As a parent who works part-time from home, I am painfully aware of the distaste many educated people feel for stay-at-home moms–women who fade into the background, wasting their talents and prime career years for the thankless task of raising youngsters and scrubbing a dirty kitchen.
I realize, though, that my feelings about the ideal job are culturally conditioned. They are merely echoes of the suburban narrative about what makes for a respectable and meaningful life. You and I, we’ve been taught since first grade that our job and achievements are our identity—the currency of our value in the world.
But I want to explore a little, since I no longer trust my culture’s standards for distinguishing worthy activity from the less worthy. I don’t mean to launch a discussion about the pros and cons of staying at home with your children. For that conversation, visit The Atlantic, where you’ll also find an army of commenters wielding the banner of the stay-at-homers; or go here for a more nuanced and thoughtful article on the subject.
My own mixed feelings about the daily activities of a mom, however, have prompted an attempt to unplug myself from the cultural matrix so that I can consider the following question: What are the right pieces for this jigsaw puzzle, and how can they fit together to form a life that is truly healthy, enjoyable, and good? What, in practical terms, is the best way to survive a Wednesday afternoon, in a world in which people are always chasing happiness, or career advancement, or retirement, or more money, or the weekend?
I have a theory for how to find a practical answer. Here in suburbia, as in much of the developed world, our lifestyles depend on the extra things that human creativity has produced to improve our lives: computers, machinery, fast-food joints, an efficient food industry, modern medicine, interstate highways. At the risk of misapplying the term, I want to borrow Marshall McLuhan’s word for communication media, and call these things extensions of ourselves, because they extend our needs as well as extending our ability to do, create, travel, and produce.
My theory springs from a hunch that a life built upon so many dependencies hides an empty center. Suppose there was a catastrophe that, in one stroke, took away all our extensions: our cars, our phones, our internet, our convenience foods, our disposable diapers, our televisions, and our electricity. What would be left? Would we even know how to survive?
A hypothesis: that in order for a life to be stable and wholesome, it must be free from dependency on things, infrastructures, and technologies–those extensions of ourselves that do not meet basic, essential needs.
You will now label me a luddite (which means “a hopelessly nostalgic fool along the lines of Thoreau and Wendell Berry”). But I want to be clear. To live in freedom from extra things doesn’t necessarily mean you refuse to use any of them. People existing in today’s world can hardly avoid some technologies. The healthy person, however, is free to make a decision about what he or she will use.
In my efforts to break free, I have devised the following exercise.
Step one: Write yourself a list; boil away the trappings of your lifestyle until you find your primary needs and can name what are the real, bedrock essentials for human thriving. Think of “thriving” in the holistic sense—i.e. leading a life that is satisfying and healthy for the whole person, body and soul. We might debate the names and number of these basic needs. But here is my list, the things I imagine people in most places and eras would agree upon as the essentials for the total thriving of the human person, man or woman:
1. Wholesome (and, of course, sustainable) food and water
2. Community: a group of people whose lives are closely intertwined with your own
3. A home: the place in which you have invested yourself and which you therefore love more than any other place
4. Satisfying work
5. A coherent teleology: i.e. an understanding of one’s purpose and place-in-the-world: also known as a “name for the self” (sought by various cultures in myths and religious narratives)
Step two: We can judge our tools by the extent to which they improve our ability to obtain and enjoy these essentials, however you have defined them. The point of this exercise is to discover which tools and technologies actually thwart your enjoyment of, and connection to, the sources of life.
Note that my list excludes two “needs” that many Americans might include—comfort and entertainment. I don’t mean that comfort and entertainment are evils; but they are not necessary to the full enjoyment of life, and, like all other non-essentials, they easily get in the way. One could argue that “aesthetic experiences” or “material for aesthetic enjoyment” (a different thing from entertainment) belongs as a sixth item on the list. I would place it in the same category as number 5.
Comfort and convenience can be a hindrance to the good life if they rule out the opportunity to suffer and face hardship. In an essay examining the relevance of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to the Twenty-first Century, John Attarian argues that life without “exaltations or agonies” is debased. A theme of Brave New World—the dystopia in which science has abolished all pain—is that “suffering and mortification are the price of transcendence, of fulfillment, or anything worthwhile, and that when life is purged of all occasion for paying this price, attaining these things becomes impossible.” Beware, Huxley warns, of selling your birthright in exchange for ease.
Wendell Berry takes up the same theme in many of his works, insisting that life without modern luxuries, the slow life, can be “richer in meaning and more abundant in real pleasure” (from “Think Little”). Except for the occasional camping trip in the wilds, I have spent my life in the world of luxury and have little experience with which to compare any two modes of living. But Berry has mostly unplugged himself, leaving his university career in New York to return to his rural home in Kentucky, where he farms his land and writes, living with minimal technologies and no computer. He may have earned the right to judge.
Athletes and musicians already understand that one achieves reward, and beauty, only through struggle. By the same paradox, Berry argues, many labor-saving devices actually devalue work and decrease our enjoyment of our work. In the culture of the Twenty-first Century, middle-class people often despise manual labor, delegating it to the lower classes or to machines. They feel ashamed for their children to settle for a blue collar job, however skilled the labor, if it doesn’t require a college education. This same scorn for basic, necessary, manual labor–of the kind that is rarely tied to public achievement or laurels–leads them to pity, for example, the stay-at-home parent.
But could there be a special pleasure to be found in working with one’s hands at necessary work connected with one’s own life or with the life of the community? Is there a wholesomeness in growing one’s own food, or at least in preparing one’s own meals? In involving oneself in the care of one’s own house, children, and land, rather than delegating these tasks to machines or corporations or other people?
Might there not be a precious kind of knowledge and skill, more essential than the head-knowledge gained in college, that disappears when we fragment our lives? Could that be why many of us hate work—because through some of our extensions, we have separated our bodies from our minds, our home from our work, and our community from our home?
This line of reasoning does suggest that there could be something rewarding and valuable in jobs such as tending a farm or caring for children at home. It may also provide some clues for how to survive Wednesday afternoon—for finding a place for oneself in the fast-paced contemporary world.
I implied that this essay would reach a practical answer, and I haven’t yet offered one, besides the obviously impossible one. At least, I’ve never met the person, or the couple, who managed to maintain a fully holistic lifestyle—i.e. care for young children; tend a garden; raise chickens; make their own bread, granola, and yoghurt; keep the house clean; earn money; maintain a marriage; and still have time for friendship, conversation, study, and contemplation (to meet needs #2 and #5 above). In communities in which the people are much more dependent on one another—such as in farming communities of previous centuries or in Amish cultures—it might be possible to meet all five needs—but still unlikely. In the digital-industrial culture of today, it is hardly conceivable.
But one need not despair; there are ways, which may take some effort but need not drive you to distraction, to move closer to the wholesome, un-fragmented life.
1. If you can’t grow your own food, find local sources of produce, dairy, and meat. Eating locally connects you further to your community—its ecosystem and its growers (#2,#3)–and supports sustainable and healthy food sources (#1). For cheaper and even fresher food, look up and join a nearby CSA.
2. Cook more at home, and hone your skills on new foods (#1, #3, #4). Studies have shown that cooking your own food need not take much more time than preparing meals from pre-packaged or processed food, and it is much more satisfying—especially if you know exactly where your food came from.
3. Invest yourself in your community (#2, #3). Build relationships with the neighbors. If you give to charity or volunteer, do it locally. If you can, establish your work, school, church, and socializing community as close as possible to your home community. Here in suburbia, this idea still sounds impossible to me; even getting to know the next-door neighbors will take some ingenuity.
4. Experiment systematically with cutting out various technologies and labor-saving devices. You may find some you can do without, and maybe even some you enjoy doing without (#1, #2, #3, #4, #5).
As you can see, I have only a few practical ideas to offer. But being diligently in search of scattered pieces, I am eager to hear more.