Beyond Comfort: Thoughts on Parenthood, Religion, and Economics

20180407_130720Two months ago, Paula and I welcomed our third child into the world. As with the birth of our other two, it never ceases to amaze me how we enter the world at a particular moment in time, blissfully unaware of all that has happened and is happening around us. Before you can talk, walk, or be in any substantial way independent, you spend your first years just observing. Where am I? What is this world, this environment, I am entering into? Given this ignorance, it puts into perspective the awesome responsibility of parents as first educators to explain what it all is, how it works, and the purpose, reason, and meaning behind it all. And in addition to this enormous task, we face too the reality of life in the economic and financial world and the need to provide the material goods – the food, clothing, shelter, etc. – that our children assume as a given. Just as we guide them through the more philosophical questions of life, we teach our children that as they grow in independence they too will be entering this practical world and will be, in due time, responsible for providing for themselves and others

All too often, this practical side of life places itself insistently at the forefront, and it is easy to get caught up in the belief that our ability to obtain material goods is our raison d’etre, forgetting those existential questions so important to a child. But there is an important distinction between those things necessary to sustain life and our reason for being. Breathing, eating, drinking, and maintaining our temperature in the face of heat and cold are all necessary for our survival, but they are not the reason for our being. That reason for being is part of the biggest religious and philosophical questions debated across centuries –“What is the meaning of life? What is the truth? Does God, Creator and Author of Life, exist? If so, how do we know that and should that change my behavior?” These are not trivial questions, touching us so deeply as to inspire not just disagreement, but often passionate and even violent disagreement. Consequently, for the sake of unity in a world of diversity, we try to separate these religious questions from our everyday practical economic and political life.

This duality of course causes problems for the simple fact that as human beings we need meaning, and the absence of it from the majority of our everyday lives is unsatisfying. One of my favorite philosophers, Peter Maurin, beautifully expresses the cheapening effect that such separation has on some of the most basic building blocks of our modern life in this work from his Easy Essays entitled “What Ails Modern Society”:

 “What ails modern society
is the separation
of the spiritual
from the material

When religion
has nothing to do
with education,
education is only
plenty of facts,
but no understanding.

When religion
has nothing to do
with politics,
politics is only
‘Let’s turn the rascals out
so our good friends
can get in.’

When religion
has nothing to do
with business,
business is only
‘Let’s get what we can
while the getting is good.'”

So what about economics? What is the result of the removal of all things religious from all things economic? In answer to that I offer this powerful excerpt from the French philosopher Emmanuel Mounier, suggesting what economics devolves to in the absence of deeper things:

“We are indeed far from the hero. The rich man of the classical period is himself fast disappearing. On the altar of this sad world there is but one god, smiling and hideous: the Bourgeois. He has lost the true sense of being, he moves only among things and things that are practical and that have been denuded of their mystery. He is a man without love, a Christian without conscience, an unbeliever without passion. He has deflected the universe of virtues from its supposedly senseless course towards the infinite and made it center about a petty system of social and psychological tranquility. For him there is only prosperity, health, common sense, balance, sweetness of life, comfort. Comfort is to the bourgeois world what heroism was to the Renaissance and sanctity to mediaeval Christianity – the ultimate value, the ultimate motive for all action.”

Just take a moment to think about the role that comfort plays in our modern world. We tell our kids to get good grades in school so they can get a job, to provide those means for a comfortable life. We tell our adults to start saving for retirement so they can enjoy luxury and comfort in their old age. We are bombarded with advertisements about luxury living, luxury cars, and how this or that product is the best means to pamper ourselves.  And so often when speaking about quality of life, we often take for granted that our happiness comes from being more and more comfortable. It’s a little hard to even imagine what not pursuing comfort as an end looks like. So maybe Peter Maurin will forgive my presumption in adding to his essay a stanza of my own:

When religion
has nothing to do
with economics,
economics is only
“Let’s make our life easier
and more convenient
while we can”

I think that deep down and within our own experience, we know that this kind of economics is hollow. We know that comfort can lead to boredom, or make us dull and soft. To be truly happy, we must abandon comfort as our guiding principal and take up once again that spiritual and philosophical dimension of meaning and purpose that sets the heart on fire. In reading the lives of the saints, those men and women who in their own time and place tried to model themselves after Christ, one finds a strikingly different approach to the relationship between the material world and man’s purpose. These saints approach the material world and our experiences within it not as an end to itself, but as a means of discerning God’s Will in everyday life and aligning our will to give our “yes” to his divine plan. I think St. Ignatius of Loyola summarizes this perfectly in his Spiritual Exercises as he instructs his followers in “holy indifference”:

“Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created. From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it. For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.”

One thing that all parents have in common is that they want what’s best for their children. But what is that? Almost by default, we think about their happiness in terms of their material well-being – their comfort and avoidance of pain and suffering. Perhaps, here, our parental economics lacks a dimension of faith and the spiritual life that gives life its meaning and purpose. Here perhaps, in order for our children to flourish we ought to examine our economic philosophy beginning first with our attempts to answer the age old controversial question, “What is the purpose and meaning of life” – so that life has a chance to be paradoxically both uncomfortable and beautiful.

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