorist Islamists. They are all unified behind a theocratic desire to enforce a version of Sharia as law over society.
… Our failure to recognize this as a civilizational struggle—one centered around values—has allowed the fundamentalist problem of Wahhabism, and the political problem of Islamism, to fester and metastasize. This struggle is an ideological one before it is a military or legal one. Vague platitudes that this has nothing to do with Islam—my own religion—are as unhelpful as saying that this is the essence of Islam. Extremism certainly has something to do with Islam. Not nothing, not everything, but something.
The Lahore bombing underscores the very religious character of the jihadists’ fanaticism. This was not about alienation in a European ghetto, or revenge for American and European airstrikes in the Middle East— the secular-sounding explanations offered as the motivations of people like those who carried out the Paris and Brussels attacks. Lahore was about pure, vicious religious intolerance, killing Christians—including Christian children—on Easter Sunday because they were Christians and not the kind of Muslims the murderers claim to be.
… So, let there be no doubt. We are in the middle of a struggle against theocracy, and for secular liberal democratic values. Muslims and non-Muslims respectively must join together in that fight. This is why Trump’s divisive rhetoric is so unhelpful. Everyone must stand together to discredit Islamism, and to support a reform in Islamic discourse. All of us together are responsible for challenging intolerant, theocratic thinking before it spills over to violence. All of us together are responsible for refusing to allow religion to become the primary bond that divides us from “the other.”
In the midst of my frustration about coverage (or lack thereof) of the Easter bombing in Pakistan, this story appeared. And it reminded me of what makes journalism great.
It rejects stereotype and embraces the complex, harrowing stories that plagues our world. It demonstrates nuance and thoughtfulness, avoids vitriol and assumption. While the author could have been on the defense, he chose instead to look carefully at both sides and present an argument that unites, rather than drives apart. When we write thus—thoughtfully, carefully, truthfully—we do the world an important service. We help bring light to tragedy, and give support to the weak and vulnerable. We fight injustice, abuse, and the horrors of extremism, like what we saw in Pakistan on Sunday, or in Brussels last Tuesday.
Perhaps this is one way we can use “weapons of love” to fight violent extremism, as Pope Francis put it in his Sunday Easter message. “May he [the risen Jesus] draw us closer on this Easter feast to the victims of terrorism, that blind and brutal form of violence which continues to shed blood in different parts of the world,” he said. “With the weapons of love, God has defeated selfishness and death.”
Last week, Rod Dreher wrote about a Muslim who was murdered by another Muslim believer for saying he loved Christians. His piece demonstrated the important truth that not all Muslims are terrorists or intolerant extremists, as some have touted. But it also shows that that intolerance is out there. Similarly, the stories about misogynistic pastors or lone-wolf gunmen are important. They need to be told, condemned. But so too must we tell the stories of those wrongfully killed, tortured, even crucified for their faith.
It’s easy to get caught up in the push and pull of presidential politics—especially when they’re as sensationalistic and dramatic as they have been this time around. But let’s not forget, in the midst of the entertaining, to pray for the heartbreaking and the heartbroken: to remember lives lost in countries beyond our customary notice or concern, and to use “weapons of love” to fight such injustice, whenever we get the chance.
When you are about to have a baby, the floodgates of warnings and omens break forth. I’ve never heard so many “just you wait”’s in my life. Have trouble sleeping around your pregnant belly? “Just you wait till you have a cluster feeding baby.” Struggle getting dinner together on a regular basis? “Just you wait till you’ve got a clingy little one who wants all your attention.”
Even when you do finally experience these things for the first time, you still haven’t arrived. That’s when all the one-upmanship begins. “Your labor was six hours? Wow, that’s nothing. Mine was 24 hours.” Or—“Your baby only sleeps in 3 hour stretches? Mine would barely make it two.” Or— “Your baby is a fitful napper? Just wait till she’s a toddler and refuses to nap at all.”
Alongside these conversations, I began noticing all the Facebook statuses: “Toddler destroyed the bathroom today…” “Haven’t slept in days…” “Husband finally rescued me so I could get away from these monsters…” There’s often a note of sarcasm and playfulness in these statements, but oy. It’s still discouraging. It made me wonder what I had gotten myself into. I struggled not to envision years of frustration, stress, and sleeplessness, stretching before me like a brooding dark cloud.
Where was the joy?
Well, that’s the secret—the secret all the voices on social media or in-person conversations weren’t offering me. It’s the secret that you may not have realized just yet, because those are the voices you’ve been listening to.
So I want to be the one to announce loudly, for all to hear: HAVING A KID IS FUN. PARENTING IS FUN. BABIES ARE FUN.
I’ll explain: yes, there is pain and discomfort. Labor isn’t the easiest thing in the world (to put it very, very nicely). And when that little newborn enters the world screaming, life changes forever. That baby will demand time and attention you didn’t know you had. He or she will take away hours of sleep that you previously enjoyed, fill your arms and prevent you from getting “important things” done. He or she will cry when least convenient, refuse to nap, learn to do obnoxious things to get your attention. There may be health scares, temper tantrums, moments of distress, fear, or frustration.
But parenting is still fun. Because those are just the negative moments in a whole world of sweet, positive things. When that little newborn enters the world, they love you with their whole heart—depend on you, love you, enjoy spending time with you. That little one will want to nestle in your arms and cuddle. He or she will smile their first smile into your face, utter their first word in an effort to communicate with you. Selfishly, it’s an incredible thing. That baby means you won’t be alone. You have a companion: someone to go on walks with, someone to watch the evening news with, someone to sing songs to. And unselfishly—the fact that your life can help produce life, that you can help bring into the world and nurture a new, life-bearing, creative, unique soul, is an unspeakable gift.
I know many grown parents who have cultivated strong relationships with their children through the years. And when these parents speak of their children, it isn’t with annoyance or frustration. When their children are grown, they become friends and enjoy their time together. The strength of these relationships seems to stem from the fact that over the years, the parents developed a healthy understanding of 1) their responsibility to their children—to serve and to discipline them—and 2) of their children’s autonomy and personhood.
It’s a fragile dance, one that often seems to difficult to balance. These parents know that, from the moment a child is born (or even before), their life will be one of service and sacrifice toward that child, helping them grow into a responsible and kind human being. But these parents also know that this does not involve bowing to a child’s every whim and fancy; they understand that a child’s raw material requires careful nurturing—and that requires discipline. We must help inculcate habits of virtue by developing incentives that draw a child toward the Good, teaching them the right reaction to various pains and pleasures. This is part of our service toward our children—not just giving them a candy to get them to stop whining, not just turning on the TV every time they bother us; but rather, teaching them to love what is good, to exercise self-control, to know what is prudent and right. This involves work. But the result is often a relationship strengthened by love and a desire to do what is best for the child, even when it’s troublesome and frustrating.
The balancing side of this is that these parents don’t see their children as playthings or passive objects. They care less about their children’s grades or extracurricular achievements than they do about their character. When their child expresses a desire to try something new, they’re encouraging—but they don’t pressure him or her into some pursuit that they will not enjoy. These parents see their children as creative, exciting, unique human beings, and enjoy watching them grow in their own way, in their own time. When their children are young, they don’t worry about what others think, about whether their child is “advanced” or not, about whether they’ll be a straight-A student. They don’t try to cover up the imperfect moments, or wish their kids would finally be old enough for daycare, old enough to go to school, old enough to finally move out. On the flip side, they don’t “vent” about their children constantly in public forums, complaining about their problems and issues. They recognize the fact that—just as it isn’t appropriate to do that in regards to their husbands, or sisters, or parents-in-law—it’s not appropriate to do with their children, who are also people with feelings and dignity. As their children grow into adulthood, they show deference and respect to the maturing person before them. They see that their children do not belong to them—rather, they see each child as a gift, one to be tended, but also respected.
My grandmother once told my mother that “we raise our firstborns for other people”; it’s a statement I now think about constantly, hoping and praying that I don’t fall prey to this temptation. But when we’re constantly posting about our lives online, it’s difficult not to feel this temptation. I want to share moments from my daughter’s life with her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins; what I don’t want is to use her to get accolades, praise, or sympathy from any or all of the above. Often—as with all things in life—it’s difficult to separate my motivations as I’m hitting “post.”
But I am trying, every day, to enjoy moments with her in all their sweetness before I even think about “sharing” them. To savor the times my daughter laughs or coos or starts to roll over. To talk to her when we go on walks, to read books with her, to cuddle with her—to see her little personality develop, her little will and opinions get stronger and more evident. To start praying for the days ahead when she’ll need discipline, encouragement, admonition. To be grateful that I get to be present for these sweet days—grateful that I get to be her mother, grateful that we get to spend life together from here on out. As I sink into each moment, I find myself having more fun than I ever thought I would. When she grins at me, I grin back. We laugh together—or more often at this point, I laugh at her, especially as she grows more opinionated and animated.
And despite all the negative social media posts, all the warnings, all the “just you wait”’s, I’m discovering that life with this baby girl is wonderfully fun. I am filled with awe at the fact that I got to help create a new life, and now get to watch that life develop and grow. I get to spend time with her, get to see her pursue her dreams and help her reach them.
The greatest challenge of the days ahead will be learning to strike a good balance between the above two things: between service and deference, love and respect, discipline and freedom. But I suspect—and hope—that if I continue to see this baby girl as a living breathing wonder, as a gift, it will help turn my heart towards that correct balance, and bring joy in the days to come.