Countering the uncommitted society

08 August 2007

People need the art of staying put amid the instability of modern life, says Mark Vernon

Sticking together: Margaret and Roy Phillips, who have been married for 62 years, renew their vows in June in Washington in the US PA

Sticking together: Margaret and Roy Phillips, who have been married for 62 years, renew their vows in June in Washington in the US PA

I have lived in two communities. The first was headed by a charismatic bishop. My year in his community was one of spiritual square-bashing: we were up at 5 a.m. meditating, and followed a monastic pattern to the day.

At the time, it was excellent for me: it was demanding, though neither ethically prescriptive nor dogmatically rigid. Yet, when, a couple of years later, the community fell apart, I reflected that what it lacked was stability. All the intensity of the experience could not make up for a lack of long-term commitment.

The second community was far less demanding, merely infused with a gentle Christian ethos. At its core were four people who lived together in a large, slightly run-down Hampstead house for many years. They led separate working lives, but looked after each other like sisters and brother.

I shared this life with them for five years. It involved cooking, cleaning, and caring for each other: the ethos was as much practical as idealistic. It worked not because of great demands that were made on us so much as because of the stability brought by the core four.

This thought — that what counts in community is stability — struck me after the publication of the Conservative Party’s social-justice commission last month, and its attempt to understand what is wrong in society today. It told a story of communities in collapse. Drugs, boredom, and the gap between rich and poor were in the mix of causes, though it was the breakdown of marriage that caught the headlines — as it has done since with the Law Commission’s report on cohabiting couples last week.

In both cases, it seems that financial incentives to “encourage” couples to stay together fire disagreement. The idea is ridiculous. I know the head of a women’s centre in south London, a place where single mothers and others can drop by for food, companionship, and support. She says that what the women need is not really money or education — things that they can already access. Rather, it is lessons in relationships: that men can be trusted; that commitment is good.

They never had this stability when they were growing up. They typically come from sad or violent homes, places that were good to break free from. What the women’s centre gives them is an experience of committed friendship. Only with that stability in place can they rebuild lives.

Yet it would be wrong to think that the contemporary crisis about commitment is just a personal problem for individuals. It is written into the fabric of our society.

Consider the ethos that drives modern business. The economist Joseph Schumpeter called it “creative destruction”. He noticed that capitalist economies thrive on instability because upheaval necessitates innovation, and innovation drives new revenue streams. Such turbulence is great, if your aim is to reinvigorate brands and drive up shareholder value. It is a disaster when it comes to relationships.

Little wonder that six out of ten owners of BlackBerrys — the handheld devices that check emails — use them in bed, a recent survey suggested. Little wonder you never meet anyone who has actually found the right “work-life balance”.

The same ethos shapes modern politics. Here the phrase is “perpetual revolution”. The idea is that the world is changing fast. So political bodies and social institutions cannot stand still, either. Tony Blair called it “progressive politics”. This was not so much a set of values as a call to keep moving to stay ahead of the game. Just what game this might be was rarely asked. Little wonder politicians struggle to say the right thing about marriage. Their vision of society offers it foundations of sand.

The ethos of instability reaches deeper still. On the eve of modernity, Copernicus showed that the earth is not at the fixed centre of the universe. Rather, our island home is in no significant place, and moves through space. This freedom of the earth to move among the stars, as it were, has come to seem like a model for our own liberation. Being tied to a particular place seems unbearably limiting: change is synonymous with freedom. Think of the internet — this infinity of virtual space with no centre. New material is routinely described by words such as “liberating”.

St Benedict knew that stability was crucial for his monks. It takes time to learn to live in community — time in which you must stay put. Aristotle recognised a similar thing. He believed that living with others — in the sense of seeing life as a collective, not individualistic, project — is a crucial ingredient for the most profound friendships. Only then can friends have the experience of knowing someone as “another self”, as he put it.

Clearly, there are no quick remedies for the instability of the modern world. Our love of change seems, paradoxically, unchangeable; similarly, choice is coveted for choice’s sake. But perhaps reflecting on the personal aspect of commitment suggests possibilities for a different way of life.

I realise now that the core four in that Hampstead community were offering a tremendous gift. They had and shared stability. This manifested itself in things such as a commitment to some daily rituals, such as having a meal together. Again, Benedict knew this when he realised that community life needed a Rule.

Reform is sometimes necessary, and innovation can be good. But they must be for something. Change and choice, of themselves, do not deliver the freedom they promise. Rather, true freedom is found in an ability to make commitments. Our fulfilment comes about only when finally we find stability.

Mark Vernon is the author of Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

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