Sunday, June 9, 2013

Rediscover the Public Life

Push beyond overly privatized living masked by a faux public life feel.

I had a great time meeting and talking with
West Indianapolis neighbors during the
10th Annual West Indy Community Day.
We distributed free bike helmets, and locks,
set up a bike safety rodeo, and took kids on
a 2.5 mile ride through this urban neighbor-
hood. Such festivals celebrate and fuel
a healthy public life and drive back fears
cultivated in overly-privatized living.
Having enjoyed a Saturday participating in two different urban neighborhood community festivals, I
think again of the vibrant potential of a healthy public life. I also think of the fear and false assumptions that daily sabotage this potential for many people. And I want to challenge my friends and neighbors, once again, to strive to break through backward notions of the public life and false comfort in private life. 

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 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. What Palmer calls a “public life” has been all but co-opted by fabricated facsimiles in the private realm. Do we not generally prefer private places, secluded activity circles, cloistered fellowships of faith, private education, and highly-controlled shopping areas? So successfully has America fabricated the look and feel of a genuine public life that many prefer the facsimile to the genuine article.

GOD IN THE GLOWING SCREEN. Calvin and Hobbs cartoonist 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 am betting that 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 consuming them when nothing happens.

WHICH TAKES MORE FAITH? I note that private life takes no faith. It just takes money, 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, community, and a Kingdom 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 practices that can ignite and fuel a healthy public life:

Turn off the TV, laptop and cell phone for a while.

Go out of your way.

Sit and chat a while longer at a local restaurant (and offer the server a higher tip for the table time).

Meet a neighbor.

"Waste" one evening a month at a neighborhood association meeting.

Choose nonfranchise, local shops, restaurants, etc. more frequently.

Volunteer at a public school.

Study the community council and its issues.

Participate in a parade, a public rally, town hall meeting, and/or cultural event.

If you consider yourself churched and faith-based, dare to collaborate with people who are unchurched and so-called secular (with no intent to evangelize or “win” them).


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.

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

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