catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 17 :: 2007.09.21 — 2007.10.05


The good old days

My grandma often talks about the community of her childhood.  It usually goes something like this: “When we were kids, we had neighbors from all kinds of backgrounds, but my parents knew that their kids could go anywhere in the neighborhood and be held to the same expectations.  Parents can’t do that anymore.”

I can’t argue with her.  ‘They’ say it takes a village to raise a child, but even when I was young, the village was an odd place.  My best neighborhood friend had a dad who had pulled a knife on her mom.  I had a good measure of freedom to wander, for which I’m incredibly grateful and which never backfired on my parents, but I have a sense that fewer and fewer children are able to bear this gift safely.  I think about my own children and whether it will be wise to let them jet off through just any old back yard or hop on their bikes for the local candy spot. Is there more brokenness now than there was back then?  Or just different kinds of brokenness?

Though we certainly haven’t arrived completely as a society, there is more freedom today than there was 60 years ago for girls and women, people of color and homosexual individuals.  There are vast opportunities for those who want to study and travel and express themselves through art, clothing, tattoos.  We’ve received a lot since the good old days of my grandma’s childhood, but what have we lost?  What have we traded?

After church last Sunday, I made a run to the local superstore for lunch supplies.  On my way out through the automatic doors, congregants were pouring in to worship at the feet of low prices and convenience.  I had a sinking feeling.  There’s no going back to the days of the general store where everybody knows your name—such relics strike us as quaint exceptions these days, even as we model our strip malls and big box stores after ye olde towne centre (minus the empty storefronts).  Such nostalgia can certainly be a mere abstract curiosity divorced from reality, but I think it can also speak to deep communal longings…and problems.

Imagine the life of a 14-year-old child who comes home from school to an empty house, jumps on his bike and heads to the local Wal-Mart to blow his allowance on an intellectually vacuous, edited CD.  He returns to his house to blast his new purchase on his parents’ stereo system (two jobs, after all, afford the kick ass system and the allowance).  His elderly neighbors are irritated and they notice a growing collection of teen-agers in the yard, passing around something that doesn’t look like Pepsi, but it’s ‘none of their business’, so they say nothing—not that they ever see the parents anyway.  The cars pull into the attached garage around 7 p.m. and the automatic doors close behind them.  Even the lawn is managed by a service. 

Now imagine how this all plays out differently if there’s an adult to greet the child upon his return from school, if the proprietor of the local music shop (within biking distance with safe crosswalks) knows him by name.  Imagine if the neighbor walks across the street to check things out when he sees teens gathering or has a talk with the parents later when they’re relaxing on their front porch before bed.  It’s my grandma’s vision.  But as she and I and millions of others participate in the demise of neighborhood relationships, there’s little hope for mass recovery.

Of course, strip malls and big box stores aren’t entirely to blame for the anonymity that leads to so much social decay; the fact that they exist is part of the problem, but we are the ones who shop there.  We form the foundation that lifts a broken neighborhood structure above the tides of discontent.  We concede to automatic garage door openers and self check out lanes and standardized tests and magnetic ID cards.

Watching the multitudes, myself included, streaming in and out of the store on a Sunday afternoon gives me an acute awareness of the “matrix”—the system we ourselves created that is now eroding our society beyond our control.  Is this just the paranoid rhetoric of an overly suspicious radical?  There’s something happening that my grandma can’t quite pinpoint.  And I think there’s a connection.

Reflection on the dehumanizing forces that surround us can easily spiral downward into a paralyzing despair.  “There’s nothing we can do to stop it.  People are stupid.  I can’t make a difference when everyone around me doesn’t even realize they’re a part of the problem.  Why should I inconvenience myself to make the world a better place for them?”  In his book Everyday Apocalypse, David Dark embodies the difference between such devastating cynicism and what he terms ‘apocalyptic hope’.  Apocalyptic hope names things for what they really are—it’s far from pie-in-the-sky—but sees through the seemingly impenetrable brokenness to the light of the Kingdom on the other side.  It’s breaking through so quickly in so many places that the kingdom of death can’t possibly keep up.  Apocalyptic hope realizes that in spite of all that’s out of our control, we do have the power to make simple choices every day that subvert the darkness and usher in the light.  We have the power to walk across the street and introduce ourselves to our neighbors.  We have the power to thank a retail clerk by name.  We have the power to walk and bike and smile and talk and extend a hand in greeting.  In the name of Christ, we have the power.

If we look back at the whole story, even my grandma has a fearful tale of a truck driver who slowed next to her as she was on her way home from school and invited her to come with him.  Kidnappings, molestations, child abuse—these things are nothing new.  But we’ve changed, driven by fear of the namelessness that surrounds us in our homes, in our work, in our churches and in our shopping centers.  The pain of darkness won’t evaporate the moment we meet our neighbors face to face.  However, it’s only when we act out of apocalyptic hope that we break the cycle for ourselves and our children and our children’s children.  Look to the kids around you for a lesson—they know how to do it. 

“Hi.  I’m so-and-so.  What’s your name?”

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