From our back porch, relaxing, sipping my drink of choice, many things pass through these old brain cells of mine, but lately they all seem to coalesce around the concerns of our present economic culture—and more specifically, how my family and I are to live our lives and our faith in this modern industrial progressivist culture.
And a brain synapse sparked, and I remembered something from a calculus class many, many years ago, something called Limits Theory. Now I’ve certainly forgotten far more than I ever learned, but I remembered a graph associated with an old conundrum called Zeno’s paradox. If you are standing 5 feet from a wall, and started walking towards it, with each step equal to half the remaining distance to the wall, how many steps and how long will it take to reach the wall? The answer in both cases is infinite, in other words, never. You’ll get increasingly closer and closer, but you will only ever reach one half the distance that is left to the wall.
There are several ways to visualize this conundrum, but one way is with the graph to the right. Each dot and the vertical increase of one unit represents each step half way horizontally towards the wall. (Now all you mathematicians and economists out there take a breather—I’m doing the best I can.)
What amazes me is how this graph seems to depict everything in our present modern human condition. Take, for example, the history of travel. If the horizontal left-to-right axis of this graph represents time, then each dot represents the great advancements in travel throughout the history of mankind. For many centuries, humanity travelled on foot, then came the use of critters, then the wheel, then carriages, chariots, wagons, and these improvements carried humanity for centuries, until the industrial age brought the bicycle, and steam ships, trains, and the automobile, and then the airplane, and space travel, and on and on.
What is significant, illustrated by the graph, is that the acceleration of these advancements has reached such break-neck speed that we really have no way of projecting where travel will be in fifty, twenty-five, five, or even one year from now, nor can we identify the trajectory or goal of this progress in transportation. We are living on the vertical accelerating slope of a travel revolution that has no foreseeable destination.
Take, for another example, the history of communications. Humanity went for centuries with only verbal or hand communications and scratching out symbols on rocks. Long distance communication required either yelling louder and waving more emphatically, or sending out messengers (“apostles”), or passing around rocks or dried mud cuneiforms. Then someone invented papyrus and paper and chalk and ink and quills and binding, but still for centuries communication was limited to screaming, messengers, and hand copying.
But then moveable type and printing and mass publishing and then fountain pens and typewriters and telegraph and telephones and radio and television and computers and cellphones and internet, etc., etc., etc., and you get my drift. Again, note the acceleration of these advancements, or should I say changes, in how we communicate. Now, with every single day bringing some new communications advancement and product, it hardly pays to buy anything, because by tomorrow it will be obsolete. Again we have no way of identifying or predicting the trajectory or goal of this progress in communication, for we are living on the vertical accelerating slope of a communications revolution that has no foreseeable destination.
This same historical accelerating phenomenon is true of nearly every aspect of our lives: trade, information, markets, clothing styles, goods and services, and particularly change itself. There was a time when people lived their entire lives with little changes in any of these things: from the time they were born until death they never saw changes in clothing, communication, travel, cuisine, even politics.
Yet today we live on the vertical slope of change in everything, and like the man on the graph to the left, the anxiety of trying to live in this accelerating, goalless culture of presumed progress is also accelerating, which explains why this graph also depicts the acceleration of crime and drugs, divorce and broken lives, even the increase in the previously unimagined acceptance of immoral lifestyles.
Significantly, this graph also depicts the rise in our national, global, as well as personal, debt, and interestingly also depicts the historic rise in persecution and martyrdoms of those who try to stand for what has always been known as right, true, and beautiful.
This entire scenario reminds me of a quote about industrialism:
The tempo of the industrial life is fast, but that is not the worst of it; it is accelerating. The ideal is not merely some set form of industrialism, with so many stable industries, but industrial progress, or an incessant extension of industrialization. It never proposes a specific goal; it initiates the infinities series. We have not merely capitalized certain industries; we have capitalized the laboratories and inventors, and undertaken to employ all the labor-saving devices that come out of them. But a fresh labor-saving device introduced into an industry does not emancipate the laborers in that industry so much as it evicts them … Of course no single labor-saving process is fatal; it brings on a period of unemployed labor and unemployed capital, but soon a new industry is devised which will put them both to work again, and a new commodity is thrown upon the market… All might yet be well, and stability and comfort might again obtain, but for this: partly because of industrial ambitions and partly because the repressed creative impulse must break out somewhere, there will be a stream of further labor-saving devices in all industries, and the cycle will have to be repeated over and over. The result is an increasing disadjustment and instability.
This quote comes from “Introduction: A Statement of Principles” to the book, I’ll Take My Stand: the South and the Agrarian Tradition by Twelve Southerners.1 What is particularly intriguing about this quote, as well as the entire collection of essays, is that they were written in 1930 (!), the year after the stock market crash, but more importantly 82-years ago—essentially at the elbow of the above graphs, before our world became so completely sold-out to our modern industrial culture. This is the beauty of the wisdom of the great distributists, like Chesterton and Belloc, and later Monsignor Luigi Ligutti (Rural Roads to Security) because they give us a glimpse into what life was like outside of and before this soup in which most of us have always lived.
So now 82 years later, as we ride the crest of this wave of progress, how do we respond? Some today are so enamored by, dare I say addicted to, the ever-increasing enticements of our modern industrial culture that their answer is to turn the graph on its side and view this accelerating, ever-changing and ever precarious, economic culture as the inevitable trajectory of human ingenuity, and, therefore, a thrilling blessing that must be freely embraced. They see no reason to question any of the demands of this culture; rather they preach that we are to trust our futures to the trajectory of progress! Our sad present plight is that none of the political parties vying for control of our government have anything to offer, except alternative ways to ride the accelerating economic wave!
The Twelve Southern Agrarian authors quoted earlier, however, offered a different conclusion:
If a community, or a section, or a race, or an age, is groaning under industrialism, and well aware that it is an evil dispensation, it must find the way to throw it off. To think that this cannot be done is pusillanimous. And if the whole Community, section, race, or age thinks it cannot be done, then it has simply lost its political genius and doomed itself to impotence.2
Have we lost our political genius and doomed ourselves, and our children, to economic impotence?
As I sit on my back porch, finishing my drink of choice, several alternative steps come to mind.
First, we should turn our focus onto that which is eternally stable and established. When you’re riding the ever-changing wave of economic progress, you can be dangerously comforted by the sight of the thousands of others mindlessly riding along beside you, coaxing you along, assuring you that there is no fear ahead, surely economic growth and human ingenuity will prevail in the end, and, of course, God blesses the “faithful”!
But in His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his followers to turn their focus away from the anxieties of their lives and onto “the birds of the air” and “the lilies of the field.” To me, at the core of distributist theory is making every effort to tie our lives and that of our families, as much as is possible, to that which is stable and never-changing; to that which has been there from the beginning and will always be there. And this world, which is our God-given waystation on our journey toward our permanent heaven, was created good and for our enjoyment, as well as our sustenance. When we pause to look into the night sky at a star, we should consider that, regardless of the accelerating changes around us, this star has not changed since it was created in love by our Father God, and that it was in that precise location for every person who has ever lived. As St. Bonaventure encouraged in his great treatise on the Journey of the Mind to God, we begin our journey toward intimacy with God by recognizing the vestiges of His creative love in the unchanging world around us. This first step gives us a solid hand-hold for the steps that follow.
Second, we need to examine and subsequently reduce the incessant voices in our lives. Who are we reading? To whom are we listening? What books, magazines, television shows, news broadcasts, web blogs, internet pundits, and radio commentators fill our every waking moment? Are they pulling us closer to God and independence, or enticing us to sell our souls along the accelerating path of economic progress and wealth? Are they encouraging us to trust our futures to the “certain” earnings of our investments, or are they helping us see that the more we can detach ourselves from these vaporous promises, the freer we can become to enjoy the blessings of the present moment.
I remember a Bill Cosby comedy routine when he described the crisis he caused in his family when he listened to the radio broadcast of “The Chicken Heart that Ate Up New York City.” His parents had left him home alone in his crib, and against their warnings, he had turned on the scary radio program, “Lights Out.” Once he had become totally terrified by the loud thumping chicken heart, which the narrator said was coming down his street and was now standing outside his door, young Bill jumped out of his crib to spread Jello everywhere to slip up that monster! When his parents returned, hearing the loud thumping of the radio chicken heart, his father screamed, slipped, and nearly killed himself. When he asked his son what the @#$%& was going on, young Bill screamed in terror, “The chicken heart’s coming to eat us up!” His father’s solution? He turned the radio off! And in the sudden still silence of their home, Bill admitted sheepishly, “I never thought of that.”
How many of the many voices in our lives do we just merely need to turn off, to make a true progress towards the simplicity, stability, and peace that God promises?
Third, consider making what some might consider radical changes in your financial entanglements. Nothing ties us as individuals, as a family, and as a nation to the accelerating grip of our changing economic culture than our debts and our investments.
The more we can get out of debt and, as the good distributists have been telling us for years, situated securely on our own piece of land with our own home, no matter how small and meager, the more we can become detached from the effects of any craziness that might occur in our nation or world. Even if all the markets rebound, and our friends wag their fingers that we were foolish not to have placed all our eggs in the basket of progress, they actually have only moved one minute step half-way towards an unreachable goal of “increasing disadjustment and instability.” (Does anyone really have a workable solution to our national debt of 15 trillion dollars, increasing at the unfathomable rate of more than a trillion a year?)
One of the previously mentioned Southern Agrarians wrote in his essay, “The Philosophy of Progress,” again in 1930:
One outstanding fact in industry at present is that, with the great increase in production and in new commodities, and with consumption coerced to the limit, there is a steady decrease in employment. Improvement in technology … “can mean only one thing. An equivalent tonnage of goods can be produced by a declining number of workers, and men must lose their jobs by the thousands—presently by the millions.”3
He was writing at the elbow of the curve, but we, now 82 years later, have only “progressed” further along the trajectory of his warnings. He had no idea, though, how prophetic he was, for a couple of paragraphs later he commented, “Another world war, which the international struggle for markets suggests as not an unlikely prospect, would afford temporary ‘relief’”.4 World War II, coming eleven years later, did indeed provide some “temporary relief,” but the industrialization that ensued has never wained, nor has the escalating national debt or the oscillating unemployment. What major “relief” is around the bend in our future? The more we can detach ourselves, adopting what our Lord called a “poverty of spirit,” from the attachments to the world bombarding us from every side, the more we can grow in the next step.
Four, learn to practice personal subsidiarity. The Church teaches that “Subsidiarity, understood in the positive sense as economic, institutional or juridical assistance offered to lesser social entities, entails a corresponding series of negative implications that require the state to refrain from anything that would de facto restrict the existential space of the smaller essential cells of society”.5
I’m sure there’s a simpler definition of subsidiarity somewhere on this fine distributist Website, which through its articles and other efforts is engaged in trying to implement these values in the minds of our leaders, movers, and shakers. This is quite beyond me, however, especially as I continue to sit here on my back porch, drinking my third beverage of choice.
Nevertheless, we can examine how we spend our money, where we place our investments, where we shop, and from where we purchase our goods, examining all from the perspective of subsidiarity, beginning first close to home and only then working outward. Our little central Ohio village, once a thriving canal town and then farm town, now sits in many ways like a ghost town. Nine out of ten stores sit vacant. Why? Because first the strip malls came, selling transported American goods at cheaper prices, which were supplanted by the super and mega stores, which were selling imported international goods at even cheaper prices, which have now been supplanted by the internet stores, which not only sell but originate from all around the globe, selling everything at even cheaper prices. How can anyone consider opening a small local store in our little backwoods village when anything they might want to grow, make, or sell can be purchased cheaper not just from a local mall but from the convenience of anyone’s home desktop computer? Yet, the more we can focus our lives locally, from our families into our communities supporting the efforts of our neighbors, the more we can contribute to the security of our local economies.
And finally, fifth, given all the changes suggested above, we can do that which is most important: make more time to talk with and listen to God. By focusing on that which is more stable, and not forever moving and elusive; by shutting our minds to the thousands of conflicting, clamoring voices around us; by freeing ourselves from the clutching control and anxieties of debt and unsure investments; by investing our lives in the immediate world around us—the specific world into which God has planted us—and seeking security as well as personal significance, if possible, in the simplicity of a simple piece of land, a place and home of our own, the freer we can become to commune with God in prayer; to hear His voice in liturgy; to receive His grace and forgiveness—His very self—in the sacraments; the more effectively we can become the persons whom He created in His Image.
As Saint Paul promised: “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6-7).