Fortified walls surrounded towns of any size throughout history until recent times. Some early towns in the United States began as stockades or forts. Most of us in the United States, however, with our suburban-surrounded cities, never think about walls. We have no ruined walls, no gates to pass through, as do cities in older civilizations as a reminder that bandits and enemies were a constant threat in earlier times.
Central authority in those days was nonexistent or too weak to provide adequate safeguards against wrong-doers. Barons and warlords provided what protection there was. (Today we see the same sort of “protection” by weapons-ruled warlords in countries like Somalia.)
As populations grew in Europe and elsewhere, law-abiding citizens came together to provide, not only publicly supported military and police, but also schools and hospitals and fire halls.
Lately, some note a trend toward the establishment of private good over public good for those who can afford it: gated communities, expensive private schools, nannies for stay-at-home childcare. Even the all-volunteer army might be seen as a way to pay others to do our fighting (usually the less well off) instead of requiring every citizen to serve in the military or perform service work before beginning family and career.
Those with money buy computers and tablets in a world that divides the digitally adept from the digitally challenged, establishing a kind of electronic barrier. We digitally adept join electronic communities in which we never talk over coffee or walk together, listening to the silence as well as each other.
T.S. Eliot died before the age of computers, but his poem “The Rock” is strangely prophetic:
Where is the life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
Hillary Clinton, who recently stepped down as Secretary of the U.S. State Department, spoke in October to a gathering that explored work/life balance. She talked of the time her child was born in 1980, and she demanded and received a four-month leave to be with her new daughter.
During her tenure as Secretary of State, Ms. Clinton advocated worldwide rights for women at the same time she mandated family-friendly policies for the State Department.
Current articles often cite the percentage of women in particular roles, such as CEO’s, or the percentage of women choosing certain courses of study, like the much-publicized STEM courses (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics).
Women have long been stereotyped. We now understand that women’s talents are needed as much as men’s, but does that mean the days of the “full-time” wife and mother are over?
If some women choose not to enter the paid labor force (provided they can afford to opt out), their actions will skew the numbers to less than fifty percent of women in it. Is that a tragedy? Should we provide day care so that a mother has no excuse not to work outside the home even if she’d rather stay there with her young child?
Will the choice of staying “at home” lead to frustrated empty nesters later in life, as they, perhaps, search for a career they can no longer have because they are beginning too late? Or is there such a person who enjoys taking care of others, not only children but also the hungry who come to food kitchens, the disadvantaged who need tutoring, and so on. Do some men gravitate toward this calling?
Many of our programs, like one that nurtures at-risk mothers for the first two years of her child’s life, are necessary because we lack natural “nurturers.” Nurturing, it seems, is needed as much as engineering and computer networking.
How shall we work out this dilemma? Where will our nurturers come from?
Our culture encourages the young to find a “partner” as soon as they hit puberty. If parents try to persuade their children to practice patience, they may encourage them with the idea that they will be showered with blissful happiness in later unions if they only “wait.”
A study quoted in The Economist indicated that “waiting” may indeed bring added satisfaction in several areas of married life. However, some will never marry because they will never find what used to be called “the right one.” Others will not find in marriage all they were looking for. Some will divorce. Some will enjoy wonderful marriages, but one of the spouses will die early or suffer serious illness.
A few years ago on my mother’s death at 97, we sorted through her papers and found letters she and my father had written to each other. They blazed with passion. My mother and father, I believe, loved each other in every way it is possible for a husband and wife to love. However, at the age of 53, my father died of a heart attack. My mother lived longer as a widow than she had as a married woman. She lived those years to the fullest, enjoying friends, travel, parties, celebrations, and for much of it, a job she loved.
Perhaps we should consider a new standard: that we are called to celibacy until and unless we are called to marriage. Yes, unintended pregnancy and disease are reasons for celibacy, but not the chief reason. Young people need a solitary time to discover themselves, their callings, and their purposes in this life. And for some, celibacy is a life-long calling, a time to devote themselves whole-heartedly to a vocation they may better fulfil without a partner.
A fragment of the Christmas story states that the announced messenger of the Lord, before Messiah’s coming, will “turn the hearts of parents to their children.” (Luke 1:17 NRSV)
The angel could be talking to us today: to rescue the family back from obsolescence.
The New York Times columnist David Brooks suggests we’ve become a society in which we don’t want children because they close off our options. We want maximum personal freedom throughout adulthood. Following such a policy to the extreme eventually threatens our existence.
We no longer need children for economic reasons. In fact, children now cost a great deal, in terms of care, schooling, and time. Not all of us are called to be parents. Better that we not return to the days when parenting defined a person’s, especially a woman’s, only purpose. Better perhaps that we look to children as belonging to more than the immediate family. They are the future of our communities. Our care for children may relate to our understanding of our need for community, whether we are parents or not.
“Evil visited this community today.”
–Dan Malloy, Governor of Connecticut, after the murder of twenty-six people, twenty of them children, in a school in Newtown, Connecticut.
“When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’”
–Matthew 2:16-18, (NRSV)
“Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’”
–Luke 2:34-35. (NRSV)
Religious orders in the Middle Ages developed efficient methods of work in order to toil less and enjoy more leisure for prayers and other religious activities. As Europe entered the modern era, people began taking their surplus in goods rather than leisure. (Man, Energy, Society by Earl Cook.)
In prior generations, survival taught its own lessons: work efficiently, be frugal, or starve. After World War II, Americans found themselves in a golden age of plenty. One wage earner could support four or more people with a forty-hour work week. One could survive even though working less than ever before.
Americans, knowingly or not, faced a choice. We could work less and allow more time for other pursuits: family, religious activity, creative pursuits, community work, more education. Fathers could spend more time with their families, allowing mothers to explore outside career interests if they chose. Singles could work part time and obtain more education or pursue creative work that didn’t pay as well, if their talents led them there. Twenty-hour per week jobs might become the norm.
Or Americans could continue to work as they had and buy more and more things. Once “things” became the goal of work, however, the desire for more and more material goods required greater commitment to job and career.
To overcome consumerism, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. believed that “we must rapidly begin to shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.” By living “deliberately”—as Henry David Thoreau understood—we spend less, work less and enjoy life more.
We now are rich in things (or were before the Great Recession) and poor toward God, friends, families, communities, and our inner lives. To choose a Biblical metaphor, we worked the fields seven days a week, skipping our Sabbath days of rest. Now we find an enforced rest in unemployment and under employment.