When I wrote an article about church potlucks—considering their importance, and their decline—a reader on Facebook responded to the story thus:
As a former president of a church Women’s Auxiliary, I can say one of the biggest problems I had was the unwillingness for people to commit to bringing things and/or following through by showing up with them. People today always seem like they are waiting for a better event to come along or aren’t coming unless they decide they are in the mood that morning. It’s really quite unbelievable.
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this complaint: when it comes to regular church attendance, commitment to voluntary associations, and participation in local elections, our overall involvement levels are down across the nation. Yet it’s these local, communal sorts of events that often build a strong and cohesive community.
In an interesting article for Aeon Magazine, Polina Aronson points out that when it comes to matters of love, Westerners increasingly build their lives around a “Regime of Choice”:
… In most middle-class, Westernised cultures (including contemporary Russia), the Regime of Choice is asserting itself over all other forms of romance. The reasons for this appear to lie in the ethical principles of neo-liberal, democratic societies, which regard freedom as the ultimate good. However, there is strong evidence that we need to re-consider our convictions, in order to see how they might, in fact, be hurting us in invisible ways.
To understand the triumph of choice in the romantic realm, we need to see it in the context of the Enlightenment’s broader appeal to the individual. In economics, the consumer has taken charge of the manufacturer. In faith, the believer has taken charge of the Church. And in romance, the object of love has gradually become less important than its subject. … The most important requirement for choice is not the availability of multiple options. It is the existence of a savvy, sovereign chooser who is well aware of his needs and who acts on the basis of self-interest.
… But perhaps the greatest problem with the Regime of Choice stems from its misconception of maturity as absolute self-sufficiency. Attachment is infantilised. The desire for recognition is rendered as ‘neediness’. Intimacy must never challenge ‘personal boundaries’. While incessantly scolded to take responsibility for our own selves, we are strongly discouraged from taking any for our loved ones: after all, our interference in their lives, in the form of unsolicited advice or suggestions for change, might prevent their growth and self-discovery. Caught between too many optimisation scenarios and failure options, we are faced with the worst affliction of the Regime of Choice: self-absorption without self-sacrifice.
Aronson encourages her readers to embrace the unpredictability and vulnerability that, while counter to the “Regime of Choice,” are also (in her opinion) necessary for truly loving relationships to develop. It requires an abdication of control that can be difficult, but “to become truly adult,” she writes, “we need to embrace the unpredictability that loving someone other than ourselves entails.”
The unpredictability, yes—and also the commitment. As Aronson’s story points out, modern Westerners live like consumers: associating different events or obligations with a social/personal price tag. We weigh the costs associated with each, and then pick according to our preference. Which will give us the most personal benefit and satisfaction? We often wait as long as possible to make a decision before jumping in. This is life according to the Regime of Choice—and it slowly kills community.
Sometimes I think it’s really more of a youthful tendency: it seems there were countless times in college when friends would bail or events would get cancelled because a sudden blitz of “never mind, found something else (aka more exciting/entertaining) to do”‘s would come in at the last minute. Yet as we grow older, this seems to be greatly decreasing: as people get married, procure full-time jobs, begin balancing chores and bills, their desire for regular community and companionship seems to increase. If we’re going to see each other, we have to put it on the calendar. The mayhem of adult life seems to foster a deeper desire for commitment. It’s the only way we can build stability, and keep friendships alive.
Yet a defense of the reluctant committers also seems necessary: depending on how busy we are, and how introverted we are, it’s sometimes difficult to commit to something up front—because we may end the week with no energy left, without having seen family members, without getting needed sleep. We may be overwhelmed by social commitments, by our own limits, and need some solace and quite before diving into a new work week. These things happen.
But the question remains: when should such considerations trump the need to commit? When should we drop people in favor of comfort? When should we push through our exhaustion, and go to dinner with a group of friends (or to a church potluck, say) anyways?
I’m not really sure. But one thing I do know: the more you establish a routine of gathering, the more relaxing and enjoyable it becomes. The more it seeps into the fabric of your weekend and becomes a place of solace, a comforting repast in the midst of life’s stresses. Sometimes all it takes is a few weeks, perhaps months, of committing—despite our deepest desires to break away.
Read this blogpost on a woman’s Sunday dinners with family. In it, you see that what could become a stressful or frustrating ritual instead becomes a time of comfort, camaraderie, and enjoyment—because 1) it’s a regular and expected part of the weekend, 2) people willingly and regularly commit to it, and 3) everyone chips in to make it enjoyable. This is the sort of tradition that, once started, seems to offer solace—not stress—to the participant.
This piece was originally posted by The American Conservative, and it is re-published here with permission.