Aberdeen, SD. Brown Country, South Dakota is hardly the epicenter of COVID-19. While friends and neighbors here experience the anxiety and uncertainty that is present everywhere, there is also a strong current of good old-fashioned impatience with the disruption. When will this darn thing finally blow over? For the most part, folks here just want to get back to life as we know it.
This longing for normalcy is understandable, but ultimately misguided. When we remerge from this century’s first global pandemic, we will surely walk out of our houses into a changed world. Front Porcher Mark T. Mitchell has recently sketched out some of the changes the crisis will likely bring about—the way it will allow a rethinking of the weaknesses of our globalized economy, for example, or the newfound respect for the natural order that should rein in hubristic human thinking. No doubt there will be alterations as well to our educational systems, such as those David Welch ponders here, not to mention changes to the marketplace, and our relationship to local economies. (We are also likely to see a few more bathroom bidets.)
Every crisis presents an opportunity for such large-scale rethinking. While this rethinking will take place on global, national, and state levels, it should also be done on a much smaller scale: that of the household. Because of the restraints now imposed on us, families such as my own have begun rediscovering the primacy of the household. Thrown back upon our own resources, we are finding out how to make do within the 2,000-square foot world within our walls, and are devising new ways to flourish. It is a development that, let us hope, will outlive the crisis itself.
Prior to the virus, the household as a meaningful social unit seemed to matter less and less. Work, schools, after-school activities, political affiliations, the red/blue hue of our state—these seemed to impact our lives more fundamentally than the modest portion of our lives spent at home, which appeared to essentially consist of eating, sleeping, and entertainment, while the real business of our lives was conducted elsewhere. The pandemic has abruptly turned this ratio on its head. And for many like myself, this renewed focus on the household is the gift we never knew we always wanted. In the case of my own family, it has not only brought about deeper family relationships, broadly speaking, but has proven oddly empowering in other, more specific ways. One modest example: since the doors of our church closed, we’ve begun holding our family-sized version of “church” at home. As the scare quotes imply, this time together each Sunday is far from elaborate; but it is the kind of simple household devotional practice that had always sounded appealing to my wife and me, but that proved difficult to actually put into practice. Now that we have no other option, we’ve made this family devotion happen, much to my own surprise. And the same can be said for many other households that are, at this moment, tinkering with aspects of homebound life together, whether that be home education, new work-life structures, or shared family projects. We do them because we must, and then discover that we can—and that you don’t even have to be Wendell Berry to pull it off.
Evidence of this renewed homelife is readily apparent all about us. It can be seen in the dearth of garden seeds and baking powder available at my local grocery store, or in the rush to buy newly hatched chicks (according to a recent New York Times piece, chicks are “the new toilet paper”); YouTube is awash in short clips of home-productions such as the viral video of the Marsh family’s revision of Les Misérables. People everywhere are now baking, homeschooling, filmmaking, painting, and even, as in our case, experimenting with forms of home-based worship.
In rediscovering the primacy of the household, we can also reclaim its productivity. In all these small but empowering ways, we learn that we are not merely consumers of mass-produced culture, but creators of culture as well. The stuff we tended to outsource—baked goods, school, forms of entertainment—is now increasingly being created in-house. As a result of the pandemic, we have the opportunity to order, in a more deliberate fashion, our own forms of industry, education, and recreation—in short, to discover anew that we have power over how our lives are lived at the most fundamental level. There are, to be sure, challenges to this new homelife, and its toll on marriages and the possibilities for abuse in all its forms are amplified during this time as well. But emphasis in the media on these concerns can overshadow more promising developments. For families like my own, this renewed homelife has proved a bright spot in a bleak time.
For some time the primacy and productivity of the household have been all too easy to overlook. The big-idea books and op-ends of our day tell a story of disconcerting cultural shifts—isolation, fragmentation, polarization, secularization. But what my homebound social experiment has taught me thus far is that this big-picture-view isn’t the whole story. Our “society” is, first and foremost, the households we inhabit. And I don’t mean “household” here simply as a synonym for “family,” but in a more literal sense: the persons that one house holds within its walls, whether these happen to be three college-age pals splitting the rent or a multi-generational family. Society, on the smallest but most significant level, is simply the community of folks that dwells together within the same house and have to figure out how to do life there together. What COVID-19 can teach us all is that we don’t have to live on an isolated family farm in rural Kentucky to experience this micro-society in a meaningful way. All the other forms of social life—work, school, religious and governmental organizations—impact our lives at a remove, and that remove has widened considerably as of late.
The lesson is simple: we are not mere pawns of the ambient cultural forces. We have been thrown back into our own small worlds, but these are worlds we are free to shape. Within the household we have considerable power over how our lives our lived, what we make, and how we consume. Within the space of the household, we are granted the possibility of living the world we want.
It doesn’t get any more local than that.