I’ve identified what I think is the most prominent health concern in America. I’ve written about it quite a lot in the last few years, mainly because I’ve lived it. It’s not cholesterol, BMI, or organic foods. It’s not related to medicine, insurance, or doctors or hospitals. Not that those things don’t matter. The issue is a little bigger and deeper and even harder to solve than that. It’s even related to all those issues, but it transcends them and involves crime, mental health, and physical activity levels and much, much more.
It isn’t always easy and I’m sure many won’t sign up for the task, but I’ve come to believe that one thing we need to do is to make a home in the world. Every epoch seems to offer its challenges- war, famine, conflict, change, or something else like infectious disease. For example, more people died of the flu epidemic in the early 20thCentury than in all of World War I, which was by far the deadliest war ever.
Most of human history’s primary challenge and focus was survival, because those needs were pressing and immediate. This made compromise necessary so that the young could have enough to eat, shelter, and security. Social arrangements now seen as harsh, repressive, and confining were at their very basic level about surviving, in that every person needed to do what the group expected so that the group would survive.
So, a code was in place in pre-modern times for what people were expected to do for the survival of the collective. What was rational was what helped the group survive. People did mostly what they were supposed to do- sacrifice themselves for the group to live on. In the past, home was a given, and if you survived you probably had a home by default.
For many reasons- economic growth and technological growth and change being the two primary ones, modernity has a different problem. We’re lucky. Survival is a given in our world. No one is starving in the USA, or without a roof. We’re going to all survive from things like this. But home is not a given in the modern age. As a matter of fact, home is quaint, laughable, and sentimental to many, a thing of the past. To many more it’s something worth seeking and loving, but also hard to find. It’s just the nature of the beast. And a lack of home has a big impact on health.
Forces of modernity push us away from home. Better jobs, unlimited choices, diversions, entertainments, sprawl, unlimited hobbies, and unlimited places beckon. The exit ramps are always there. My grandpa was a farmer, part-time. He didn’t really have any hobbies, or a lot of options, but he did live a very good life. His generation was the last grounded generation in America, then came the baby boomers.
The hipster, appropriating various other cultures but existing in none himself, and afraid to attach himself to anything, even a sports team, is the mascot for the modern world. For many moderns, even if they aren’t hipsters, they can relate to this detached feeling. We don’t necessarily hate, but we don’t love either. We’re nice, usually. But we don’t really care like we should. And we know it. We don’t feel embedded in a community. Sporting events, some of which I attend personally, are one place we go to be alone together. As are movies, the museum, or the shopping center. Crowds and crowds of people, mostly all strangers engaged in banal activities. Usually this is fine, but sometimes it isn’t. We all still crave home. And for many with less talent and less resources, the modern world can be particularly harsh and alienating.
I love Walker Percy’s writing and his concept of the ‘sacrament of the ordinary’ as a path to take to deal with what Percy himself called “the malaise”. The malaise for Percy was two divergent downfalls of humanity, both of which were distinct to modernity, and opposed to making a home in the world. One is a human life (whether rich or poor) so consumed by materialismthat the human person is thrown back on nothing but his body and the will’s temporary needs, whether for food, sex, diversion, or material gain. This person is the addict, the hedonist, the pleasure-seeker, checking out every chance possible, the attractive young female attention seeker on Instagram, as well as the Ivy League, BMW- driving country club golf course executive rushing from one fancy dinner to one meeting to one vacation repeatedly. These to Percy, envy though they could be at opposite ends of the socioeconomic ladder, are exactly like each other in their complete oblivion to the transcendent, to eternal things. None is a neighbor, none is a friend to the community. None is a true citizen. None has truly made a home in the world because both are caught up in daily distractions.
The other extreme is the detached, represented by Percy in “The Moviegoer” (the title and main character of his Pulitzer prize winning novel), above it all, trapped in their head and objectivism, so removed, so far above it all (and at times smug and condescending) that they don’t engage in anything related to home either. Just like the distracted, simpleton, and visceral pleasure-seekers, they haven’t made a home in the world, but theirs is the opposite path. He or she goes to the other extreme and checks out in a different way, but the result is the same- the avoidance of all attachment to anything meaningful, especially home. If the materialist is flying too low for home, the detached is flying too high.
Most of us can see glimpses of both caricatures in the way we are pushed to live, to consume, or on the other hand to distance ourselves from it all, rejecting meaningful but hard connections. One day we want to escape in our books, our thoughts, our privacy, and the next day we want to just experience carnal pleasure and stop thinking beyond that instant gratification. At some point though, the reality of what makes for a healthy life catches up with us. We all need a home, both physical and at the same time transcendent. We need a daily home to live in and a home to go to. We need to make a home, somewhere between the two unhealthy extremes. And that takes work.
Some things are eternal. Home is where meet each other eye to eye and face to face. I like the Hebrew word “Shalom” when it comes to home, which means something like peace- and / or harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, hello, and goodbye. As the Jewish theologian, Martin Buber taught it is “I and Thou”, Not I-I, or I-It, or It-It. Home forces us to deal with the eternal things about life that never change- love, loss, other people and all their flaws and ours, disappointment, and boredom. The eternal is real and we need it, and one way or another we will meet it. Home is about covenant relationships, about the physical world, and about the fact that our work should be ordered properly to the eternal things. We all should make a home in the world.
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