Rebellion as Staying Put

“This place is holding me back,” I hear him say.

Or: “I need a fresh start – I have too much history here,” she mutters.

So begins the now-common ritual of transplanting our much-too-mobile bones from one place to another in the misplaced hope that what is wrong with our lives has to do with our geography instead of our selves. A change of scenery does not necessarily produce a change of heart.

What is changing, however, is my increasing frustration level with the incessant mobility of my peer group. My latest mental survey says that everyone I know—myself included—is a flight risk. You’d think we were all living in a James Bond movie – gotta keep moving, I think they’re on to me.

The reasons to leave are always numerous. Feeling culturally stifled? Spend a few months in Thailand, or maybe backpack through Europe. Want to make some cash while experiencing another culture? Teach English in Japan! The always-cynical Stuff White People Like blog further illustrates our tendency to live on the run in the posts Taking a Year Off and Traveling.

But the problem with this tendency to mobility is that building a culture, community or church becomes impossible. We instead wind up with a sick, rootless society of immature, irresponsible people who’ve never met a problem they won’t run from sooner than facing.

There is no commitment involved when where you live is simply another consumer product. Don’t like your neighbourhood? Move. Don’t like your job? Travel. Don’t like your church? Shop around. But at all costs, don’t get stuck where you are for too long.

This culture of constant flight breeds a highly romanticized ideal of community. We talk about wanting “a sense of belonging,” without realizing that actual belonging—rather than some vague sense of it—means that your community owns you. Real community means that when things get unpleasant in your living situation, you work through it; endure it; suffer through it. If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not in community.

This has all led me to a shocking rebellion: I’m staying put. I’m here now and not going anywhere. If I move out of my current neighbourhood and into another one, I’m going to stay there for the rest of my life. I’m committed.

I would assume that the preceding paragraph was met with horror by any reader who takes mobility as good, normal and possibly noble. I nearly soiled myself writing it, and my wife said “that’s terrifying” when I read it to her, despite many prior conversations. This goes to show how shallow our notions of commitment truly are. And I am the chief of sinners.

Although “staying put” is a shocking idea to modern ears, it’s hardly novel. Benedictine monks have been swearing a vow of stability (alongside obedience and conversion of life) for about 1500 years. In a paper called The Vow of Stability: A Premodern Way through a Hypermodern World, Gerald Schlabach says that the Benedictines “proclaim a freedom that the hypermodern world can barely know, a freedom not to change everything always.”

And what a freedom that is. Lord knows how much pressure there is to constantly reinvent ourselves in a constantly changing world. Staying put frees me of the anxiety that here is suffocating and there is always better; that is, until there becomes here in an endlessly vicious cycle. 

Seen this way, mobility begins to look a lot like slavery, while stability begins to look a lot more like freedom than I would have imagined. True freedom isn’t a lack of limits, but rather an embrace of the limits intrinsic to our nature as embodied creatures. We are always located somewhere at some time. And I plan to stay long enough in one place to make a dent.

19 responses to “Rebellion as Staying Put”

  1. Nice Matt.
    ‘No matter where you go, there you are.’
    Why don’t you move down here and we’ll start an intentional community with some other ex-patriates who WILL NEVER MOVE!?

  2. We have some friends (Dave and Jody Nixon) who live in Cincinnati. they started a Vineyard church about 15 years ago and made a vow of stability with one other couple (Kevin and Tracy Rains) It’s become quite the amazing, interesting community. Google Vineyard Central. Worth checking into…

  3. Great post, Matt. I know Halden’s church does something like a vow of stability. I like the idea a lot. It becomes even more hairy in the context of an international marriage. I just always find it so strange how a Minnesota boy could meet an Ontario farm-girl on the coast of New Brunswick. Talk about mobility–where is home for us? We have family in Ontario, Minnesota, and very deep connections in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The funny thing is this seems so natural most of the time. It is not as if it is really weird to anyone else. But this kind of thing, this kind of mobility, has never really been possible, until fairly recently.

    What is particularly troubling about our obsession with mobility and our tendency to flight, is the the fact that we don’t usually consult our community in times of decision making. Or if we do, we assume that in the end we have the final say. We can ask people what they think about our plans to move, for instance, but it is not as if it is up to them, in the end, to definitively decide what’s best for us. Of course, very rarely does such a consultation even take place.

  4. @roger flyer Tempting offer! But I think moving down there would kind of nullify the lovely rant I just went on. Thanks for the heads-up on Vineyard Central – looks like an interesting thing they have going on.

  5. @R.O. Flyer Great thoughts. Indeed, where is home, and how do you decide whose home wins out—if any? I do not envy that particular conundrum. As you say, this type of mobility is only a recent development in human history, and we rarely stop to think that this is at least abnormal, if not outright unnatural.

    I like where your thoughts are going with community consultation. I think we need to recover a sense of actually being “members of one body,” “belonging to one another,” and even “submitting to one another in love.” In the pseudo-communities we normally live in, the only commitment we have is to convenience.

  6. matt,

    brilliant thought and expression of that thought. I’m putting together the next tide pool booklet looking at ideas of community. it’s probably going to be a collection of people instead of one author. walter has submitted his. This post is so clearly written that I’m wondering if you’d be interested in lengthening it a bit and submitting it to a collection in a volume.

    perhaps some quotes from SChlebach and from the white people like blog could easily make your point while adding length. let me know what you think. seriously good writing man.

  7. Hi Matt, I hope you all enjoyed the lecture at CMU last night. I have to admit that I am feeling a little defensive over your topic here.

    From my own experience, mobility has not meant that I am a noncommittal, rootless person, but that I have learned what to commit to and where my actual roots lie. I don’t feel that I am lacking in community if I do not “belong” to a specific institution or organized “community,” I have relationships that I am committed to that transcend any physical space between us and I am committed to the community of my marriage. Though I recognize knowing and being part of your surroundings as an important part of being human and being present, I think there is more to “community” than locality. For example, I have a close relationship with my mother, though we usually speak on the phone. Does this lack of face-to-face contact diminish our love, honesty or trust?

    All I am saying is that community takes many forms and painting people who have chosen to learn about their humanity through interaction with others more than 100 miles away (ok I may be exaggerating what you have implied) as a noncommittal bunch who will make community and connecting impossible, seems a little unfair.

    And I would also like to say that I am not horrified by your “rebellion” of staying in Winnipeg. I think that it is fantastic. But it may not be what we (my Matt and I) are going to do at this point in time.

  8. @Karin Thanks for taking the time to disagree – I always need that. :) I’m not going to say too much here, for the fantastic reason that we have the possibility of having this conversation in person, which I look forward to.

    But I will say that I honestly can’t see how roots can be developed unless you stay somewhere long enough to develop them. I also don’t see how relationships can truly transcend physical space. I’d say that that tends towards gnosticism and a devaluing of who we are as embodied creatures. Sure, you can maintain and possibly grow slightly in relationships at a distance, but that’s because of an already existing foundation of real-world interactions.

    Now, I have no quarrel with the many wonderful experiences that mobility can bring – I’ve had a share of them myself and I treasure them. But I also came to the conclusion that there was a cost: I’d left behind some lovely relationships, and any new ones I made always had the doom of temporariness hanging over them. Sometimes this cost is worth paying, but we have to see that there is a cost: paid not only by those who leave, but also—often unwillingly—by those left behind.

  9. This is not really like me to be spiritual, but I think that if we are supposed to follow Jesus’ example we also need to be incarnational. God obviously values physical proximity since He came to live among us, when He could have kept on with the distance thing, a burning bush here, a pillar of light there. . .
    Phone conversations and instant-messaging are a very poor substitute for real life and if we say otherwise we are just kidding ourselves. You can’t give someone a hug over the phone.
    You can’t lend a vaccuum cleaner, borrow a cordless drill, or share a frozen pizza from a chat room.

    I’m kind of fascinated in community development, from both an academic city-planning perspective and a church perspective, and I just don’t see how lasting change can be brought to a broken neighborhood when nobody stays put and invests in it.

    I hear people scoffing about how short-term mission trips are so unhelpful to a culture, so invasive and colonial and just so. . . short-term. . .
    If we say we want to live missionally within a community HERE, and we insist on our lifestyle of transience, how is it any different than short-term missions?
    Really, the only difference is our “mission field” is a few degrees colder in winter.

  10. Here here friends!

    Wherever you are called to be, or choose to be, or just end up being (and you don’t w\know why!)–be ‘there’ fully. Here! and please do not bring your ‘wish dream’* (i.e. what you wish it to be) into the community.


  11. Hi Matt and Jac,
    So I just want to make it clear that I was not saying that I think you don’t need to be physically around people at some time in your relationship (I haven’t experienced a relationship like that, so I wouldn’t know). I was just trying to express a broader view of community and relationships.
    I am also not saying that engaging or committing to the people around you is bad or wrong thing, just that since you may be referring to myself and my husband as part of the flighty “everyone you know,” that I should explain that we don’t see your commitment as a bad thing, but we may have a different view on what we are currently committed to and what community currently means to us.
    And yes, talking about this will be good, but I wanted to be clear about what you responded to here.

  12. Good rant. I was quite impacted when we had a conversation about this back in September. Wendell Berry sealed the deal. There is an obvious connection between committment to a community and the life that stems from it.

    And at least this way I know I have a reliable Half Pint source in you for life… seriously, it was a good beer.

  13. @Mike Cheatley Cheers. It was a good conversation indeed, lubricated by some lovely Half Pints. And yes, commitment and community… I wonder how I went so long being blind to that connection!

  14. Solid stuff. I’m with you on the staying put stuff. We are finally spending our second year in the same place since 2000. It feels good and I’m so glad to finally be able to be a part of a community for the long haul.

  15. “Stay­ing put frees me of the anxi­ety that here is suf­foc­at­ing and there is always bet­ter; that is, until there becomes here in an end­lessly vicious cycle.

    Seen this way, mobil­ity begins to look a lot like slavery, while sta­bil­ity begins to look a lot more like free­dom than I would have ima­gined.”

    Well said!

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