Things are not going well. More than a few us are, to put it mildly, feeling nervous about the developments in our culture: the continued breakdown of families, the rejection of traditional morality, the ongoing economic insecurity.
Rod Dreher has been writing about these issues for a long time. In recent months, he has been developing the idea of “The Benedict Option,” a strategic withdrawal from contemporary culture by those who desire to cultivate more traditional approaches to life.
The notion of withdrawing from the culture might bring to mind people hunkering down in the wilderness to wait for the end.
There is, however, a more reasonable approach. It begins by asking, “How Much Benedict Option is Enough Benedict Option?” Getting the major benefits of a Benedict Option lifestyle doesn’t require hauling your family off to the woods. In fact, just a few changes result in big Benedict Option results.
The 80/20 Rule
Let’s apply the Pareto principle. The Pareto principle states that in most situations, 80 percent of the effects are due to 20 percent of the causes. The economist who developed this idea was fond of pointing out that 20 percent of the pea plants in his garden contained 80 percent of the peas. If you run a business, you can expect 80 percent of your profits to come from 20 percent of your customers.
Obviously, attempts to escape a deteriorating culture are more difficult to quantify than the number of peas in one’s garden. Nevertheless, it stands to reason that the bulk of the goods one accrues from withdrawing from the surrounding culture will stem from only a few choices.
That has certainly been true for us.
Our family is already pretty opted out. Just a few choices on my wife’s and my part have had a major impact on how much access the culture has to our daughters. I am pleased with how our girls are developing, especially when I consider the behavior and attitudes of their more culturally conformed peers.
The Choices We’ve Made
First, we homeschool. The decision not to put our girls in public school has made all the difference. I can’t imagine who they would be, had we dropped them off daily at the school doors to be initiated into a culturally approved worldview.
Even if we managed to find them good teachers and an excellent curriculum, they would still have to deal with the influence of peers. Inevitably, their peers would introduce them to attitudes and experiences that would undermine the counter-cultural foundation my wife and I are laying in their souls.
Second, we don’t have cable. I see cable a couple of times a year. Every time, it is a vapid wasteland. Outside of a few decent programs, it’s all trivia, ranging from the merely shallow to the obscene.
We do allow our children to watch television via Netflix, but we pay close attention to what they consume. If our nine-year-old were ingesting a steady diet of Disney channel muck, she’d be a different kid.
Third, we associate most closely with people who share our values. The effect of this is to limit further the channels through which the culture can seep in. This doesn’t mean that we live in absolute conformity with our friends. But, we have a reasonable assurance that the adults our children encounter in their day-to-day experience reflect back to them a moral vision of the world similar to the one they get at home.
Fourth, we make being involved with one another a high priority. Several nights a week, we have dinner together. Having breakfast together is not unusual. If we want to prevent our children’s peers from being the primary influence on them, their mother and I have to make sure we are there to guide them. Being accessible to our kids is a big part of that.
Admittedly, my having a job with a flexible schedule makes this more possible than it might be for others. Still, all these choices require sacrifice. We don’t go out much. We have little spare income. We are not hip.
But we wouldn’t choose otherwise.
Just these four choices have Benedict Optioned us out enough, at least for now. We’ll see how things go when the girls are teenagers. Could we be further removed from the culture? Probably. But securing that last 20 percent of insulation would come at such high costs that trying to achieve it would likely undermine our goal: producing healthy, happy kids who maintain counter-cultural value systems.
The biggest upside to these decisions isn’t so much that they keep the culture outside the home at bay, but that they make space for the culture inside it to flourish. When the influence of the surrounding culture is minimized, the family itself becomes a healthier culture to rear children in, a more vital “little platoon,” as Burke might say.
Achieving this is easier than it might seem. It’s tempting to fall into Benedict Option fantasies of moving to the backwoods to live off the land. It’s better to start small, with things that are actually feasible. Focus on those few choices that bring the bulk of the benefit. Do this, and see if what it produces isn’t exactly enough.
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