"then wilt thou not be loath to leave this Paradise, but shalt possess a paradise within thee, happier far. Let us descend now therefore from this top of speculation; for the hour precise exacts our parting hence" Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines585-590

Friday, August 12, 2011

To be a citizen

The riots in London by now are old news.  Hordes of people, mostly young people, pillaging stores and destroying neighborhoods apparently for the mere sport of it.  The Archbishop of Canterbury (the head of the Church of England) spoke in Parliament in response to the riots and said something that I too have been thinking for a while, but he said it much more eloquently than I would have.

"Are we prepared to think not only about discipline in classrooms, but also about the content and ethos of our educational institutions – asking can we once again build a society which takes seriously the task of educating citizens, not consumers, not cogs in an economic system, but citizens."

Educating citizens and not consumers.  I worry about an educational system seemingly single-mindedly focused on economic utility.  I often hear and read about efforts to make our students more competitive and more useful to employers.  And I will concede that students who are illiterate and innumerate can be a drain on society as complex as ours is, but economic utility as the primary criterion of our education system creates only people who will fit into the system we've created.  It doesn't foster the imaginativeness and creativity to create new and better systems or to respond to unanticipated crises.

I'm pretty sure that my purpose on this Earth is not just to use up as much stuff as I can before I do.  Consumption is a result of my life, not its purpose.  I am a consumer - I need to eat, I like to wear clothes and live within 4 walls and a roof - but I am not just a consumer.  Greed isn't just a sin on a list, it's an unhealthy and ultimately destructive way of life.  The financial crisis that began in 2008, the recent American debt crisis, outr lack of political civility, and these riots all seem to me to be of a piece.  They are the fruits of an excessive focus on ourselves and our personal desires divorced from the needs of community and the capabilities of our world to provide.

Consumers grasp to fulfill for themselves.  Citizens seek the greatest good for the civitas, for the community, in which they live and work.  How do we go about building a society that values citizenship over consumerism?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Vacation stuff

We were away for the past week, visiting family in upstate New York.  My in-laws have a very beautiful home and they are gracious hosts so it felt like a week in the best BnB imaginable, even the dogs get pampered there.  I really like my in-laws, they are truly wonderful and loving people.  I especially admire my father-in-law, who started out on the second shift in a factory and through perseverance and hard work, has managed to move into the highest circles of executives at the large multinational corporation where he has worked for nearly 40 years.  Despite their success, they remain in essence the people they were and have not been drawn into a life of lavish consumption. 

While we were there, we met their neighbors.  They have two small children around the same age as my daughter and the kids loved playing together.  My daughter called their house the "park" because they had every imaginable plaything available.  they had a bouncy house, a water slide, a big play structure, bikes, scooters, electric cars, a basement playroom and I'm sure more.  Talking to the mother, I learned they were planning for an in-ground pool soon.  And though they were perfectly nice people and friendly and welcoming to us, I couldn't help but be bothered by the abundance of stuff.

Maybe it was envy.  It would be nice to have those kinds of resources.  Who hasn't imagined winning the lottery and what you would do with your new found millions?  We ourselves used to have a bigger income.  Right now, our income is about a third of what it used to be before seminary, and I do hope this is a temporary period and that I can find gainful employment on the other side of this.

But in lots of ways our lives are much richer now than they used to be.  Things are tight, but we aren't really wanting for anything.  I wish we could save more and put some away for retirement, but our day to day needs are met.  I think I am probably more contented now than I have ever been.  Partly that's the simplicity of our lives that allows us to focus on the really important stuff, partly its directing my life towards fulfilling my calling.  If I could wish for anything for my daughter, it wouldn't be a bouncy house or pool (thought they are fun!) but to know she is loved, that she has a part and a role in life, and that real happiness comes as a gift to be received and cannot be bought.