Life As an Etch-A-Sketch

I commend to you this excellent piece from the always-excellent Alan Jacobs on why American culture is so quick to scrap pieces of life–jobs, marriages, etc–and start over blank again. Jacobs calls it the “trade-in society,” and sees it in everything from sports to church membership.


This is one of the chief reasons why so many marriages end quickly; this is why so many Christians church-hop, to the point that pastors will tell you that church discipline is simply impossible: if you challenge or rebuke a church member for bad behavior, he or she will simply be at another church the next week, or at no church at all.

It seems that we — and I’m using “we” advisedly here, as you’ll see in a moment — are becoming habituated to making the nuclear option the first option, or very close to the first option, when we can. Trying to come to terms with a difficult person, or a difficult situation, is an endeavor fraught with uncertainty: it might work, but it might not, and even if it does work, I could end up paying a big emotional price. Why not just bail out and start over?

A while back I had the opportunity to speak to a room full of mostly high school students. I brought up this exact point, telling the guys and girls that our generation seemed to be particularly rootless and wandering, migrating constantly from one friendship, one job, one relationship, one place to the next. I’m not sure what they thought of that, becuase I’m not sure how people who are brought up in such a mobile, transient technological age are supposed to see the inherent virtues of permanence and stability (much less to see these virtues through conflict and hardship).

Everything in our western life is in motion, and it seems there is no distinction made between stillness and stagnation. If, for one season, life isn’t as romantic or exciting (or profitable) as we might hope, our tendency is to find where we need to pull the plug. This is part of what I mean when I talk about the perils of a “hyper-examined life.” An obsessive watch over our levels of emotional fulfillment can easily create the illusion that we are in drastic need of change when what we really need is to stop thinking about our own minds for a moment.

Jacobs goes on to reflect on how this mentality might have affected his own life:

[I]n the three decades that I lived in Wheaton, Illinois, I was a member of three different churches, and I often wonder what I might have learned — what wisdom I might have gained, what benefits of character I might have reaped, what good I might have done for others, what I might have been taught by fellow parishioners — if I had never left the first one. I can’t manage to wish I had stayed, but that may be because all I know is what went wrong there, what made me frustrated and unhappy. Any benefits I (or others) might have received through persistent faithfulness are unknown to me, a matter of speculation.

Looking back on my decision to leave that first church, I realize that I did so because I was confident that, whatever good things might have come to me at that church, those good things, or very similar ones, would be available to me elsewhere. It seems to me that if there’s one thing that our current version of advertising-based capitalism teaches us all it’s that everything is replaceable: everything can be reproduced, or traded in for a new and improved model. And that applies to coaches, to churches, to spouses.

A couple years ago, my wife (fiance at the time) and I made the single hardest transition that we’ve made to date: We left our home church. She, a deacon’s daughter, had been a member her entire life. I had been a member from 14 to 25. Outside of family, there is nothing that Emily and I have been a part of longer than we were part of that little church in Louisville.

The transition was necessary and amiable. We didn’t end any friendships over it. But it was still incredibly difficult, not because anyone made it difficult but because moving on from anything in which your roots have gone down deeply for long is supposed to be difficult. We had an emotional stake in that church, simply by virtue of being a part of it for the years that we were.

That kind of relational investment can make conflict much more painful and transitions much sadder. But the richness it adds to life is unmistakable. The slow, month-by-month, year-by-year buildup of spiritual, emotional, and physical presence all adds up to a warmth of memory and personal meaning that a life of low-stakes membership and come-and-go-as-you-like mentality cannot imitate.

What we lose in the trade-in society is more than memories, however. We lose our sense of covenant. At-will employment is a rule of the free market, but it was never meant to define our most personal communities or deepest relationships. Because we image the Creator who is at the same time making all things new and yet not ever changing, our hearts are not designed to endure the endless reinvention of floating from place to place, job to job, church to church, friend to friend, lover to lover, and hobby to hobby. When we realize that everything can be exchanged, we do not value our freedom more, we value our choices, and consequently our own lives, less.

Not every freedom is truly freeing. An Etch-A-Sketch can be cleaned very quickly, but it can’t make art that lasts. Sometimes staying where you are is the greatest adventure, and the highest joy, possible.


(image credit)

Author: Samuel D. James

Believer, husband, father, acquisitions editor, writer.

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