Big, Wide World

It's out there, I know it. I even occasionally catch glimpses of it as I am driving to and from fencing practice. Even so, it amazes me that some people--i.e. other writers--seem to profess to know anything about it, at least on a scale larger than, say, the several hundred or maybe even thousand people they happen to encounter on a regular basis in their everyday lives. How do they do it? I suppose, in part, I try to do the same thing, if with a time period somewhat distant from ours, but in actual fact I know (and am--I am not embarrassed to note--somewhat comforted to realize) that what we actually know about what medieval people thought, for example, about Christianity, is limited to a few dozen writers at most, tops a few hundred. Indeed, if one spent one's lifetime reading nothing but the works of these authors, it would probably be possible to read almost everything they wrote, that is, insofar as it survives. Nobody could do that with even what is published in a single year in our present-day world.

So how do they do it, these other writers? How do they know what so many other people are thinking so as to be able to make confident descriptions of what our culture is like or, even more impressively, likely to become? How do they know what religion means to the majority of modern Americans or what people think about their dogs or how important poetry is to their spiritual experience? Surveys, yes. Selective reading of the things that more people read (or, at the very least, buy from the publishers or borrow from libraries). Going to the movies, watching television. Traveling a lot. Is any of this information accurate? Is it ever truly representative? How would we know? Okay, so now I am thinking of ways in which I would answer some of these questions, but much of what I might find if, for example, I did a survey of all (more realistically, some, a.k.a. "a representative sample") of the periodical literature produced by the various confessional denominations would be more of the same: speculations based on yet smaller samples about what people really think. There would still be millions upon millions of people whose thoughts I would never know.

So we're social animals; most of us tend to think more or less alike. It's what we call "culture." When culture is shared over generations, sometimes over many generations, we call this "tradition." Fine. What is the culture like in which we (Americans) live today? Okay, I think I can name some things that are relatively common. Shopping. Most of us like to go to stores or go on-line and purchase things that other people have designed and made, more often than not with the help of sophisticated machines. Urban. Most of us live in large cities, many of us even in cities as large as the one in which I live. Obsessed with entertainment, including spectator sports. I know this because every day on my way to fencing practice I pass an enormous stadium surrounded by a suitably expansive parking lot. Obsessed with celebrity, fame, the people that other people are talking about, particularly the ones whom we look to for entertainment. Obsessed with health, ironically, whether or not we exercise. Convinced that it is possible to make our lives ever more efficient and comfortable, particularly by way of buying things that have been well-designed (we hope). Convinced that it is possible to live without working, if only we could figure out a way to make enough money. Anxious about whether the future will be at all like the past, although often hoping very much that it will not be.

Perhaps I know more than I think I do about what our culture is like today. So why then do I constantly feel so disconnected? I should, living where I do, feel right at the heart of it, shouldn't I? Chicago is an enormous city, larger than almost every other city in this country. Okay, so maybe it's only no. 29 out of the cities of the world, just a little smaller than Bangkok and a little bigger than Bogotá, but 6.9 million people is still a fair size. Surely, I should know something about what it means to be alive today simply by driving through it on a regular basis. (Oh, that's another thing: we live in cars.) And yet, my father always told me that I didn't know what most people wanted out of life, and my brother has told me more than once that I really don't have a grasp on what it's like even in other sectors of academia (read, large state universities). So what are the things that I am confident that I actually know about?

Fencing. Sort of. Certainly, I know a good hundred or so fencers moderately well, maybe a dozen or twenty very well. But I still don't really know much about how to fence, so I'm not sure I'm going to be setting myself up as an authority on that anytime soon. Academia. That is, academia in the relatively restricted setting of the social sciences and humanities departments of small private universities, specifically the subset of scholars who happen to study the history and culture of Europe in the Middle Ages, specifically those who work on aspects of Christianity, specifically the ones most concerned with monasticism and scriptural exegesis, specifically me and a few of my friends. Are we at all representative of anything other than ourselves? Statistically (oh, how I hate statistics sometimes), we are all anomalies: typically stronger students than the majority of our contemporaries (i.e. we did well in school), typically somewhat out of it when it comes to the economic prospects of even those with whom we went to college (i.e. we make less than the doctors and lawyers and scientists and others who have gone on to higher education), typically spending our lives reading and thinking about questions that only a few hundred people in the world (if that) have any interest in.

Did I mention that fencing is a relatively small sport? Maybe a few tens of thousands of us in the whole country, only forty or fifty women my age who compete at the national level. And I attend an Episcopal church that is itself an anomaly, or so I understand from what I hear about other churches in our diocese and from the survey that we did of ourselves this past summer as part of our parish profile. Basically, almost nothing that I do (other than drive, shop and worry about my weight and the future) is typical of most Americans alive today. I almost never watch television as such, only DVDs. I see almost no billboards or commercials on a daily basis other than on buses. I only subscribe to Harper's and Yoga Journal, and I don't really read Harper's anymore (I've read most of it before, the themes tend to recur). I walk to work. I live in a 100-year-old apartment building--not, that is, in either the suburbs or a modern high-rise. I don't wear make-up any more and even when I did, it was only for about five years, when I was around 40. None of my clothes are particularly fashionable, and even the older ones aren't particularly vintage, just old. How could I possibly profess to know anything about what "ordinary" (whoever they are) people think or do with their lives?

I suppose, like my colleagues in the social sciences who design surveys for a living, I could ask. It's seductive, our worship of numbers. Maybe I could start counting things: hours of television watched, amount spent on clothes every year, visits to museums or other cultural centers. But what would I learn from such counting that I don't already know, at least impressionistically, now? I could travel more, put myself in more unfamiliar situations. That's what our tourist industry constantly recommends. But I've been to the kinds of places that people go as tourists. What I really want to understand (or is it?) is the lives of the men who are working on my bathroom at the moment (yes, we're gluttons for it this year). I think they're from Poland. I'm not sure, only a few of them speak any English at all, usually just enough for me to be almost sure that they're not going to tear out the wrong wall or put the tiles on in the wrong place (they haven't; the work they've done is exceptional, but just in case). What is it like for them to come to my apartment and watch me sitting here, typing, not clearly working at all? They have skills I will never have; more to the point, theirs are actually practical. They make people's homes more functional and comfortable and pleasing to live in. What are their homes like? I know one of them has dogs "at home"--that is, in Poland. What of the others? Do we even live in the same world?

I need to prepare for class, not distract myself with worrying about why I am not a contemporary cultural critic or modern historian. But I do worry. The other day I was sitting in a department meeting listening to my colleagues ask our president about whether our graduate program numbers would ever return to the level that we had before the economic turn-down (gotta love that euphemism!), and it occurred to me that we really haven't a clue what's coming at us. We think we know what to do in order to be who we are (professors), but all we actually know is how other people have been professors before us. Here we are, on the cutting edge of time, hurtling into the future with absolutely no idea what it will bring, never mind what it means. And we try to shore our lives up by believing that we will be doing in ten or twenty years what we are doing now. Probably. Certainly, I hope we will. But do we really have any sense of where our culture is going? About what kinds of future we ourselves are helping to create? Again, I am impressed when writers like, indeed, some of my colleagues profess to be able to see even our present situation clearly enough to say something about how it came into being. I find it even more remarkable (and daunting) when they say things about what our lives mean.


  1. Harper's is amazing! I'm rather new to reading it (online thus far but am definitely going to take out a print subscription) and am still quite giddily excited about it. Jeff Sharlet's piece on "The Family" was investigative journalism at its finest.


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