It all seems so nice and neat from your armchair, doesn’t it? You have this tidy distribution of communities, each with its unique tasks and goals, each with its own limits, each one helping out the others. It’s a social vision of spheres that is so organic and healthy-looking, you might expect to see it at Whole Foods.
Even where disagreements arise in response to questions about the way various spheres interact—Should the state send a check to parents to help them raise their kids? Should banks place so much emphasis on environmental criteria when making investment decisions?—those disagreements seem rather far removed from the everyday workings of most of our lives. To stick with the Whole Foods metaphor, these questions sometimes seem as silly as two dudes in the whole grains aisle arguing about the ethics of authentic Andean quinoa versus organic Canadian quinoa. The capacity for a “spherical lifestyle” to devolve into a scholastic, narcissistic, and often paralytic debate over theoretical minutiae is real. Eye-rollingly real.
But if you can walk past the sophomores and out into the street to your school-board meeting or your church-diaconate meeting or your conservation-authority meeting to talk about fees for trail maintenance before picking up your niece from soccer, you quickly realize that the spherical lifestyle is a full one, a delightful, joyfully demanding one, and—certainly in our fragmented day—a necessary one.
Here’s what I mean by a spherical lifestyle: a life in which you, dear reader, meaningfully participate in multiple communities in such a way that you contribute in the building, maintenance, or repair of that community. I would wager that many of us are a part of many communities, but a spherical lifestyle is one that is committed not simply to using that community for our own ends but to serving that community. The goal is to enhance the subjectivity of its members—to assist them in living good, full lives; and to enhance the subjectivity of the community itself—to allow the community to take on its own, hopeful, and attractive character and personality.
A spherical lifestyle is one that takes joining seriously, not simply as a matter of participation, but in the sense of carpentry: of fitting pieces together to create bonds of strength in order to serve some purpose that extends beyond you. To live the spherical lifestyle is to be a joiner.
To live the spherical lifestyle is to be a joiner.
I’ve always been struck by the Pythagoreans’ obsession with the possibility of the universe making music. I am not endorsing their cult—which, frankly, is weird—nor even their cosmology, but their notion of the possibility of the movement of various spheres of outer space resulting in “the celestial music of the spheres” seems to be a fruitful metaphor to consider when mapping the life worth living.
A life in which you meaningfully contribute to the motions of your family, your church, your school board, your farmer’s association, your theatre troupe, or your Boys and Girls Club seems to me much more likely to contribute to an awareness of the possibility of social harmony than one where the dominant note is you. The beauty of the former is that your note still sounds. It just combines with others to create the “terrestrial music of the spheres” that joins with the celestial accord.
I am not idealistic. Such a life will make you more aware of the discordance of this world, not less. For as various essays in this issue have demonstrated, the spheres often conflict, introducing massive dissonance into the lives of those involved.
And yet, it remains still more true that a life of mutuality, commitment, and selfless service in a variety of institutions can provide you with the perspective needed to return communities that step out of line back to their true note and purpose. You are given cross-pollinating wisdom.
So here’s where I suggest you start: pick three communities and find a way to serve them. Don’t neglect your natural communities (call your grandma on the phone!), and be sure to find one community to which you are at least a slight outsider.
Then lean in and go. I promise you exhaustion. I promise you frustration. But I also promise you at least some small measure of satisfaction that is not of the self-serving variety.
Let me end with a note of caution. If one temptation of this lifestyle is navel-gazing intellectualism, another is the temptation to do it all—to act as if the life of the world will fall flat if you don’t get involved in everything. Trust me: it won’t. And acting as if it will is bad not just for your physical health but also for the health of your soul. You’re not God. Don’t try to be.
To avoid this danger, to pause and reflect on the fact that all of social life is a gift. You are not responsible even for the creation of your own life, let alone the myriad institutions that exist in this world. They are all deeply interdependent on each other, and on those who came before you, and ultimately—constantly—dependent on the Lord of Life who created and sustains the entire cosmos, all the way down to your yoga club. You are liberated from Atlas’s burden without the need to shrug. We are all chained together, anchored to the Rock, and thus we are all free to serve and engage and discover the symphony that reverberates between heaven and earth.