the burbs

A recent visit reminded me of this passage from my journal over five years ago. And my thoughts on this subject have only been confirmed in the time since then (though I might not use terms like "jackals" now...)

I mentioned some 'costs' of holding onto domestic pleasures [mortgage, insurance, taxes, homeowners association], but the more I surveyed the suburban scene, the more I realized that I had only scratched the surface. The biggest costs are not economic or political. The sirens of suburbia—Comfort and Security—present a greater danger to us psychologically and spiritually. Not that these only appear in suburbia; they just have established themselves so strongly here. There's the capitalistic individualism, which is so utterly isolating (even small acts of kindness have to be "paid back"). Almost nothing is shared, so everyone has to crowd their whole world into their tiny, fenced yards (backyards touch each other, but are also not shared). And all perceived threats have been eliminated, "for the sake of the children." Unfortunately, that leaves the parents with no more challenging decisions than which fertilizer to use on the lawn, and who will drive the kids to their extracurricular activities. The worst part is that most people have a pretty good intuition that such a life is all vanity. Real life is something much more. But people press on, bored and lonely, "for the sake of the kids," until the kids get so sick of the oppressive, empty "safety" that they rebel and destroy the tranquillity. That pain is usually a blessing. A slap in the face to wake people from their suburban slumber. God finds some way to send us a wake-up call.

The suburban worship of Comfort and Security doesn't just sap the life from suburbanites, however. It drains the rest of society as well. There's the huge flow of resources required to keep all these bored, lonely people sedated with "interesting" food and "interesting" diversions (this occurs at the international level too; our whole country could be labeled "The United Suburbs of America"). And then there's the social pressure of so many people "playing the game." Each additional 'player' makes it that much harder for individuals (especially children) to live differently. To live with meaning. To live. But, again, God always gives people a chance to wake up, to open their eyes to life. It's usually quite painful, but so worth it.

...the reading this morning seemed appropriate:
"Fear not, little flock, for it is the Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old; with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Lk 12.32-34)

...I remember talking to [my friends] about whether you could live in suburbia without being "suburban." (The question could just as well have been about being part of the military without being militarized, or part of the institution without being institutionalized—or being wealthy without being "the rich," in the biblical sense.) I said I thought you could. I should have added, "But not for long."

And I don't just mean those environments are dangerous. They are, temptations abound, but temptations may be resisted. I mean that if we gain wealth and power, even if we avoid the internal temptations, we will not be able to avoid the jackals. We might be able to enjoy the pleasures of suburbia (or the institution, etc.) for awhile, but if we want to keep those pleasures, we'll have to fight off the jackals. Fight them off or pay them off. Either way, we've become part of "the game"; we're one of them now, we're suburban, militarized, institutionalized, the rich, whatever you want to call it. We've agreed to pay the cost. And that full cost—financial, psychological, spiritual—will be slowly bled from us, as long as we hold on to the pleasures. If we stop paying, on the other hand, the pleasure will be snatched from us and given to someone who will pay. The jackals keep a sharp eye out.

That's why it's good for me to go. I have to remind myself. Because as soon as I hit the road, my body starts urgently asking, "What's wrong with a roof, again? Or a bed, shower, refrigerator..." The answer is: "Nothing, except..." There's nothing wrong with enjoying all those things. But to hold onto those things, to keep those things, to keep anything that other people value means fighting them off or paying them off. And they demand much more than money. The pay-off is obedience (What is a job but obedience for money?). Even fighting is obedience, because fighting is a "way of the world" that identifies its obedient sons. Jesus' followers, on the other hand, turn the other cheek and give to those who would steal from them and obey God alone. They enjoy all that God sets before them, then let it go. They hold onto nothing, so nothing holds onto them. They owe no one anything. Except love.