After recommending James Martin’s The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life the other week, I felt compelled to go back and reread the book for the second time this year. I know, I know: Why would you do such a thing? The answer, quite simply, is that a familiar text can be infused with new life when read with fresh eyes and a new, slightly different, perspective in life. Such was the case as I reread Martin’s chapter on ‘The Simple Life.’1
At one point, in a section titled ‘The Ladder,’ Martin references an article by Fr. Dean Brackley––‘Downward mobility: social implications of St. Ignatius’ Two standards.’2 Underlining and comments in the margins reveal that I found Martin’s summary and commentary on Brackley’s article to be interesting. It was only interesting in passing, however. It lacked teeth and did not seem to have the veracity of other sections, at least insofar as it connected with me, my station in life, and resulted in angst that would eventually lead to change. This time, however, things were different. I read Martin’s summary and accompanying commentary and felt challenged. Actually, I felt like I was hit with 2×4 and, days later, I feel as if I still bear the marks.
So, without further ado, I’d like to do a few things. First, I’d like to once again recommend James Martin’s The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life. It’s an excellent book. Martin is a phenomenal author. Second, I’d like to point you to Fr. Dean Brackley’s article ‘Downward mobility: social implications of St. Ignatius’ Two standards,’ as it is free and well-worth the read. Third, I’d like to summarize Brackley’s twelve characteristics that comprise the ‘way of the world.’ Fourth, and finally, I’d like to share with you some thoughts that arose as I read Brackley’s article and Martin’s summary, in the hope that you might be equally bothered by what is said.
- The way of the world is individualistic, with individuals and families oriented towards private goals.
- People are increasingly insecure. In attempting to overcome insecurity people consume things, which provide a temporary, but immediate, form of security.
- Points one and two presuppose a particular understanding of society. An apt metaphor being the ladder.
- An individual’s status and/or place on the ladder is attested to by symbols of status––titles, honors, educational achievements, number of possessions, size of house, etc.
- The ladder and the pride that it represents are interiorized. They become the measure by which we judge ourselves and our worth.
- At both the top and bottom of the ladder we find mythical figures: the Model and/or success story and the Outcast and/or failure/loser, respectively.
- Thus, life becomes a competition, as our place on the ladder is threatened by those beneath us and as we infringe upon those on the rung above us. In this ‘way of the world,’ we are constantly vying for position as symbolized in a grander title, elite education, a better car, and bigger house.
- Security is equated with climbing up the ladder, often at the expense of others.
- The social model is therefore not simply a ladder but a pyramid, with groups of like-minded individuals who share a similar station in life banding together to stave off attacks from above or below.
- Power and authority are used by those on top to preserve their security. Preservation necessarily entails the oppression of those below, so that they do not become upwardly mobile.
- Social class, wealth, education, sexual orientation, etc. serve as the lines of demarcation by which the pyramid is divided.
- Consequently, competition between the groups leads to relations built on fear rather than trust and cooperation.
Four Observations Stemming from Brackley’s Twelve Characteristics
Brackley’s article and Martin’s commentary have caused me to think deeply about a number of things. A few of which, I believe, merit sharing here. First, the mythical Model of success is always out there. S/he is always one, two, or a few ladder rungs ahead of us. In other words, the ladder never ends. Successfully build one company from the ground up. Why stop at one? Why not go for two? Set a goal of becoming a millionaire. Achieve said goal. But why stop there? Why settle for one million when you could have two? Why settle for being a millionaire when you could be a billionaire?
A second and related observation: the ladder becomes a burden rather than a means to overcome insecurity. Because there is always another proverbial rung to climb, one is never quite as secure as one could be. Thus, there is a constant, continual existential angst that stems from the need to always be just a little bit better.
Third, the ‘way of the world’ is exhausting. The pressures are non-stop. Battling and vying for position never ceases. Posing and posturing to ensure one’s position within a particular band of the pyramid is ongoing.
Fourth and finally, as Martin notes, ‘It becomes easier, therefore, to ignore the poor. They are an implicit threat to the system, since they remind us that the ladder does not work perfectly.’4
Where This Hits Home (for Me)
I feel the pressure of the ladder. I’ve lived under its burden. I’ve run on that hamster wheel and have experienced the exhaustion. I’ve tried to prove valuable to various groups, so that I wouldn’t be dismissed and relegated to the margins.
But, really, that’s not what has hit home the most. What hits home is the idea of downward mobility and what happens when we simplify life. When respectability and appearing respectable does not matter nearly as much as it used to, we are freer to spend time in places that we would not have previously spent our time and, consequently, we have the privilege of meeting people we would never have otherwise met. In my life this has taken the form of becoming friends with some folks who live in government housing––which people tend to call the projects; sitting down and having coffee with some friends without houses––people whom society tends to label as ‘homeless,’ ‘bums,’ ‘vagabonds,’ ‘lazy,’ or a myriad of other things; receiving WIC benefits and having a wife and kids on medical assistance. These relationships and experiences have made it rather clear that these––the poor, the working poor, or whatever else you want to call them/us––are viewed as a threat to the system. We/they aren’t viewed as people who are valuable and can enrich the life of the community. We/they are viewed as leeches; as parasites; as a blight to our communities.
This has been hammered home again and again in recent weeks in a number of ways. I’ve listened with interest as people––people who I love––talk about Obamacare, SNAP benefits, WIC, and the beneficiaries of said programs. The tone of the conversation changes greatly once I acknowledge that we have utilized WIC benefits and that Crystal and the kids are on medical assistance because we can’t get individual health care benefits because of her pre-existing conditions. It’s been eye-opening for me to sit in meetings and watch as people react to the assertion that we have people in our community that do not have a roof over their head; that sleep in abandoned train cars and under overpasses or couch-surf, staying with a new friend or acquaintance each night. Martin is right. We tend to ignore, look away, or push the poor away because we don’t want to be confronted by their humanity; the myth of security; the brokenness of our capitalist system; and the like.
For me this most vivid example of this has been working with various families over the last few months in an attempt to find transitional or emergency housing. If resources in the form of shelters and public assistance were the barometer by which we gauged whether homelessness is a problem in central Pennsylvania were a problem, one would be led to assume that it is not a problem whatsoever. Within a fifty mile radius of Mount Union there are two shelters––there is a third slightly beyond the fifty mile radius. Of these two shelters, one is exclusively for women and children who are victims of domestic violence. The other provides temporary housing but has limited space available. While I’m grateful for the shelter that serves victims of domestic violence, as this form of help and assistance is critical, it does mean that there is only one shelter within fifty miles that I can refer people to and it has limited space.
Like I said, you would assume that this means that homelessness is not an issue or problem in the area. But here’s the thing. I had one family contact me this week about trying to find housing. We called the shelter and they were full. In fact, I was told that this year there have only been a handful of days in which they have not been at capacity. This isn’t the first family to contact me this year. Sadly, they weren’t the first or only family to contact me in the last three months. Then, there those who I’ve taken coffee to who sleep under the overpass at one of the parks in our community. There’s also those who are sleeping in the abandoned rail cars. Let’s not forget about those who are crashing on a friend’s couch and have been making their round from friend to friend so as to not wear out their welcome.
There have been those who have tried to start shelters in the area. But each time the endeavor has failed for one of two reasons: 1) zoning laws prohibit the operation of a shelter in a particular area and/or, 2) there has been public opposition. The cries of NIMBY (not in my back yard) have often prevailed. They’ve prevailed, because as Martin notes, our friends without homes, our friends in need of assistance, are perceived as a threat to the system. They point to the ladder’s brokenness. They remind us that things aren’t so neat and orderly as we would like to believe. They remind us that the things we seek to find security and derive security from can be stripped away in an instant.
Martin’s chapter on ‘The Simple Life’ and Brackley’s article couldn’t have come at a better time. They’ve forced me to face my prejudices and acknowledge the brokenness of our societal structures. They’ve helped me to understand why my heart breaks for these new friends and their families, while at the same time reminding me of why people are so ready to cry NIMBY. It makes me grateful for those who are able to see and understand that the lines that are drawn and the labels that are applied are often the result of an attempt to bolster our confidence, sense of security, etc. at the expense of others. It helps me to be patient with those who aren’t yet able to see or understand such things. It thrills me to know that there are those whose hearts are broken and who are willing to be friends with and serve as advocates for those who are marginalized and forgotten by society––the Mark Horvath’s, the Paul and Melinda Gorog’s, the rescue mission staffs, etc. It also makes me grateful for our experiences––experiences that at the time I loathed––living paycheck to paycheck; asking for help from family and friends so that we could get by; receiving WIC benefits; standing in line at the grocery store and look at your like you are a freeloader for using WIC checks; handing the bright yellow medical assistance card to the receptionist behind the counter at the doctor’s office or at the drug store. These were experiences that were formative and instructive in ways that went beyond the theory of books or the comfort of armchair discussions. More than anything, it makes me thankful for my friends who have been patient with me when I have been judgmental and ignorant of the circumstances of their life; and have stuck with me and have taken the time to show me the ins-and-outs of who they are and what they are going through.
- James Martin, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, New York: HarperOne (2012), 174-212. ↩
- Ibid., 183-186. ↩
- Dean Brackley, ‘Downward mobility: social implications of St. Ignatius’ Two standards,’ in Studies in the Spirituality of the Jesuits, 20:1 (1988): 20-28. ↩
- Martin, 185. ↩