Ask RC

Ask RC: Is it possible to live the simple life in the city?

I certainly hope so. And I intend to try. It is my conviction that cultures encourage particular trajectories, some of which are more healthy, some less healthy. In like manner, habits can have similar trajectories. I once wrote words to this effect, in explaining why I delighted to try to keep chickens, and why I plant vegetables each Spring. “When you spend your days manipulating ones and zeroes at a computer keyboard, and you are rewarded by sundry ones and zeroes that direct deposit your pay, and you get your food at the grocery store where you push more keys, manipulating more ones and zeroes to pay for this food, then take it home and heat it in a microwave, it is not so easy to see the providential hand of God in providing for your needs. When the food on your table is greater or lesser because of rainfall, or temperature, or the arrival of raccoons late at night, when your little children gathered the food themselves, it is easier to see the providential hand of God.”

Such describes only one blessing that can attend any attempt to husband your land. There are many more blessings. There are still more blessings that result not only when I as in individual seek to live in such a manner, but when a culture embraces the same wisdom. My esteem for Wendell Barry, for Richard Weaver, for Andrew Lytle reflects this same wisdom. That said, there are likewise peculiar temptations that come with living a more rural life, and there are even some blessings that come with being in the city. We will, as David Hegeman argues so well in his outstanding book Plowing in Hope, spend eternity in the new Jerusalem, a garden city. Add to that that even agrarianism rightly understood is more about living our lives locally than it is rurally, that it is about small rather than large, as evidenced in GK Chesterton’s version of agrarianism, what he and Belloc called “Distributivism.”

More important still, whatever affinities I might have for agrarianism (that is in theory, everyone knows I stink like fresh manure in real life), this is not now nor has it ever been what we have always affirmed at Highland sas the call to live the simple life. We have, from the beginning, affirmed that the simple life means living our lives with only one Master. We have affirmed that our lives become unsimple, that is, confused, alienated and hurried, precisely because we are seeking to serve the true and living God while also serving the God of personal peace and affluence. We want to serve the Lord, while still living and looking like “normal” folks. We want the respect of the watching world, and self-respect. We can’t have both.

The truth of the matter is that some of the trajectories common to a more rural life make simplicity, in my judgment, a little more attainable. Competitive bling hasn’t yet made it to rural Mendota,Virginia. (Now, here we’re competitive about the caliber of our weapons and the horsepower on our tractors.) It’s certainly easier to raise, and kill chickens when there are no zoning concerns. But a gentle and quiet spirit is likewise likely more attainable in homes with no small children. Such doesn’t mean we shouldn’t receive the blessing of children. To draw a more agrarian analogy, it’s easy to keep a stall clean if there’s no ox in it. But an ox can help you get work done.

If the simple life is just a choice and not a command, then we have been wrong to teach it for the last thirteen years. We would have been wasting our time and energies were we simply calling people to move to the country. If, however, living the simple life is a command, and it is impossible to live simply in the city, then everyone has to leave, and now. Thankfully, God is bigger than that, and can bless us wherever He puts us. Please, be as agrarian as you’d like. But don’t confuse it with simplicity. That we have to seek, whether we like it or not, and wherever our Lord has placed us.