About 8 years ago, a mutual friend introduced me to R, a member of a religious community in upstate New York. I found him, and his community's way of life, fascinating, and Ben and I eventually traveled to visit him upstate, where we met his equally engaging family and friends. At one point R's brother and his family were part of a satellite community in NYC, and we were privileged to get to know them as well.
Every time we returned from a visit, Ben and I would marvel at the beauty, joy and peace of their way of life, always finishing up with, "Of course, I couldn't do it."
And it is true, of me at least. Leaving aside the issue of faith (and I know it isn't possible to "leave it aside"—they're not running a fitness camp—but it isn't something I want to get into in this post) I'm much too shallow, lazy and self-centered to thrive anywhere but right where I am.
Ben is a musician, socialist and baseball fanatic; their community is musical and R's family are avid baseball fans as well (the Mets, but nobody's perfect), so I think he would do fine.
I love watching the beautiful, graceful women in their modest jumpers and head scarves, but after a while my eyes would hunger for something more colorful and creative. I love the greenery, the fresh air and the delicious organic food, but would miss theater, Netflix and restaurant dinners with a dry white. Most of all, I need hours of solitude, to shut the door or take a long walk and disappear into a book or my own head, and if I am forced to live cooperatively for too long I get really cranky and difficult.
But it works for them. And we had an unwanted illustration of how well it works during last week's visit.
We had been out of touch for too long, absorbed in our day-to-day lives, when we learned that R's wife, M, was dealing with a serious medical problem. When she felt well enough to see visitors, we took the train up.
We spent a delightful day, talking about politics, education, baseball, and other topics that absorb us. We also, of course, talked about M's illness, for which she recently had to spend a month in the hospital, with additional not-fun treatments coming up.
When I said I could only imagine how stressful this must be for the entire family, R responded, "Actually, we are really blessed. I met so many people up at the hospital who had the added stress of having to worry about taking time off from work, or finding someone to watch the kids. For us, that just isn't an issue. The whole community is behind us."
I have been thinking about that ever since, and about R's emailed response when I remarked how extraordinary and moving I found this: "We haven't done anything special, and feel that we are simply lucky recipients of a life that was and is truly inspired by the [very radical] social teachings of Jesus!" (Note: by this he does not mean promotion of a fundamentalist agenda, but rather the dictates to love one another, to live simply and responsibly, and to care for one's neighbor.)
Again, (trying) to leave faith aside, I have been imagining a society in which we all had each other's backs; in which caring for children and for people who are unwell or old or disabled was a priority; and in which everywhere you went you were greeted by honest, thoughtful people who made it a point to deal fairly with you, and with everyone. As shallow and selfish as I may be, I could definitely get on board with that.
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