One of the most mysterious of cultural phenomenon is lifestyle. Not the fact that different lifestyles exist, and some of the main characteristics: those are well known. Some in the third world live in mud huts with no electricity, and they are content with this (having visited one of these huts, I found that the insulation was so grand that it was cool in the midst of a humid afternoon.). Some find it necessary to live in large homes with more than ten bedrooms with servants to clean the place, for no family, unless they spent all their time doing so, could keep it clean. Some live slovenly, filthy; others live so clean that they would not have visitors lest they muck the place up. Some prefer jobs that cause them to work in sweat and filth, while others insist on learning and educating, while still others organize workers forced to go to a gym to get their exercise. This is all well-known.
What is mysterious about lifestyle is that we are forced into one without really considering which we would prefer.
There is a moral manner in which we must live. Our views on environmentalism, social justice, economics, cleanliness, community life, aesthetics, communication, kindness and work ethic all conspire in our minds to create a lifestyle that we did not choose, but we must live with.
The way we must work, the amount of money we must have left over past expenses, the accommodations we allow ourselves, where we “cut corners” when we don’t have enough to meet expenses, what we consider “clean”, what we feel we can let go when life gets too hard—all of these are necessitated by an inner need. When we choose a spouse, we compromise our inner sense of lifestyle, combining with them what manner of life is necessary, in some areas taking on their standards, and in some areas enforcing upon them our own. And when we raise our children, we raise them in the hopes that they might live the same lifestyle, or perhaps a better (either up the social ladder or up the moral one) one.
We try not to judge other people’s lifestyles. Everyone lives differently, and not everyone has the particular set of resources we collected to suit our moral arrangements. But often we can’t help it. We don’t understand why people poorer than us “have” to live that way. We don’t appreciate how those wealthier than us live with such luxuries when there is such need in the world. We complain because a neighbor doesn’t keep their yard according to the same standards as we do—we might even take action in our neighborhood association. We support public policies that change other people’s lifestyles so that our communities might accommodate what we feel are moral and necessary standards, which happen to reflect our lifestyles.
The “normal” are those who function near to our own chosen lives. These are the ones who join us in our churches and our social groups and our neighborhoods —not only those who believe in the same or similar doctrine, but those who uphold the same rituals, who approve of same eating mores, who live in the same economic strata, who speak in the same tones and volumes and language forms, and have the same hopes for society. Social clubs are not just a matter of connection, it is continuously supporting our lifestyle choices.
Of course, in our groups, there are always the one or two who live different lifestyles. These who are unlike the rest always seem so strange, and so angry. Some wonder why they don’t find groups that suit them better, while others find that they offer spice to their group, while their uniqueness confirms that the group’s lifestyle choices are the right ones.
All of this is the ebb and flow of living together, and those with the most powerful voices win the lifestyle battles. We live according to the driving force of practical ethics and aesthetics, and we want those around us to do the same.
The crisis of placing concrete on our practical philosophy of life comes when we no longer have the resources to maintain that lifestyle. It could be something as simple as losing a key friendship which then unravels the house of cards our social lives relied on. But more likely it is the loss of something essential that our lifestyle depended on. Losing a job and unable to find another at the same income or status level we have become accustomed to. Losing a home and unable to find a similar one at the price we can afford. Losing the ability to maintain the mental health that is required to live in a particular lifestyle. The loss goes far beyond one portion of one’s life.
To have a drop in lifestyle necessitates a reduction in security. If a person who is used to living in a large house suddenly lives in an apartment, it is frightening if one had never done it before. You can hear your neighbors and at times they seem violent or addled. You have heard rumors that drug addicts or criminals can live in apartments, and the walls and doors seem so thin.
The stresses increase. There is a desperation at first to get back to the original lifestyle, a clawing for resources. When that doesn’t work, then there is a grasping at straws, making unlikely plans and dreams of deliverance back to what we considered “normal,” all to no avail. Finally, there is an acceptance and depression sets in. Because once one accepts the loss of all that was considered good and moral and right, then one must also accept failure and a moral compromise. We are not only inadequate people, but we are also, in some way, bad.
Many of us have had to accept a severe reduction of lifestyle. It is always stressful, somewhat less so if the change is by choice—but it is always difficult to accept.
Now consider those who suddenly find themselves an immigrant, a refugee, or homeless. These are lifestyles that we do not make of our own accord. Those who are forced into this role are also forced into an ethical and economic bind that they could never choose for them or their families. Many swear that they would never find themselves in an address-less condition, for it would mean the surrender of all they hold dear.
And yet millions of people each year find themselves in this situation, at the bottom rung of the social ladder, with the next rung too high up to reach. They used to think of themselves better than that, more honorable, of better position. Yet millions find themselves there. Unable to pull themselves back up or forward. They now rely on other’s kindness, which they find is often not kind at all. They are completely vulnerable, and easy to take advantage of.
All other lifestyle changes and reductions seem petty when one is at the bottom, without pride, without hope.