Tuesday, November 6, 2007

How We're All Supposed To Live

I was having an exchange the other day with someone who, like many of us, lives a rather countercultural life, and the notion that those of us who make countercultural choices often have to deal with people in our extended families or communities who don't agree with our choices, and even try to undermine them, came up. It made me stop and think: why is it that choosing to do some things a little differently from the way the rest of America does these things automatically creates an atmosphere ranging from ridicule to open hostility from people who are more conformist in their way of life?

Take homeschooling, for example. Most of us have had the experience of having to explain our families' decisions to teach our children at home to people outside of our immediate families. Some people put up with terrible pressure from extended family members to give up homeschooling and enroll their children in public or private schools, while others find themselves having to justify and defend their choice to homeschool to friends, coworkers, members of their churches or other community groups, and even to total strangers at the grocery store. It never ceases to amaze me that people who don't homeschool can feel so threatened by people who do; after all, no one is saying that everyone must homeschool, and homeschoolers generally try to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude when it comes to other people's educational choices. So why all of the hostility?

Or consider each family's individual decisions to limit the amount of contact their children have with the popular culture. One family may watch little TV, and another may watch none at all; one family may restrict computer or video game time, while another family may not allow electronic games at all; one family may listen only to classical music, while another allows rock or pop music provided everyone is listening together and Mom or Dad is monitoring the selections. The details may vary, but what each of these families is doing is admitting that there are harmful elements out there in the popular culture, and taking what each sees as the appropriate actions to prevent those harmful elements from having a negative impact on each family--yet people who don't place any restrictions on their children's access to these and other manifestations of the culture find it weird, or threatening, or both, that some parents see danger in the culture and try to keep that danger at bay. No one is saying that every family must make identical choices in our dealings with the culture; however, people get labeled as "strict" and "controlling" for placing any restrictions on their children's exposure to popular culture at all.

Stay-at-home-moms, of course, have been dealing with all-out attacks against their choices for some time now. The relatively peaceful act of a mother deciding to be at home with her own children and to raise them herself is now seen by some as the equivalent of a declaration of war upon the principles of feminism. Some women who chose to work outside the home sometimes seem to need to justify themselves in the presence of stay-at-home-moms, or else they need to tear down the SAHMs, with the belittling presumption that the only women who would choose to stay home with their children are those women who are too unintelligent, too lazy, or too lacking in ambition to do anything else with themselves. I am, of course, not speaking here of the many women like some of my former coworkers who, upon finding out that I was planning to quit my job when my first child was born, wistfully and secretly confided that this life would be their choice, too, but for economic or other circumstances; I am speaking more of the women like one of my female managers who managed to convey her disappointment that I would choose to do such an "unproductive" thing with my life. I still puzzle over why she, with her children long grown, found it unnerving that I would choose to order my life differently than she had done, all those years before.

In pondering all of these things, I started wondering how this turn of events came about. After all, weren't the Baby Boomers, the people now in charge of running most things, all about nonconformity? Weren't they the ones who beat all of those handcrafted drums against the idea of living just like everyone else? Weren't they the ones deriding the "hypocrisy" of the suburbs, the uniformity of the corporate world, the sameness and blandness of much of the American way of life?

Wasn't there a catchphrase about questioning everything? Don't they still, today, from their positions in the perches of power, pay loads of lip service to ideas like "diversity?"

I'm not sure if I've got this figured out, but in reflecting on this apparent contradiction one thing came to mind. The Sixties and its counterculturalism was all about the elevation of individuality, about attacking middle-class Christian bourgeoisie values, about reveling in an anti-material hedonism that was almost self-consciously ironic. Finding yourself, being true to yourself, discovering your own truths, and living in a way that made you happy were the underlying goals of much of the movement.

Today, of course, there's nothing countercultural about any of that. It's how we all are supposed to live. Only instead of flinging handfuls of paint at a canvas, or producing music while under the influence of various unsavory substances, we're supposed to do things another way: we find ourselves (at Pottery Barn or Ikea), we are true to ourselves (by our TiVo selections), we discover our own truths (via sham versions of old religions, church shopping, amateur psychology, or a little clever paganism), and we live in a way that's supposed to make us happy (by various immoral practices, serial divorce, alternative lifestyles and the like). The only principle that matters is the one the children of the Sixties enshrined as their lasting mantra: I am number one; I must come first.

So when some of us reject that notion and the culture it spawned, rediscovering family, faith, and the real freedom which comes from embracing sacrificial love, we are a threat, whether we mean to be or not. No one knows better than the erstwhile hippies just how brief and shallow a cultural revolution can be; no one has more to lose than they do, if future generations reject their one core value and go back to living the way human beings are meant to live: for each other, not for themselves.

1 comment:

Histor the Wise said...

I would say that our society is very nonconformist - in the sense that the whole society rejects the principles that every other society in history has had, and thus does not conform to old standards.

However, this only applies to the society as a whole. Inside modern society, there are, as you said, strict moral rules to which everyone must conform - one of them apparently being "Nobody may act as if motherhood is superior to anything else women do."

However, these rules tend to be harmful, which makes many people want to break them. But if lots of people broke them, the society would no longer be nonconformist, but would have the same morals as older societies.

And it appears that the people who run modern society want it to be a nonconformist society.