by Andy Crouch
Why I Am Hopeful
At the same time, those roads are a very unpleasant place to be a human being doing what human beings do so beautifully most places in the world: walking. Walking is simply not an option. Nor are there any other viable options—no trains, few buses, and no accommodation for bicycles. The beautiful ease of a car is the only choice. As long as you have a car, of course, that's perfectly fine.
This is in stark contrast to the part of the world where I live, an early 20th-century suburb designed before single-purpose ease became the de facto principle of urban planning. In my town, it is certainly possible to drive, but it is not exactly easy. The streets are narrow, forcing drivers to slow down and occasionally wait for other cars to pass. But this is actually a good thing, because cars are not the only mode of transportation. An eleven-year-old can happily and safely ride a bike almost anywhere in town (the two major through streets are a bit too busy for this parent's comfort, though I ride on them myself all the time). There are sidewalks everywhere. The train that runs directly through our town to Philadelphia gets you downtown faster than a car at almost any time of day. I am sure that most journeys that begin in my town are still taken by car, but bicycle, foot, and train are all options, and often good ones. None of these options are perfectly easy—cars have to wait for the train at grade crossings, pedestrians have to watch out for eleven-year-old bicyclists—but the reduction in single-purpose ease is more than made up for by the abundance of choice, and the human scale of the choices available.
I couldn't help asking myself: where would I rather live if gasoline cost $8 per gallon? Or, perhaps a more immediate and realistic question as the oil bubble deflates along with the whole economy, where would I rather lose my job, and with it the ability to pay for insurance and endless gas? Where would a person with suddenly limited economic resources have a richer, fuller human life? The answer, of course, is not Gwinnett County. A paradise for big vehicles and capacious houses is only a paradise as long as you have money. My town, cramped streets and all, is where you want to be when the bubble bursts.
So, to wrap up this way-too-long-for-Web-attention-spans essay, here is the good news in our very real and sobering predicament: Easy is not going to be easy any longer. Our culture's addiction to ease is unsustainable. A core Christian conviction—one that informed much of the best of Western civilization—is that the good life is not easy. It requires discipline. It invites us into pain. It makes of us ascetics—not people who shun all earthly joys, but people who choose to limit our appetite for ease so that we might actually know true joy.
If we are not dualists, we will see that what is true for souls is true for societies as well—because both souls and societies are subjects of God's creative intent. No society can build itself on ease. Most everything that is good about our society was forged by people who took discipline and work seriously, who built their lives around risk and enjoyed their leisure precisely because it was the fruit of discipline, the Sabbath after a week of concerted work. Most everything that is worst about our society—not least the very worst thing about America, the ongoing legacy of the Atlantic slave trade—was the product of an idolatrous desire to exploit human beings and the created world, extracting labor and resources with no regard for discipline, dignity, and God-given limits.
Our attention spans are indeed very short in America, but the evaporation of wealth in recent weeks has caused us to dimly recall the spectre of the Great Depression. Less often noted is that the Great Depression was preceded by a previous era of ease and abundance. The fruit of the (seeming) abundance of the Roaring Twenties was an economic crisis of shattering proportions.
But the irony is that the fruit of the Great Depression was not only dramatically improved systems of economic governance and ultimately even greater prosperity, but people of a fundamentally different character. They suffered tremendous hardship and lived for the rest of their lives with astonishing thrift, even as the post-war economic expansion delivered them real wealth. (The terrible experience of combat in World War II had a similar effect on many of their children.) A friend recently told me that the highest average household net worth in his Midwestern city is found in neighborhoods filled with modest, $100,000-dollar homes. Most of the inhabitants are older. They have lived below their means, with discipline and integrity, their whole lives. Many of them, I suspect, are very much like my grandmother Ann Bennett, "Mimama" to us grandchildren, who died several years ago leaving not just substantial savings for her children, but a heritage of living abundantly within the constraints of a life that was never especially easy. If they are anything like Mimama, they will tell you that life has not been easy, but it has been good. Very, very good.
And this is why I am hopeful in the face of both the greed and the fear of the present moment: After the Great Deleveraging is past, with any luck and by God's grace, a lot more of us will be more like them.
Andy Crouch is the author of Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (InterVarsity Press) and the curator of www.culture-making.com.
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