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Too Large for One Life: On Friction and Sustaining Tradition

November 4th, 2022 | 4 min read

By Leah Libresco Sargeant

There’s a tremendous gap between making an argument for tradition and inviting someone into a living tradition. In his Compact essay, “Why Conservatism Failed,” Jon Askonas argues that conservatives have retreated prematurely to the world of ideas and abandoned the fight to change the material reality that nurtures or strangles our roots.

In Askonas’s view, we are fighting not against coherent political programs, but the chaos of technological shifts — the Pill that ushered in a world where fertility was a luxury consumer good; the fertilizers that meant farmers could standardize their soil, instead of observing and adapting to it; the screens we slip into our pocket, which quietly ask us, “Would you rather have a little bit of everything all of the time, instead of what’s in front of you?”

Traditions are tutorials in practical wisdom. At their best, they are desire paths, wearing a clear trail to follow through the landscape, shaped by the experiences of many prior walkers. But, when the world around us changes too rapidly, Askonas writes, and “new technologies enter a society, they disrupt the connections between institutions, practices, virtues, and rewards.”

So, how to push back? One alternative is offered by Alan Jacobs, who takes his rallying cry from a line of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: “We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!”

We scatter sand over ice to walk with greater stability. We introduce obstacles to our daily lives to slow our skid down the greased rails of our technological culture. It can begin with a few firm “No”s. In our neighborhood, a group of families have all taken the “Postman’s Pledge” (named for Neil Postman), that they will not allow their kids to have smartphones or social media. The grownups pledge to limit electronics in their lives as well.

But all these “No”s aren’t meant to simply sweep the room bare. The “no” to phones is for the sake of an active “Yes” to cultivating attention, presence, and friendship. That’s why it’s a shared pledge, not just a personal commitment. In Andy Crouch’s The Tech Wise Family, he makes a similar recommendation. His family has banished the TV from the living room, but they also made sure the room was full of musical instruments and art supplies. It’s not enough to remove bad things, one must set out good things.

The trouble for conservatives is that there is often little to conserve. It’s easier to raise money by pointing out the errors of our present age, and pledging to stand athwart them yelling stop (or, at least, sardonically quote-retweeting them on twitter). The work of living an alternative is less public and less incendiary.

It can also, unless we are careful, be lonely. In my handbook on community-building, Building the Benedict Option, I wrote that choosing God often means turning away from some parts of the world:

We are called to run headlong toward God, which means that when we appear to be running away from anything else, it’s because that thing is not also moving toward God. Some things we flee from are intrinsic evils, but others are lesser goods that we aren’t called to reject so much as to restore to the right balance in our lives.

But that pruning has to be followed by an invitation. First, to God, to fill the spaces we’ve cluttered up with lesser things. And second, to our neighbors, so that what we’ve received can spill over into their lives. I suggest that readers ask themselves, “What do I do in private that I could do in public?” and move rosary walks, play readings, and music lessons to public spaces, where someone might have the chance to ask if they can join in.

The nature of a tradition is that it is too large to be contained in only one person’s life. We need to find ways to say yes to projects and duties of stewardship that are too large to be sustained alone and too important to abandon. A tree, a child, a school all are promises for the long term, that require successors to keep them. But a project can also be too large to be carried alone by requiring intense effort for a short season: a barn raising, a park cleanup, a few months care in hospice.

Askonas notes that technological advance frays the ties to our future and our past by limiting our opportunities to learn from each other. “While the best humans may always outperform computers,” he writes, “[automated] technologies knock out the bottom rungs of skilled practice that allow for the development of mastery in the first place.” If you can get a “good enough” answer or product from the internet, you won’t ask a neighbor to explain something to you or show you how to make or fix it yourself.

That’s the kind of chosen difficulty I need to seek out. I want to spend more time struggling a little as an amateur, with help from people who are a little further up the ladder, and with whom I have a continuing relationship. That way, I have the chance not just to be an amateur — a lover — of my task, but of the neighbor who taught me how to approach it.

The work can be frustratingly slow and small. However, if we want to build (or restore) things that will grow and last beyond us, we have to content ourselves with seeing only the foundation, not the final cathedral.

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Leah Libresco Sargeant

Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of Arriving at Amen and Building the Benedict Option.