Monday, April 22, 2013

Where is the Good Life to be Found?


Rod Dreher has recently published a book (to generally glowing reviews) about the death of his sister from cancer at age 42.  The book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, also centers on Dreher's decision to pack up his family from Philadelphia and move back to his hometown St. Francisville, La., a place of about 1,700 residents 30 minutes northwest of Baton Rouge.

After reflecting on the move and the experience of grieving for his sister, this is Dreher's advice:

[M]y advice would be to do your very best to root yourself in the community where you do live, and to do your best to stay there — achieving “stability” in the Benedictine sense. [...] The point is, you can live a very rooted life in Mill Valley, California or Portland, Oregon or NYC, as long as you commit to the place in a concrete way, and root yourself in the community, via church or synagogue, school, little league, or other “little platoons.” We should return to a definition of success as laid down by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

But what do you do if [you] live in a place where just keeping up requires you to work crazy-long hours, and leaves little time for community life? I remember that my dad always got off at 4:30, which left him plenty of time for little league coaching and other things. [...]  Anyway, maybe the lesson is that the good life is not possible in the Philadelphia suburbs, or any place where in order to keep your head above water, your job has to own you and your wife, and it keeps you from building relationships. There are trade-offs in all things, and no perfect solution, geographical or otherwise. Thing is, life is short, and choices have to be made. It’s not that people living in these workaholic suburbs are bad, not at all; it’s that the culture they (we) live in defines the Good in such a way that choosing to “do the right thing” ends up hollowing out your life, leaving you vulnerable in ways you may not see until tragedy strikes.

Steve Clowney

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Bioregionalism in the Green movement, Gary Snyder’s writings (in both his poetry and essays) on cultivating a “sense of place” (I don’t recall if he uses that specific locution, but it captures his ‘argument’), the works of Wendell Berry, and (more well-known) works under the “communitarian” rubric, have all stressed the importance of “rootedness in community.” In the history of our country, the topic is also treated in David E. Shi’s book, The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture (1985). The paradox, as it were, of growing unhappiness and depression, interpersonal and institutional distrust, and weakened companionship in advanced, affluent capitalist societies is well known in the social sciences: see, by way of introduction and illustration, Robert E. Lane’s The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies (2000). We live, alas, under the “authority of Capital” rather than the “authority of the Good” (explained fairly well in Michael Luntley’s 1990 volume, The Meaning of Socialism).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Apr 23, 2013 5:07:13 PM

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