Everything worth having comes with a cost. This is incontrovertibly true. But what happens when we become the kind of people who are no longer willing to pay the price? I think that’s exactly what’s happening to us: we modern Americans have become increasingly unable to deal with the inevitable difficulties of life. How did this happen, and what can we do about it?
On February 18, I preached a sermon I entitled “Everything Worth Having Comes With a Cost.” (The video is embedded below this paragraph; if you don’t see it, refresh the page.) From time to time, there is more I want to say about a Sunday sermon, and so I will be running an occasional series here with extra thoughts and clarifications that I either didn’t have time for on a Sunday, or thoughts and insights that didn’t come to me until afterwards.
How Did We Get Here?
The increase in just the last 20 years of Americans who require anti-anxiety medications just to get through the day is as good an indicator of our problem as anything else. More and more, we are people who are overwhelmed by daily life. There is a time and place for these sorts of medications, and surely they do a lot of good, but what I want to know is why the increase? Why are we consuming more and more medications to fight off anxiety and despair? Sure, Big Pharma has found these medications lucrative, and sure doctors might be more aware of our disorders now than in previous times, but these factors are not the cause of our anxiety, but a response to it. In any case,I am not concerned with our reliance on these medications so much as what that reliance indicates: we have a problem. We’ve become unable to deal with the inevitable difficulties of life. So, again, I want to know, Why? What’s happening to us?
Here’s my theory: life has become too comfortable and convenient. One hundred years ago, just staying alive and feeding your family required more work that most of us have ever experienced. My family recently read a book together called Little Britches: Father and I were Ranchers, by Ralph Moody. It’s a remembrance of a boy who moved with his family from New Hampshire to the plains of Colorado in the early 1900s. The amount of sheer hard work that the little boy–Ralph–undertakes just to help his family survive is astounding. And this was in the 20th century! Describing life a generation or two before that, anyone who’s ever read the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder will have noticed the same thing: just how hard life was for so many people in previous times. (The Little House books are well-known, of course, but I would highly recommend Ralph Moody’s Little Britches to everyone reading this–whether you have little kids in your house or not. As a grown man, I still found it fascinating, moving, and edifying.)
What I can’t do, however, is complain that my kids are too comfortable. See, it’s not just that my children are growing up in comfort, but so did I, and so did my Boomer parents. I’d suspect that the last American generation to have to known daily drudgery was the one born before the Second World War. Since then, American life has become–through our wealth and especially our technological innovations–easy. By easy, I don’t mean morally easy–more on that below–but that the daily process of being fed and clothed and sheltered has become easy. This ease is not restricted merely to the wealthy, either. I’m aware that there are millions of poor people in America who have none of the advantages that my wealth brings me; but I’m also aware that the poor people in America are not having to make their own clothes or grow their own crops or butcher their own meat or chop their own wood to heat up water. (This is not to say that it’s not extremely difficult to be poor in America–I’m just making a point about how even the poor among us are exempt from the sort of tasks that virtually everyone–except perhaps the fantastically wealthy–who lived before 1940 would have encountered on a daily basis.) For several generations now, our daily lives have been made easier than any humans who have ever previously lived. But at what cost?
Tim Wu wrote an excellent essay in The New York Times in which he argues that our eager embrace of convenience has become a form of tyranny over us. It’s entitled, appropriated, “The Tyranny of Convenience,” and if you’ve ever bought a book on Amazon instead of the brick-and-mortar bookstore you say you support will understand immediately “the powerful force shaping our individual lives” to which he refers:
In the developed nations of the 21st century, convenience — that is, more efficient and easier ways of doing personal tasks — has emerged as perhaps the most powerful force shaping our individual lives and our economies. This is particularly true in America, where, despite all the paeans to freedom and individuality, one sometimes wonders whether convenience is in fact the supreme value….
But we err in presuming convenience is always good, for it has a complex relationship with other ideals that we hold dear. Though understood and promoted as an instrument of liberation, convenience has a dark side. With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life. Created to free us, it can become a constraint on what we are willing to do, and thus in a subtle way it can enslave us….
The dream of convenience is premised on the nightmare of physical work. But is physical work always a nightmare? Do we really want to be emancipated from all of it? Perhaps our humanity is sometimes expressed in inconvenient actions and time-consuming pursuits….
I do not want to deny that making things easier can serve us in important ways, giving us many choices (of restaurants, taxi services, open-source encyclopedias) where we used to have only a few or none. But being a person is only partly about having and exercising choices. It is also about how we face up to situations that are thrust upon us, about overcoming worthy challenges and finishing difficult tasks — the struggles that help make us who we are. What happens to human experience when so many obstacles and impediments and requirements and preparations have been removed?
Today’s cult of convenience fails to acknowledge that difficulty is a constitutive feature of human experience. Convenience is all destination and no journey. But climbing a mountain is different from taking the tram to the top, even if you end up at the same place. We are becoming people who care mainly or only about outcomes. We are at risk of making most of our life experiences a series of trolley rides. [My emphases.]
I’m grateful for modern medical care, and I don’t want to have to take cold showers, but the truth is that all our modern life conveniences are having an effect on our character. See, when you are confronted every single day with inconvenient and uncomfortable tasks that are necessary to life, you learn that difficulty is an inescapable part of life. You learn through experience that everything worth having comes with a cost. And then, when you face larger difficulties of life–the sort of difficulties that cannot be solved by technology, that is to say the moral difficulties that involve self-denial and selflessness and moral courage and strength in the face of pain and hope in the face of despair–you are more prepared the pay the price to overcome them.
But us? We experience the big difficulties of life, the difficulties that cannot be eliminated by technological innovation, and we find them overwhelming. And so more and more of us lack the character to pay the price necessary to flourish in the world. I find this terrifying, because I find it in myself. For the Israelites, the generation that refused to pay the price to enter The Promised Land was condemned to wander in the desert and die before they ever got there. What about us? Since I believe it’s true that everything worth having comes with a cost, our lack of fortitude will mean that there are lands flowing with milk and honey that we’ll never enter, because we just can’t stomach it. What will this mean for marriage and citizenship and difficult political questions? Instead of facing the hard things straight on, we’ll medicate through media or medicine and try to ignore the fact that we’re constantly busy but have little to show for our efforts. And this in turn will cause us more anxiety. So it will go.
What’s to be done?
This is what I ran out of time to say in my sermon: there are two steps we need to take, as I see it. The first is for us to dare to question the cult of convenience. As Tim Wu points out, maybe some forms of inconvenience are actually good for us. When it comes to our children, it may actually be good for them to have to work harder than we did at that age. As for me, maybe I need to choose to do some of the things that I could pay a machine or a person to do for me, and maybe I should require my children to do some of those things, too. Maybe all the tools for convenience that we use should be more like hard painkillers–obviously necessary sometimes, but problematic if we rely on them all the time. If not, we’ll become the moral equivalents of the obese, slippery humans in Wall-E: unable to do anything necessary and difficult.
Of course it is impossible to remove oneself totally from modern conveniences, even if we wanted to do so (and I don’t want to). But it may be that just small acts of inconvenience–waiting in line without my phone (God help me–how will I survive?!); walking when I could drive–will be helpful. That first step we each can begin to do immediately: question the cult of convenience, and act accordingly.
But the second step is the exact opposite. See, the truth about us is that we’re stuck. Not only are we stuck in the modern world, and not only can we not turn back the clock even if we wanted to (and we’ve seen enough post-apocalyptic scenes to know that the only way back lies through destruction), our problem is even deeper than that: the deepest price we need to pay we won’t ever be able to pay, not because we won’t but because we can’t. We can’t ultimately fix ourselves; we cannot perfect ourselves, we cannot save ourselves. Everything worth having comes with a cost, and Good News is that God has paid the price for us.
What difference does the Gospel make here, practically?
Mercy is receiving something you don’t deserve, something you can’t get on your own, something you can’t earn. And so, in light of what we know about God’s character since that first Easter, the second step to help us become stronger, is, paradoxically, to ask for help. To admit that we’re weak.
Everything worth having comes with a cost. But what happens when you’ve become afraid to pay it? What happens when you’re afraid to do the hard but necessary thing at work, in your marriage, with your health, about your addictions, etc.? Practically, what do you do? You ask for help. Literally. You ask God to help you. “Lord, I want to enter The Promised Land, but I’m afraid of what it will take to get there. I don’t like difficultly and I hate suffering. Will you please help me?”
And you know what? He always does.
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