There’s More to Life Than Being Successful

Listening to the Acculturated podcast with Rod Dreher, which we published yesterday, made me wonder about some of the cultural differences between the north and the south in this country. In an essay about the south for the New Criterion, the writer Barton Swaim notes that, unlike the south, the north is “more vulnerable to the cultural volatility and spiritual shallowness of an unregulated economy, more hospitable to radical individualism.” How do these differences affect the way we live our lives?

In his book and on the podcast, Rod describes leaving his home in Louisiana to pursue a career in journalism. Throughout his career, he lived in Washington, Miami, Dallas, New York, and Philadelphia. Rod chose to move from Philadelphia back to Louisiana after his sister’s death. He and his wife, as David Brooks puts it, “decided to accept the limitations of small-town life in exchange for the privilege of being a part of a community.”

Dreher is a writer for The American Conservative and is part of a communitarian conservative tradition that goes back to thinkers like Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet. Forty years ago, Kirk led one of the two great poles of conservatism. It existed in creative tension with the other great pole, Milton Friedman’s free-market philosophy.

In recent decades, the communitarian conservatism has become less popular while the market conservatism dominates. But that doesn’t make Kirk’s insights into small towns, traditions and community any less true, as Rod Dreher so powerfully rediscovered.

I’ve lived in many different places, most of them urban and northern: Montreal, Toronto, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and now New York.

I also spent three years in Maryland as a twelve to fourteen year old. Maryland may not be as southern as Louisiana, but it was far enough south–compared to the other places I lived–that I was able to get a sense of a more community-oriented way of life. We did not live in a suburb of Washington, DC; we were in a more rural part of the state and lived on a river that flows into the Chesapeake Bay. The main activities in our neighborhood involved being on the water, going on bike rides, and sometimes–sometimes–venturing as far as the nearest gas station to get some candy and coke. The little areas in the town that we lived in were literally called “communities.” If you wanted to know where someone was specifically from in the town, you asked them “what community do you live in?”

Many of my closest friends from my neighborhood ended up going to community college and then transferring somewhere nearby; many of them are already married and have started families. My dream college back then was St. John’s, just up the road in Annapolis. The thought of going away to school never even entered my mind.

It never entered my mind, that is, until we moved from Maryland to New Jersey after my freshman year of high school, where I encountered a materialism and unbridled ambition in my peers that I was not prepared for. At my New Jersey high school, located in a bedroom community of New York City, the girls wore clothing by designers I’d never heard of and shopped at stores I never heard of. On top of that, everyone in my classes were hyper competitive and success oriented.

Though everyone was nice enough to each other, the ambition made some people cross lines–cheating, plagiarizing, lying, etc. Unlike in my community in Maryland, if you decided to stay local for college in New Jersey, you were considered a failure. Nobody had an allegiance to New Jersey as a place that they were from; everybody was planning to leave and only come back if, by an accident of their career, they found themselves in New York City. Outside of ambition, there was not a larger moral system that governed thoughts and actions, a phenomenon that David Brooks wrote about for The Atlantic in 2001 in an essay called, “The Organization Kid.”

This reality–that ambition is what drives so many people forward–seems to lie at the heart of the cultural debates going on today vis a vis Sheryl Sandberg and whether women can have it all. Just the other day, Slate ran a symposium asking, “Does an Early Marriage Kill Your Potential To Achieve More in Life?” I’m not advocating for early marriage–a path that many of my friends in Maryland took–but this question strikes me as remarkable and depressing. Why is our culture so obsessed with ambition that we’re willing to sacrifice community and relationships for it?

(Full disclosure: I ended up graduating from high school at the top of my class and went to Dartmouth College for school. Now I live in New York, an hour away from my parents and younger brother and 1.5 hours away from my boyfriend, who grew up in Texas.)

Anyway, throughout those years–my teen years–I also started developing my own taste in music, literature, and the arts, and found myself drawn, again and again, to cultural artifacts coming out of the south, whether it was southern literature or southern music. There was something about the south, as a physical place, that really appealed to my imagination–something about it so distinct from the north and its commercialism.

Listening to the podcast “Rod Dreher Goes Back Home,” I thought of two songs by two southern singer-songwriters that I first listened to as a teenager: Lucinda Williams’ “Bus to Baton Rouge” and Shelby Lynne’s “Where I’m From.”

From “Bus to Baton Rouge”:

There was this beautiful lamp I always loved
A seashore was painted on the shade
It would turn around when you switched on the bulb
And gently rock the waves

The driveway was covered with tiny white seashells
A fig tree stood in the backyard there are other things I remember, as well
But to tell them would be just too hard

Ghosts in the wind that blow through my life
Follow me wherever I go

I’ll never be free from these chains inside
Hidden deep down in my soul

I took a bus to Baton Rouge…

From “Where I’m From”:

Heaven knows this ain’t no Margaret Mitchell
where the oak trees meet the pines
I know it might sound kinda simple
oh but it’s mine oh it’s mine

Thought I heard a logman cuttin’ timber
down the Mississippi line
I’m up the old Tombigbee river
high as the pines, all the time

These songs remain among my favorites today and I think it’s because each one addresses a lifestyle that is beautiful and simple–the kind of thing that we all may long for, especially some of us northerners, who are caught up in the noisy and chaotic pursuit of success day in and day out.

The novelist Somerset Maugham wrote,  “I have an idea that the only thing which makes it possible to regard this world we live in without disgust is the beauty which now and then men create out of the chaos. The pictures they paint, the music they compose, the books they write, and the lives they lead. Of all these the richest in beauty is the beautiful life. That is the perfect work of art.” There’s more to the beautiful life than achieving career success, an insight that Rod has come to and which we see in these two songs.

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6 responses to “There’s More to Life Than Being Successful

  1. Absolutely. I grew up in New Jersey as well (more South Central near Philly) and recently moved to Texas to the town my husband grew up in). I will say that there was a sense of community and pride in my small South Jersey town which I do still carry with me but the lifestyle in New Jersey versus where I live now is markedly more “consumer” and “career success” focused. In general things do seem more peaceful in our small rural Texas town and upon my first visit back to New Jersey I could almost immediately feel the difference. In my blog I talk about why I want to simplify my life and I think a lot of it comes from the environment that I grew up in and the excessive amount of stress it causes, as well as a feeling of spiritual “emptiness.” Filling our lives with things and climbing a career ladder does not guarantee any kind of fulfillment as far as I can tell. It is not perfect in the South (nowhere on this earth is) but they do seem to have a more acute awareness of this concept.

    1. Loved this post! I’m a New Yorker through and through, and although I’ve been fortunate to lay temporary roots in various cities (Philly, Prague, Rome), nothing quite compares to home. That said, I’ve felt this deep yearning for a connection with nature and community that just doesn’t exist in New York. The Lower East Side neighborhood I grew up has pretty much disappeared. I”m caught up in the daily competitive struggle that plagues everyone around me and so it’s not a surprise that I’m imagining the South as a sort of fantasy land filled with open space and slow living. Your post reinforced a lot of the thoughts I’ve had recently and it pushes me to take a trip and see if my imaginings have any weight. Who knows, maybe I can call a small town in Georgia or Louisiana home in due time? Thanks again for your post! 🙂

  2. I’m not sure you’d need to move to the South in order to find the kind of community or “slow living” that you’re mentioning here. My wife and I live in Brockton, which is a small city south of Boston. We both grew up in the neighboring town of Holbrook. Went away for college (me to CUA in DC, her to St. John’s in Anapolis) and after marrying we lived in Vermont and then Delaware. But we decided to come back to Mass. because that’s where our parents live and many of our siblings.
    Brockton, like many northeast cities, has seen better times, but it still has neighborhoods characterized by ethnic communities: there were Irish, Italian, Lithuanian areas, and there are still many of the old communities left. And of course, new communities of Haitians and Cape Verdeans. I have neighbors from Portugal, Cape Verde, Haiti, Puerto Rico along with 3 houses that have members of the same Italian family.
    But to make it a community, you have to do things that make for meeting people. Going to the local Catholic church has been one way for me. But the other, for meeting the unchurched (or the differently churched 😉 has been gardening. My garden plots are in raised beds all through my back and side yards (on our corner lot) and while weeding or tieing up vines, I always end up in conversations with walking neighbors or with neighborhood children who want to investigate.
    It’s a bit of work to slow down (I work in Boston, a nearly 3-hour/day commute) but you’ve got to do something to plant roots, and if you aren’t going to literally do it in a garden, you’ve got to find another way to be part of the community you live in. Moving won’t automatically change things; you need to change yourself.

  3. Perhaps we have a generational difference, but when I was growing up and attending public schools in Greenville, SC, cheating was rampant as was conspicuous consumption. We even had middle-school sororities, complete with rush, initiation, and formal dances. The culture was so anti-intellectual that the high school guidance counselor thought–I am not making this up–that The Sound and the Fury was a bodice-ripper like The Wolf & the Dove or The Flame & the Flower. I can assure you that people did not go around quoting Somerset Maugham or seconding his sentiments. People went to church, but that didn’t make them deep.

    I didn’t leave because I wanted “to be successful.” I left because I wanted what was known in my parents’ day as the life of the mind–a life the local culture had utter contempt for. It’s fashionable in conservative circles to sneer at the desire of strange, overly intellectual people to want to find fellowship–especially if they also harbor professional ambitions–but that desire, too, creates community.

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