- In Another Life Is Possible, I see a different vision of hospitality, what Bruderhof member Norann Voll calls “inconvenient hospitality.” Tweet This
- Instead of keeping up with the Joneses, what about settling in with them, living life with them, sharing bread with them—along with their joys and pains? Tweet This
- The photographs in Another Life Is Possible put the emphasis in the right place: not on the clothing and trends, but on the person—the light in the eyes, the wrinkles on the skin—and on a more timeless beauty found in nature. Tweet This
Like many people, I’ve experienced this past year as a challenging one, with the stresses of “pandemic parenting” and the primal scream of mothers everywhere. I don’t want to overstate this—there have been joyful moments and no real suffering of magnitude in my life—and yet I resonate with a term coined by sociologist Corey Keyes and described by psychologist Adam Grant as the “the dominant emotion of 2021”: “languishing.”
“Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health,” Grant writes. “It’s the void between depression and flourishing—the absence of well-being.”
If the motif of the 90s was the workaholic parent missing out on sports games, perhaps the motif of the 2020s ought to be the anxious parent, overinvolved and overreacting, suffering from chronic low-grade anxiety exacerbated by social isolation and the futile striving to make family life look Instagram-worthy. On The Daily, one mom confessed her intense irritation about the downstairs pillow being upstairs and the upstairs pillows downstairs. I’ve never thought of myself as particularly high-strung, but this year I can relate. It saddens me to see the joy of children squelched by anxious parents. Like the time I snapped that our evening was ruined because my carefully outlined schedule for “family fun night” was not going as planned. My nine year old—wise beyond his years—intervened: “Mom, let’s just have fun.”
As I was languishing one Saturday morning, struggling particularly with all the ways we are falling short of the expectations I have for family life, I opened up a book that I was hoping to review about the Bruderhof, an intentional Christian community that, like the early Christians, shares their goods in common. Aptly titled Another Life Is Possible: Insights from 100 Years of Life Together, the book is a lovely coffee table kind of book, with stunning photography by British photojournalist Danny Burrows, and short but poignant vignettes of various Bruderhof members. The individuals represent a socio-economically diverse group, everyone from successful professionals like the Korean food engineer who joined after tiring of the corporate rat race, to a Vietnam vet struggling with PTSD and addiction, to the now-adult kid who grew up in foster care, to world-class academics.
That’s not to say that paging through initially worked magic on my mood. Mostly in that moment I felt a kind of longing discolored by envy—a longing for this other life but a bitterness about its seeming impracticability, short of joining the Bruderhof, which most of us will not be doing any time soon. I put the book down after a short time, distracted. The oversized nature made it cumbersome to behold, and there was also something about it that seemed a little too textbook.
But weeks later, I picked the book up again to binge-read. I was so moved, weeping even (but quietly so that the people on the other end of my husband’s Zoom call wouldn’t hear me in the background). What a beautiful witness this community is, especially in times like these.
I was particularly moved by the stories about families who have children with disabilities, like Jeanie and Kevin Oh, who found in the Bruderhof an affirming place for them to raise their son and two daughters with severe disabilities. Jeanie struggled to accept the help of the community, feeling shame and like a burden. When she was pregnant with a fourth child, she and Kevin broke down at a community meeting and shared their anxieties about burdening their neighbors. Many members were moved to tears and reassured the Oh’s that their child “would be welcome, no matter what.”
As a mother of five, I’ve sometimes encountered an attitude that goes something like this: “If you choose to have kids, then you better be able to provide for them—and if you find yourself stressed out in the process, well, then, you should have thought about that before having so many of them.” But at that community meeting, someone told the Oh’s, “Your children are our children.”
Parenting in America, especially this past year, can be a lonely gig. But it isn’t meant to be.
The Bruderhof have developed a shared way of life that anchors families amidst these currents—daily community meals, stacks of laundry folded for families at the community laundry, and boundaries with technology that allow for better work-family balance—and other faith communities can strive to do more of this, too.
As a parent, I find myself continually trying to swim upstream against the currents of individualism and materialism—both sources of the unreasonably high expectations and unhelpful beliefs that set me up for failure and create an anxious buzz in the background of family life. For example, individualism tells me that my husband and I should be able to raise our children more or less on our own. And consumer culture produces an ever-expanding list of things I must have to do so. As “one small cell in the body of the universal church,” (as senior pastor Paul Winter puts it) the Bruderhof have developed a shared way of life that anchors families amidst these currents—daily community meals, stacks of laundry folded for families at the community laundry, boundaries with technology that allow for better work-family balance—and other faith communities can strive to do more of this, too.
As an evangelical Catholic, I’m sometimes discouraged that American Christianity is not more of a check on our materialist and individualist tendencies, seemingly more influenced than influencer. “Choose Joy” may be an exhortation on my factory-printed coffee mug, manufactured in China and purchased at Target, but sipping coffee from it alone in my house doesn’t produce the same effect that seeing joy modeled and embodied in community life together does. Without actual community, the commercial portrait fills the void, creating impossibly high expectations and plenty of chances for self-judgment but fewer for grace.
In this context, our attempts at hospitality can also become tainted by worries of not being good enough. My kitchen, circa 1960 with pine cabinets and cracking plaster and fading red vinyl tile walls, is not up to par with hospitality a la Chip and Joanna Gaines. But in Another Life Is Possible, I see a different vision of hospitality, what Bruderhof member Norann Voll calls “inconvenient hospitality.” She says:
Who cares if the house isn’t perfect, or the food isn’t ready? You’ll be invited not only to share the meal, but to help prepare it and to really make yourself at home. That in itself is a beautiful form of hospitality.
The photographs in Another Life Is Possible are a window into this kind of hospitality. Unlike most of what I see on social media, they put the emphasis in the right place: not on the clothing and trends, but on the person—the light in the eyes, the wrinkles on the skin—and on a more timeless beauty found in nature—a wedding honored not with elaborate gown but a floral crown. Tidiness and orderliness are the main aesthetic, as opposed to a look achieved through trending cycles of consumerism and fueled by the production of cheap goods via the exploitation of laborers and the earth. When I walk through the store, I can be tricked into believing the lie that simplicity is achieved by buying a new throw pillow with an inspirational quote about said simplicity, that minimalism can be achieved by buying more stuff.
Instead of keeping up with the Joneses, what about settling in with them, living life with them, sharing bread with them—along with their joys and pains?
This is what peering through this window into the life of the Bruderhof makes me wonder. It is possible to have a different orientation towards our children, our homes, our material goods, our neighbors—to be driven less by meritocratic competition and more by “inconvenient hospitality” that prizes substance over appearance, sacrificial love over its feel-good counterfeit.
Of course, community life is no panacea—if we think of family as the people who have the power to wound us most deeply, so, too, with brothers and sisters in community life. Several of the stories in Another Life is Possible allude to this. But when it comes down to it, what else is there? Living as isolated individuals is unviable.
Which reminds me of a recent interview with Corey Keyes, the sociologist who coined that term for the pandemic, languishing. He noted that while medication has a role to play,
no public health problem throughout history has ever been solved through individual treatment alone. What we've had to do is move upstream, look at the conditions under which we live and how they prevent mental illnesses or physical illnesses. And that requires reimagining the conditions of life.
Another Life Is Possible is a book that can inspire such reimaginings.
Amber Lapp is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and co-investigator of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project, a qualitative research inquiry into how white, working-class young adults form families and think about marriage.
*Photo Credit: Another Life Is Possible, Plough Publishing