Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Death by Suburb

“The suburbs weather onr souls. That is, there is an environmental variable, mostly invisible, that oxidizes the Christian spirit, like the metal of a car in the elements.”
-- David Goetz, Death by Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul

I will confess that I cordially hate the title of David Goetz’s book. Oh, good. Another smug hipster who can’t see because of the plank in his own urban eye. Suburbs bad. City good. Sure thing, Mr. Metropolis. Excuse me while I go fertilize my lawn.

Fortunately, that’s not what David Goetz is saying, and his argument is far more nuanced. Goetz argues that the danger of suburbia is that one will succumb to a life of comfort and ease; that the pull of the SUV and the Golden Retriever and the two kids running around on the well-manicured lawn is real precisely because it is good, that it represents an idealized sort of existence to which most people aspire.

My take: don’t worry about it, David. The “good life” is a mirage. It’s as illusory as any other vision of Utopia that crumbles in the light of harsh reality. It will sustain you for a while if you let it. But here’s a partial list of what you’ll find in suburbia: cancer, Alzheimer’s, alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, marital infidelity, job firings and layoffs, kids who break their arms when tumbling on the well-manicured lawns, Golden Retrievers who are run over by the SUVs. I don’t doubt that many people escape to suburbia with the goal of living a comfortable and protected life. But it won’t and can’t last, and people in suburbia are subject to the same senseless tragedies and self-inflicted wounds as any other demographic representation of humanity. This is because the world we live in is fallen and broken, and is apt to bite us in our well-padded asses even when we pretend that we can control it.

What is unique about suburbia is the degree of self-deception that often accompanies the lifestyle choices. Life in the ‘burbs is all about controlling what can be controlled – relative safety, retirement investments, the quality of our childrens’ educations, dandelions and grubs. And because people are more apt to function believing that they are in control, the degree of shock when it all falls apart may actually be greater in suburbia than in places where chaos and lack of control are woven into the daily non-routine.

I don’t think it particularly matters, from a Christian standpoint, whether people live in the city or the country, the ghetto or the ‘burbs. One lifestyle choice is not holier than another, at least in this area. But where it does matter is that when the shit hits the fan in suburbia, people are more likely to find themselves in a state of shock and disbelief; I live a protected life, and this can’t be happening to me. But it is. In those situations, I would like to think that Christians have a timely answer that both acknowledges harsh reality and offers a real sense of hope. That’s when suburban Christians need to put down their fertilizer spreaders and simply be neighbors and friends, to enter in to the pain and the confusion and the grief of those around them.

And honestly, that’s the most challenging aspect about living in suburbia. The ‘burbs encourage isolation. They foster a world where relationships with neighbors consist of waving from the front seat of the minivan or SUV as automatic garage doors go up and down. It takes intentional effort to break through that. But you can engage suffering in a house with a security system and overly-mulched flower beds just as well as in a shelter for the homeless or a nursing home for the destitute. One is not better than the other, because suffering is an equal-opportunity afflicter of humanity. Both are good, and both are needed.

5 comments:

John McCollum said...

Having spent pre-school, elementary school and half of middle school in 'urbia,' and high school and college in 'suburbia,' and having moved to and from and to the city again as an adult, I think I agree with pretty much everything you just said.

Especially this: "What is unique about suburbia is the degree of self-deception that often accompanies the lifestyle choices. Life in the ‘burbs is all about controlling what can be controlled – relative safety, retirement investments, the quality of our childrens’ educations, dandelions and grubs. And because people are more apt to function believing that they are in control, the degree of shock when it all falls apart may actually be greater in suburbia than in places where chaos and lack of control are woven into the daily non-routine."

I think one could also posit a similarly functioning psychological suburbia (called "Evangelicaville?") which often overlaps and intertwines with actual geographical suburbs. The same observations apply.

I'd love to hear Andy Taylor's thoughts on this as well. To what extent is suburbia a state of mind, and how does that jive with the actual landscape and urban architecture of the suburbs?

I'm also interested in the upcoming "Cutting Edge" magazine which addresses the differences in planting a suburban, a rural and an urban church.

Good stuff.

jackscrow said...

Are we talking about the older "suburbs" or these new Dominion-Centex-MI/etc., moneypit/cookiecutter scourges?

Took the long way back to Athens last night (is there any other way?), and coming down the hills back of Lithopolis I looked down into the valley west of Lancaster and north of 33. It reminded me of a smaller version of Denver, or the West side of Columbus.

My first thought was, "Dear Lord". My second thought was "fly - run for your life". Then it went behind the hills and I turned up the everybodyfields and headed toward the Mayberry part of my existence.

Julana said...

When you say "both are good," what is "both" referring to? Living in the suburbs and being destitute?

Andy Whitman said...

Julana, the "both" refers to engaging suffering in 1) suburbia, and 2) in places like homeless shelters and nursing homes for the destitute. Doing that in both places is good and appropriate.

Julana said...

Ok. I did re-read it a couple times, but didn't see it. Got it now. Thanks.