Thursday, 5 February 2009

What, if anything, will we learn?

A photo of one of the high-profile casualties of the current recession – a depressing view of Chepstow High Street.

We are now in the full grip of the economic downturn (something they say our Prime Minister when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer – surely he is too bright to be guilty of such hubris – told us would never happen again.)
What will we learn from the recession in terms of our lifestyles, the way we order our day-to-day lives, the time and care we bestow on our families and friends, the system of values we live by, the duties we owe to God himself?
Will economic uncertainty, the fear and anxiety caused by the threat of unemployment or business failure lead us to think about the deeper meaning of life, the things which are of eternal significance? Or do we think it is all fixable, with a tweak here and there to the international financial system, so we can get back to enjoying the really important things of 21st Century life such as unlimited credit, retail therapy and exotic holidays?
As a natural cavalier rather than a puritan, I don’t think we should give the impression of relishing the prospect of discomfort, whether it’s our own or other people’s, but perhaps – just perhaps – we may return to some kind of balance in the way we live. Order isn’t always the enemy of spontaneity but the guarantee of its possibility.

An interesting report earlier this week, from the Children’s Society,
“The Good Childhood Report” stated that children are more "anxious and troubled" and their lives "more difficult" than ever they were in the past. And the report lays the blame firmly on the priority given by adults to the quest for material success. We live, say the authors, in a "selfish and individualistic culture" and we should learn to focus on helping others rather than pursuing our own self-centred aims. They also go on to say that children living with lone parents or step parents are three times more likely to have behavioural problems as those living with married parents. In other words, the traditional family offers the best chance of a good childhood.
There’s nothing so really controversial there one might think; it’s only the common currency of most modern, orthodox Christian reflection on the nature of the society in which we live.
But what has been most surprising is the purely ideological reaction to the report. Never mind the evidence from the lives of our children, opponents seem to say; if what is said seems to go against much of the accepted cultural wisdom of the last fifty years then it must be the evidence which is somehow at fault and not the way we now live.
Of course, it helps no one to be loaded down with a huge weight of personal guilt about the way we are failing our children. Most people live by and are conditioned by the values of the society in which they live; in the absence of a clearly articulated alternative vision of life (and here the Christian Churches – Anglicans in particular - are most definitely culpable in their failure to defend Christian social values & I write as someone whose own views have changed significantly in twenty years - yes, a convert to traditional, Catholic Christian values!) it is a moot point as to how far one can attribute individual blame.
But the downplaying, even the disparaging, of the role – more than that - the full time job - of motherhood by the feminist movement in a somewhat unlikely collusion with free-market economics has to account for more than a little of the various crises afflicting the modern family.
It can’t be a co-incidence that we are now left here in Britain with the highest levels of family break-up in Western Europe. Essentially, we have North American economics without America’s sense of social cohesion and their sense of the importance of religious and family values in the life of their country. Somewhere along the line between the 1950s and 1990s we in Britain lost our own sense of the importance of structure and community in our lives and have been left with an exaggerated individualistic outlook in almost all aspects of our national life, public and private. The free market economy (which is all we have been left with in terms of a common identity) is by its nature amoral, it can have no regard for history or tradition, it cannot guarantee the stability or the benevolence of any society and it is certainly no guarantor of Catholic social doctrine.
This feels a little bit like confessing to a secular heresy, but whereas many of the insights of the feminist movement were a necessary corrective to societies long dominated by the (so-called) male values of aggression and competition, and they have undoubtedly and rightly led to a huge improvement in women’s lives in terms of legal status, educational and career prospects (in fact, in terms of basic human rights), one has to wonder at what point did working in an office for a multi-national corporation, answering ‘phones at a call centre, working at the till in Tesco’s, or whatever, come to be regarded as being of a higher social status and degree of usefulness than looking after one’s own children? Perhaps in this world of ever-higher material and emotional expectations and, even now, obscenely high property values, we should consider giving people very large tax benefits to be able to afford to be full-time parents and thereby helping to make it very clear that to be a full-time mother (or father, for that matter) is one of the most demanding and high-status jobs one could ever have. Being responsible for the future, giving our children the love and care they need, passing on to them the most valuable insights into life we ourselves have gained and the tradition of faith in turn passed on to us, is no small matter; it is far too important to be left in the hands of strangers and far too significant to be left to the dictates of politicians or educationalists. The human love we give our children, the time we spend with them, what we hand on to them, is their first apprehension of the love of God himself and their first and enduring vision of what life should be like.
For those who recognise that our society is broken and in need of repair the report is a welcome contribution.
On the other hand we can be forgiven for identifying with the passer-by somewhere in Ireland (or so the joke goes) who when asked directions to a certain town, replied, “well, if I’d wanted to go there, I wouldn’t be starting from here!”

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