Thursday, February 28, 2013

Walking and Talking

"We have become a suburban nation - the only one in the world. Our migration from both the inner cities and the rural hinterland was as Lewis Mumford once put it, 'a collective effort to live a private life.' We aimed for comfort and well-stocked homes and freedom from uncomfortable interaction and the obligations of citizenship. We succeeded.

As if to seal our fate, zoning ordinances were copied and enforced all over the land, prohibiting the stuff of community from intrusion into residential areas. In the subdivisions of post-World War II America, there is nothing to walk to and no place to gather. The physical staging virtually ensures immunity from community.

The preferred and ubiquitous mode of urban development is hostile to both walking and talking. In walking, people become part of their terrain; they meet others; they become custodians of their neighborhoods. In talking, people get to know one another; they find and create their common interests and realize the collective abilities essential to community and democracy."
I read this recently in an excellent book by Ray Oldenburg called “The Great Good Place,” which talks about the importance of “third places” - places other than work and home where people come together.  It’s one of those quotes that you read and then get up to do a lap around the living room, shouting “Yes!  That’s it!  That’s it!”

I consider myself fortunate to have grown up for the most part outside of the suburban wastelands described above.  Most of my childhood was spent in urban neighborhoods in a couple of different large-ish Midwestern cities.  My family finally moved out to the suburbs when I was 15, but somehow managed to find a weird and quirky little suburban pocket that functions more like a small town.  It is the original settlement in that area, with a beautiful Catholic church built in 1859, and a general atmosphere of neighborliness and community.  But I’ve had plenty of opportunity to experience the tree-less, sidewalk-less, isolating suburban subdivisions described above.

These environments are de-humanizing.  They cut us off from each other and from opportunities to foster creativity, collective action, and just simple “leisure” (as defined by Joseph Pieper).

My husband and I currently live in a vibrant downtown neighborhood in a large city.  There’s a lot to love about it.  Due to the many different and historically segregated immigrant populations that first settled in this part of the Midwest, our neighborhood has a Catholic church practically on every block.  Everything else is walkable too - we can definitely find almost everything we need without getting in the car.  And there are great places to eat, drink and spend time together - our favorites are the various ethnic restaurants owned and operated by large, first-generation immigrant families from India, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

Of course, the “trendiness” factor means that many of the independent businesses that line the main drag are overpriced clothing and gift boutiques.  And there are lots and lots of bars, very few with an atmosphere very conducive to great conversation.  After spending some time in the UK, I am always searching for the eternally elusive “pub” and have yet to find it here.

But it’s a good place to be for now, and I’m hoping Oldenburg’s book inspires me with more ideas to help build the kind of neighborhood that leads to human flourishing.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

An Introduction to Niggle's Sketchbook

I saw a preview recently for a new TV show called “How to Live With Your Parents (For The Rest of Your Life)."

The show itself looks like standard sitcom fare.  But TV producers and other culture-makers, even when their finished products are pandering and banal, are usually reacting to something.  And what these particular producers are reacting to is fast becoming the stuff of cliché:

Young adults are lost.

Anyone now in their twenties needs at least two hands to count their friends who are living at home or whose lives are parentally-subsidized.  Graduate school seems to be a way to postpone inevitable disappointment. There is a sense of directionless-ness, a collective sigh of resignation, a continually lowering expectation of what life has to offer.

Going back a ways, your twenties were a time to establish yourself as an adult.  You got married.  As a man, you found a job with a path to advancement and a salary that supported your growing family.  As a woman, you devoted yourself to creating a home and raising your children.

Jumping ahead a couple of decades, your twenties became a time when you could impact the world.  There was a sense of solidarity with others that saw the deep societal changes that were needed.  Working for peace or for the worker or for the disenfranchised gave you a sense of purpose and direction.

Jumping ahead again, your twenties were a time of self-fulfillment.  Decades of self-esteem training had promised us: we can do anything we want to be if we just believe in ourselves!  And for a while, that seemed to be true.  There was a path to follow to achieve happiness: Work hard in school.  Go to college.  Get a job.  Make money.  Buy a house.  Accessorize with a couple of children.

Now suddenly, this path seems to lead to a variety of dead ends.  Young adults graduate and then move back in with their parents, or dig themselves deeply into credit card debt, or become entrenched in college habits of binge drinking and casual hook-ups.

Some might see these trends as a sign of this generation’s laziness and self-absorption.  The values of hard work and self-reliance weren’t instilled or were diluted by the flood of empty and de-humanizing technology and media and the culture of consumerism.   Young adults just need to grow up.

Others note the economic and societal forces at work: the various bubbles have burst.  Young adults are sinking under the weight of college loans while the inherent value of a college degree seems to be drastically lessening.  New college grads who did everything right can’t find a job, or are stuck at entry level.

Whatever the root causes, the phenomenon itself is hard to ignore. 

You might think that those of us who want more than just earthly happiness aren’t impacted by this sense of being lost.  But if anything, this makes it worse.  From a young age, we’ve learned that we have a vocation in life, that God is calling us to greatness, to sanctity.  And we love him and we want to serve him.  So we put ourselves at his service and work hard and listen for his call.  And we envision ourselves with a lofty mission that will transform the Church and the world.

And then we come smack up against what seems like a brick wall.  The field where we saw ourselves using our talents at the Lord’s service isn’t hiring.  We have to take a mind-numbing, energy-sapping job in order to make our loan payments.  Our lofty evangelistic goals devolve into endless slogging through sordid and distorted trivialities just to establish a tiny piece of common ground with those we are trying to reach.

Yes, it can be discouraging.  Yes, we sometimes feel lost.

But the New Evangelization is not like the old one.  Most of us won’t be asked to toss our purse and our sandals and get on a boat for Cyprus.

For most of us, we are being asked to live the New Evangelization in the mission field of that dead-end job, or that parish with the wonky music and the overworked priest, or that diocese with an embattled Archbishop and its finances in tatters, or even our parents’ basement.

It would be nice if those of us who won’t be seen as heroes were off the hook for heroic efforts.  But God’s plan for most of us will involve a lifetime of striving for seemingly little result.  Most of us, like Niggle, will sweat blood over our masterpiece and will be lucky if one tiny corner of it to ends up framed and gathering dust in an out of the way corner of a museum.  But our masterpiece in our own minds and our masterpiece in God’s mind are two different things. 

This sounds discouraging, but it doesn’t have to be.  Sure, there is frustration and untapped potential in the young Church.  But there is also a new passion, a new interest in what is true instead of what is easy to swallow, a new enthusiasm for what came before and what is still to be accomplished.  We are the foot soldiers of the New Evangelization, and we are being  mobilized!

The result, I believe, will be a generation that builds its youth with the best building blocks of the past: the importance of family, the necessity of self-sacrifice, the passionate pursuit of justice for society’s most vulnerable, and the knowledge that, though believing in ourselves will get us nowhere fast, we can, with God’s help, be anything He wants us to be if we only believe in Him.