To Be Or Not To Be: Dreaming of Kingdom, Comfort, Or...


For nearly five years, we have been living in a humble, 500 square foot apartment in a small, liberal college town.  We love it here, but have often agonized watching home prices.  A local "starter home" is $210,000 - $220,000, which is a range we simply cannot afford at this time.

In a way, there is something noble-sounding about renting: we remain "unattached," free of ownership constraints.  That means if we feel called to relocate, to change vocations, to go do humanitarian work, to find a university where Jen can pursue her PhD, there is little to stop us.  Noble-"sounding," because I'm not sure my own intentions are pure...

While my wife has been away for the last week, I have been exploring homes for sale.  I feel myself letting go of the fantasy of being able to afford living here, locally.  Just 10 miles down the highway, there are lovely homes we could absolutely afford.  The problem is, it's the town I grew up in.  And, close as it is, my ego screams: "you can't live in your home town!  Your friends are in L.A. and Seattle and New York and Washington DC!"  As if geography indicates some sort of success (I have written here about my struggle with this dangerous problem of perception, before).

Moreover, we'd be leaving a community that - by and large - shares our social values.  That's comfortable.  Elsewhere, we may be surrounded by conservatism.  Horror of horrors!  Sound elitist?  Sure.  I'm guilty, but I'm convicted, too.

Is home ownership good, bad, or indifferent?  In so many ways, it represents The American Dream.  But do I have a right to pursue this dream when my convictions are so critical of it?

Is it the financially smart thing to do?  And if it is, is that reason enough?  It's certainly more comfortable living in a home.  Is that reason enough?  This is where my idealism's rubber meets the road, trapping me by my own reasoning.

Is it really noble to remain available to do some "greater good," if that - in itself - feeds my ego or helps me feel morally validated?  Or helps me excuse the fact that I haven't "settled down"?  (I say "I" here because I don't want to implicate my wife in my own hubris and narcissism - her ruminations are her own)  And are my dreams of ministry, servanthood, advocacy or whatever else coming from pure motives - or do I just want to avoid what I might shamefully label "mediocrity"?

Fed up with me, yet?  Or maybe you hear yourself in this.

I can morally justify any option.  I can validate any of them.  But I can also find my own vulgar, impure motivation pulling from each direction.  Whatever I do, or don't do, can be articulated idealistically if I want  you to think I'm a good person or a responsible person or a mature person.

Am I entitled to do what I want to do, or does servanthood in the Kingdom of God mean complete rejection of creature comforts and stability (trappings of the Empire, I might accuse)?  There are, afterall, child soldiers dying in Darfur today.  I'm not doing anything for those children now, though... I didn't fly to New Orleans to help clean up after Katrina, either.

Have any of you run into this dilemma?  Is it narcissism to even blog about it?  Someone recently told me that blogging itself is a practice in narcissism - believing one's thoughts are worth sharing - and that might be very true.

"Where would Jesus live?"  That's a dangerous question, because we know how he lived.

Warren Buffett told Fortune Magazine that he was giving 99% of his wealth to charity.  Most of us can't survive on 1%.  But Jesus died, which is more like 100%, so that's something else...

What did you do?  I'm not trying to preach here - I have nowhere to point but at myself.  How did you decide?  How do you feel, now?  Regrets?  Insights?  Would Jesus be okay with 1400 square feet, but balk at 2000?  And what about the car I'm driving?  I've heard people say, "It's not about what you have, it's about what you do with it that counts," but when I heard a Christian Amway salesman say the same thing while showing me pictures of yachts and mansions, I decided that argument was bullshit.

I've been here before, but things get amplified when the price tag goes up...



4 comments:

Al said...

This post reminds me of why I like you: Instead of turning a potentially blind eye to a potential dark side, you dig out the magnifying glass to look for it. Even if some of these conceivable narcissistic attitudes are not to be found within, you still are willing to check.

In my books, that is what speaks hope for our world (or at least the western world)--less arrogance, and more vulnerability.

Regarding the topic at hand--owning a house, and other symbols of security. I think there is a place for stability and security if you are a family. A wife and future? kids deserve something more than a tent to call home. But the freedom to pack up and leave has its advantages. And it's one thing for your wife to choose to share a hippie lifestyle in a VW van. It's another thing to make kids live there without the power of choice.

WWJL? Donno, but he didn't have a wife and kids to make a home for. But I doubt if he would be needing the ritziest mansion in town.

Tobias said...

I can completely relate with your struggles. I guess all you can do is pray and contemplate about it, let God rid you of the wrong motives piece by piece and hope that a good solution will emerge. All the best, Peter!

Bad Alice said...

Before I get into the more esoteric aspects of deciding, make sure you enjoy (or can tolerate and can afford) all the aspects of upkeep that owning a home involves. Sometimes I miss having a landlord who is obligated to take care of such matters as part of the rental agreement. Also, I think one of the most responsible things you can do (and a surprising number of people don’t) is to make absolutely certain that you don’t gradually get seduced into buying more than you can really afford. Set a limit and stick with it no matter what enticements come along.

Whether you rent or own, there are a whole bunch of people who would consider you rich beyond belief. That’s the uncomfortable situation we find ourselves in, always complicit with the forces that keep some of us living in comfort while others are consigned to poverty. No idea how to resolve that, but unlike many, you at least are aware of these forces. You can make decisions informed by your self-awareness rather than blindly following the cultural imperative to consume more and more.

I know that I felt very middle class searching for a home in the best possible school district we could afford. There I was. No way would I let my kids attend a bad school. It didn’t matter to me what forces were at work or how unfair I found the No Kids Left Behind method of grading schools, I was not going to live in a bad school district. And of course the good school districts are in the areas with the greatest concentration of wealth. It was easy enough to find a modest house in the district – but I’m benefitting from the inequity of how the schools are financed, and from the power of the wealthier residents.

Existential Punk said...

Don't settle to just own a home, Peter! Don't move to conservative burbs where you might just shrivel up and die. It's not worth it! You don't have kids so be carefree as you can be!

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