Comforts that were rare among our forefathers are now multiplied in factories and handed out wholesale; and indeed, nobody nowadays, so long as he is content to go without air, space, quiet, decency and good manners, need be without anything whatever he wants; or at least a reasonably cheap imitation of it.
–G.K. Chesterton in Commonwealth, 1933
I don’t know that my comments on this ironic statement can add much, but for my own sake I will think while I type, and ramble as I think. GKC’s words startle me out of feeling guilty for complaining about modern life — after all, “We are so well off!” We have (noisy) leaf blowers so we don’t have to spend so much time raking. We can stop for fast food on our mad trips up the interstate, and while we eat off paper plates at dirty tables and lick our fingers we can be thankful we didn’t have to go to the trouble of finding a picnic spot by the river.
My first encouragement to question the amassing of things we don’t really want was 40 years ago, in the La Leche League’s Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. The motive was to help women cultivate a peaceful home in which they would have the time to leisurely nurse their babies; that goal would require sorting out one’s priorities concerning what we now call lifestyle choices. Do you really want your tabletop cluttered with knick-knacks, the author wrote, or might you enjoy having clear surfaces that are easier to keep clean and will ultimately be, in their simplicity, more pleasing to the soul?
The whole concept of More With Less has gained ground in the last decades, but Chesterton’s words reveal how easy it is to lose, bit by bit, the most valuable and wholesome “comforts” that our poorer forebears had in abundance, and not even notice what we have given in trade. Note that intangibles such as decency and good manners are on the list, to remind us that civilization is more than physical comforts.
The book Margin by Richard Swenson comes to mind here. He writes (first in 1995) about how the people he doctored in third-world countries were by-and-large happier than the Americans back home, and he analyzes the reasons why. Even without health care and modern technology, they enjoyed several of the things mentioned in the quote, in good measure.
My own life provides the leisure that Josef Pieper calls the Basis of Culture, enough of it that I can take the time to ruminate on several facets of Chesterton’s clever jibe. At this stage, for myself, I can’t complain. But I pray that I’ll always have the wisdom to know what I want and need to go without, for the sake of being content.