Update: In response to this post, HotMES writes, We're Not All Spoiled Brats. My response to her response? I'm Not a Spoiled Brat Either! ... Or Am I?
My take on "spoiled brats," the lost virtue of sacrifice, and how an ailing economy may revive a lagging culture.
It's a rainy Sunday afternoon. I'm sipping on a cup of chai tea and watching the drops dance across the lake outside my window. Days like this always put me in a contemplative, reading mood. Having jumped from Democracy in America, to C. S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man, to my own reflections on life in America, I've come to a conclusion:
Sacrifice is the bête noire of my generation. And, it's too bad.
In his epic work, de Tocqueville noted that America was a giving nation: "Every American will sacrifice a portion of his private interests to preserve the rest."
You could argue that current tax policies have ensured the truth of his statement by forcing every American to give up some of what he has for the sake of others, but that isn't quite what de Tocqueville meant. He was referencing not merely the act of giving but the spirit behind it, not just the ability to give when compelled but the willingness to do so when no such compulsion exists.
This is something I confess to knowing very little of. I mean not really. Sure, I slip a few dollars into the red pail outside Wal-Mart around Christmas time, pledge to a few regular charities, etc. But to know what it truly means to sacrifice? Hardly. In conjunction, I have only a vague notion of what it means to "do without." If you're under the age of 50, you can probably identify, and it's no surprise.
Since my grandparent's generation (Depression era), there has been not only little need but little opportunity to learn the virtue of sacrifice. Surrounded by excess, the very nature of our hyper-consumerist society has guaranteed that we rarely have to do without those things we want and almost never have to give up those things we already have. We have not been forced to be in want, so, quite naturally, we have chosen not to be.
A conversation that I had a few days ago during an unexpected excursion to Wetumpka, Alabama, to meet noted author Tito Perdue helped shed more light on the issue. According to Tito, a gentleman whose brilliance was eclipsed only by his graciousness, America's decline in recent years, morally and culturally, has been in direct proportion to the rising number of "spoiled brats": individuals who have no understanding of sacrifice and little understanding of what it means to work for not only their niceties, but God forbid, their necessities. (RSM has another name for them: Meghan McCain.)
Which came first, the denigration of American ideals or the spoiled brats is up for debate. I suspect they worked handily together. As youngsters evidenced an individual aversion to that once-great American tradition of sacrifice, it wasn't long before it came to be viewed as an unfortunate circumstance to be shunned rather than a virtue to be sought.
Tito and I discussed whether an effective antidote existed for a culture ailing for this reason and agreed that an economic downturn may be just what the doctor ordered.
I realize that cheering on a recession while in a recession may raise an eyebrow or two. So, as long as I'm at it, I might as well raise a few more. The kind of economic difficulty that America needs to purge the "spoiled brat" mentality and return to the days of moral and cultural integrity that Tito remembers and I (sadly) do not is one more severe than we are currently having. It cannot be the kind in which people whine about having less money to spend on dinners and movies out. It must be the kind that forces neighbors to band together to meet their bare necessities. (If Obama keeps up his economic policies, which promise to make a bad economy worse, I may get my wish.)
Such circumstances, I venture, would give us the opportunity to embrace a virtue which we have refused of our own free will. Of course, "doing without" only when one has no other choice is not sacrifice in the truest sense of the word. Nevertheless, the effects on our souls and, by extension, society might be very much the same.
To be loosed from the obsessive fascination with the materialism that surrounds us would free us to look inward, to spend our time and energies rebuilding what we have sacrificed of our souls while amassing more "stuff." When one is accustomed to having everything at his fingertips, the idea of having nothing at all, or at least only one's needs rather than wants readily available, certainly sounds primitive but in a thrilling sort of way. After stifling under the excesses of our consumerist culture for so long, a streamlined, if not stoic, existence may be one of the few novelties left. And, doesn't it sound grand?
Were we to experience some of what our parents or grandparents did during the Depression era, we would undoubtedly come away with the revelation that not only do we not need most of the material comforts that consume our lives but we can be just as fulfilled (and maybe even moreso) without them. Such a realization would likely result in a greater willingness to "sacrifice ... to preserve the rest" as an act of the free, not forced, will.
Having returned to de Tocqueville, he warned almost two centuries ago that "the age of implicit self-sacrifice and instinctive virtues is already flitting far away from us." That age is even farther now than when he penned those words, but it may not be too late to return to it once again. The question is how much are we willing to sacrifice to find out?