Enlightenment via I-94

Chicago River Skyline in Black and White

I took a trip to Chicago. That’s bound to get a writer thinking

A prevailing dichotomy in American society has been urban:rural. Of course this is much more nuanced, with many of us taking up residence in suburbs or small towns and in cities of varying sizes. However, post-American Civil War, American life has remained largely divided into city matters and country matters (and I don’t mean that like the Shakespearean sexual innuendo (readers of Hamlet will understand)).

Notions of urban and rural have evolved over the last 150 years, as has the associated meanings and connotations that go with the setting and the people that inhabit those places. Not as specifically as what it means to be from New York, Boston, Chicago, or Los Angeles versus Appalachia, the Plains, or the Northwoods, but what it means to be from “the city” or not from “the city.”

Where I’m from – definitely not “the city”- there exists a measure of aversion to the city. While many of the youths complain that there’s “nothing to do here,” overall the city is treated as a strange and corrupt place that is by no means preferable to the calm tranquility of small town/rural life in communities of rolling fields, fertile woodlands, and waterfront real estate. The city represents fast life full of loud noises, bright lights, crime, vice, black people, and big buildings. I can picture any number of people I know standing over Chicago like Old Ben over Mos Eisley calling it a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” (but in less sure-handed English). By extension, the peace and calmness of the non-city takes on a level of ethical and moral superiority, which in turn can give life to notions of spirituality and religiosity. This is nothing new, as anyone who has studied American literature can tell you.

Every time I go to Chicago, I go through a time of sensory adjustment. For the first hour or so, I find myself uncomfortable as I am immersed in a setting that is bigger, faster, and louder than the one I am accustomed to. It actually freaks me out a little, and is an uncomfortable transition. While things feel natural after a short while, there is a time where my surroundings become something so different that I can’t help but feel it.

Once I adjust to a level suitable for my short-term visit, I begin to see the brave new world that is the big city.

It’s a world that is a real shame to miss. In fact, I’d say that to ignore the concrete jungle just beyond the dirt path is to turn a blind eye to an integral part of the human mosaic. It is to stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon and choose to look through binoculars rather than enjoy the panorama of spectacle.

The city displays the color palette of humanity, both literally and figuratively. The range of ethnicities, languages, shapes, sizes, and styles goes walking to and fro on the busy streets. The entire tax bracket comes into view as people sleep on the street outside corporate skyscrapers and luxury outfitters. The skyline is outlined by steeples and mosques. The giant McDonald’s is just down the street from the Brazilian steakhouse.

Yes, the city is often defined by what it has to offer, from sporting events to live music to clubs to food to _____. But what makes the city the amazing thing that it is lies within the people. Not just in the surface level stories told by stats that inform the homogeneous small town dweller that the city contains this many Asians or that many poor people, but the realizations that strike the visiting individual when they find something new.

Oh, there are people who look like that… People talk like that?… I didn’t know people live like this… That’s a thing?

While a particular city, like Chicago, might be just a small part of the world, and while it may have its own unique characteristics, large cities are still snapshots of the height and breadth of humanity. In at least some sense, the gap between individual cognizance and the existential nebula of “being a human being” is bridged as a mass of humanity gathers to live life in a shared space.

And this is good. This is natural. Humans began as hunter-gatherers in small communities, but for the most part decided that forming larger communities and building civilization was a smart move. Despite the trade-offs, humans all over the globe have made a natural movement to living in bigger communities. People are social beings, and the move to form cities is a part of our DNA.

To contain your life to areas outside the city is to deprive yourself of much of the range of humanity. In the countryside and small town, much of life tends to move towards moderation and homogeneity. The city forces the individual to experience the world that colors outside the lines of what might have once seemed natural or comfortable.

And while the city is perceived by many Christians to be a place of vice and evil, we should have a heart for the city because God loves the city. The city was designed to be a place to glorify God among the peoples, but mankind’s corruption has taken it away from this purpose. But the city is full of people that God cares for, and therefore we should care for it too. Its function as a great tool for reaching lost souls is not lost; it just lies dormant as mass quantities of people gives rise to what we might generically call sinful activities.

However, while I am encouraging those outside the city to see the world that exists beyond theirs, the converse story is worth exploring as well. City folk hold a view of country bumpkins that is not always so complimentary. The world outside the city is sometimes viewed from within as being simple, ignorant, prejudiced, backwards, and the like.

City-dwellers experience an adjustment like the one I mentioned earlier when entering a new setting. Whilst riding around Sturgeon Bay with a current starting fullback in the NFL, he seemed fixated on the peculiarities of his new surroundings. He mentioned not seeing a black person since leaving Milwaukee, recounted how bored he was in Green Bay for an away game, and asked if I wanted to move away because there was nothing to do where I lived. It was clear that the small town had an entirely different feel from the places he spends most of his time, and there was also a sensible level of discomfort. He could just as easily have talked about something else, but he went right to what he felt was strange about life away from the city.

While the city enhances humanity, it comes at a cost. Some things are lost when we turn 40 acres into 40 stories. City life is loud and fast and can be cold and impersonal. The sense of community is weaker and people are naturally more suspicious of each other. And the overwhelming sense of “man-made”-ness in the city distracts people from the characteristics of life, humanity, and spirituality hidden in nature and in the intimacy of small communities. There are parts of our being that are made all the more lucid and beautiful when in settings surrounded by the natural world and within a smaller community of people.

Yes, my mind was enriched by my time in Chicago, but some of the best times of this summer have been spent sitting on the patio in my tree and shrub-lined  back yard, alone, at night, under the moon and the stars, with the bats and the lightning bugs, listening to the night insects and water a couple hundred yards off,  searching my soul and thinking on life and God and this great big world and the universe beyond. I don’t know that I would find that opportunity in the city.

What I mean to say in all of this is this: the city and the not-city both have worthwhile lessons for us. If you live in the city, take a trip out of town. If you’re an out-of-towner, make a few pilgrimages to the city. You may find yourself to truly be a country boy or a city girl, but just know that parts of yourself are hiding in another place very different from where you currently find yourself. Seeking to experience these places will bring you a better understanding not only of yourself, but of the world around you. Your preconceived notions of what it means to be urban or rural might be dashed in the process, being replaced by profound realizations and awakening sense of one’s place in this world.

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter

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