Sunday, March 10, 2013

Strive for an Authentic Public Life

Push back against overly privatized living that's surrounded by a faux public life feel

PRIVATE LIFE VS PUBLIC LIFE? No one has articulated the differences between public and private living, or argued more convincingly for the preservation and renewal of a healthy public life than Parker J. Palmer. Listen to him in The Company of Strangers: Christians and the Renewal of America's Public Life (1981):

VICTORIES FOR THE WHOLE. “A genuine public life begins with the premise that victories for the whole are greater than victories for any of its parts. We understand that we are members of one another; that the social order will be secure for our own life, liberty and pursuit of happiness only if it is secure for others as well."

A WAY FOR EVERYONE TO WIN. “The foundation of public life is the tenacious faith that we are in this together and can find ways for everyone to win. This is not a faith which accompanies many outbursts of so-called public activity these days.”

FACSIMILES OF PUBLIC LIFE. Public life has been all but co-opted by fabricated facsimiles in the private realm. Do many people not generally prefer private places, secluded activity circles, cloistered fellowships of faith, private education, even highly-controlled shopping areas? So successfully has America fabricated the look and feel of genuine public life that we likely prefer the facsimile to the genuine article.

GOD IN THE GLOWING SCREEN. Calvin and Hobbes comics creator Bill Waterson shows Calvin bowing down to a television set and crying out: "Oh, great altar of passive entertainment, bestow upon me thy discordant images at such speed as to render linear thought impossible!" I bet most of us think of "the public life" as what we see flashed before us on TV. And we wonder what the world is coming to. By the way: I keep bringing offerings of chips, cookies, and soft drinks before the altar of TV, but end up eating it myself when nothing happens.

WHICH TAKES MORE FAITH? Interesting to me that private life takes no faith; it just takes money and control and a penchant for making everything extremely 'safe.' It turns us inward and often in on ourselves. It is a treadmill that takes a lot of negative energy. Public life, on the other hand, lives by faith--a faith many have abandoned. It is unpredictable, frequently unruly, ultimately uncontrollable--and utterly life-sustaining. It turns us outward, even inside out.

IT KEEPS BREAKING IN. For all our efforts to take things private, the public life keeps breaking out, breaking in, or breaking through our private worlds. Despite our satiation with sameness, neatness, and dullness--and despite being brainwashed regularly by marketing's most sophisticated mind games--we still hunger for a truth-telling solidarity and community that is beyond our selectively-picked and tightly-controlled private lives and cloistered cells.

KEEP THE CANDLE BURNING. Keep the candle of a genuine public life burning in our privatized world--and fan its flame. A few ideas:

  • Turn off the TV, laptop and cell phone for awhile.
  • Go out of your way whenever you can.
  • Sit and chat a while longer at a local restaurant. Slow food, full conversations.
  • Meet a neighbor or two you haven't yet met. 
  • "Waste" one evening a month at a neighborhood association meeting.
  • Choose non-franchise, local shops, restaurants, etc. more often than not.
  • Volunteer at a public school.
  • Study your community council and its issues.
  • Participate in a parade, a public rally, town hall meeting, and/or cultural event.
  • Dare to collaborate with people who are not of your political party, faith tradition or ethnic heritage.
  • Vote.
  • Do something in and for the community that has nothing to do with church.
  • Give of yourself to sustain and build up a community-serving organization.
  • Contribute to making the world real, whole, livable, sustainable and hopeful for others.

NOTE: Recognizing the richness public life and participating in it is central to my forthcoming novel "What Saved Grace?" Soon to be released in ebook formats, it's a story of the beauty and complexity of compassion set in an urban neighborhood. I will announce its Smashwords publication here and via Twitter and Facebook.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

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