In Praise of Normalcy

Ours is not a culture that praises and extols the virtues of normalcy. My reason for writing on this subject is that this morning over coffee, Anna was telling me about Frederica Matthewes-Green’s article in First Things, “Against Eternal Youth.” I have not read the article (yet), but Anna has read parts to me. One paragraph was especially resonant, Matthewes-Greene writes of the fate of a young woman upon graduating with a master’s degree in flute performance. The options for such a highly-trained person are, to be certain, somewhat limited in our day and age. You can imagine the scene. The door to the employment agency swings open. A young, cheerful woman strides confidently to the counter. “I’m looking for work.” To that statement, the reply, “What training or experience do you have?” The rejoinder (with some pride), “I have a master’s degree in flute performance.” With dropped jaw, the equally over-qualified reciptionist at the agency (probably a Ph.D. in English) replies, “Great! Sam’s Club is hiring. Down the street, second turn on the left. Bonne chance!”

I know the feeling. When I first left seminary, I did not waltz into a glorious parish. I actually ended up spending a year-and-a-half doing work that barely paid the bills (not the least of which was the expense of re-paying the cost of my education plus interest). Now, another year on, I am settled and working in a position that I love and toward a cause that I believe in. It feels good.

However, look at the culture around us and observe the myriad of messages that it sends to us. Anna and I watched HGTV last night. Through some fluke, it is the only channel we get on our TV even though we don’t have cable. We were watching a show that detailed the search of a couple to find that perfect house. LIstening intermittently to the conversations between the purchasers and their realtor as well as the those uniquely contemporary “spots” where the subjects get to “share their hearts” directly with the camera, I was seriously dismayed.

“It has to have a pool.” “The garage has to be big enough to fit the Escalade, and the two Harleys, and the wave-runner.” “We really need sub-zero refrigerators to store the beer and the microwave meals we eat when we don’t have the energy to go out and have our meals prepared for us and served to us by under-paid short-order cooks at Chili’s or wherever else.”

Call me bizarre, but is this normal? Is this the life that we are supposed to be aiming for? If so, I’d like to put a request in to move to some other country. Why? It’s not because I am an anti-capitalist. I am not. I think that the free market provides the greatest chance of success to the greatest number of people and is the only system of economics that actually provides and encourages freedom. My problem is that what lingers in our contemporary culture is the mechanics of the free market stripped of its moral compass and guided by unenlightened self-interest. Can it be any other way? Capitalism bereft of a moral order that constrains and limits it, morphs into greed and into a greed that is ultimately self-destructive to the individual and to the system itself.

Why are personal bankruptcies at an all-time high? Why is it that the Congress is considering legislation to curtail the remedies of bankruptcy to individuals thereby limiting their freedom to escape crippling debt? Why is it that after the Enron, Healthsouth, and Worldcom scandals the passage of Sarbannes-Oxley has actually made it significantly more difficult for small, regional businesses to bear the increased cost of complying with new regulatory requirements. What Congress meant for good in Sarbannes-Oxley has, in reality, created a full employment act for lawyers. Lawyers cost money to businesses, they do not create money.

I don’t know what the solution is, but it might help if major corporations took seriously the only half-joking suggestion of the Wall Street Journal (made about a week ago, I think), that they ‘out-source’ their CEO positions to European and Asian executives whose cost would be lower by a factor of ten than their American counterparts.

But more than this, what is required is some constraint on our sense of entitlement. More than that, we need to learn about contentment. It is possible to be content with what you have even as you save toward buying a new house. The key here is saving rather than stretching with 100% financing, interest-only (or sub-interest) loans, or any of the other new “products” pushed by the mortgage industry.

What actually will make the change is uncertain. But some sensible teaching from America’s churches would go along way. Beyond that, I am afraid that the biggest lessons will be learned when the economy constricts and those who have stretched too far find they cannot keep the pool, the Harley’s, the wave runner, the Escalade, and the new platinum grill built into the back yard.