Last year my sister was looking for a nice show that she and her husband could watch with their children. Remembering how much she enjoyed the show Little House on the Prairie as a kid, she decided she would introduce them to it. Unfortunately, the first episode she played for them was the one in which the family’s barn burned down in a terrible fire, which was probably one of the most traumatic episodes of the series. I can still remember the horror I felt when I watched that episode for the first time and saw the charred, lifeless body of a horse that didn’t make it out of its stall fast enough. Apparently, that scene has retained its power to horrify children. So, my sister decided that maybe the kids weren’t ready for Little House. In recent months, however, she got the kids to give the series another try. This time, my sister was more judicious in her choice of episodes, and soon she was pleased to report that her kids LOVED the show. In a conversation she had with my 13-year-old niece, who is her eldest, the two of them talked about how different the relationships were in the Ingalls family than in the typical shows made for adolescents today. My niece noticed that the children in Little Houselooked to their parents for wisdom and guidance, that there was little-to-no wisecracking or disrespect shown. The pace of life was slower, but they worked incredibly hard. Ma and Pa loved each other, they taught their children how to live and to work and to pray. They had only the basics. And they were happy.
A few days ago I was reading an article by Amanda Knapp published on the Ascension Press website, in which she talks about Little House on the Prairie. In it, she contrasts the pressures of contemporary life to the lives of the characters from the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, on which the series is based. She points out how so much of what we typically do is imposed on us by external structures as opposed to the more inward-turning life of the Wilder books. “The goals in nineteenth-century pioneer life were survival, faith, family, and friendship. They weren’t running around trying to compete with the well-to-do Olsen family. They weren’t trying to make their house the most spectacular, their land the most beautifully cultivated, their coffers the most padded.” These types of things somehow have come to dominate the way we approach life. But that ends up hollowing out our existence, obscuring the things that make life truly beautiful and fulfilling. Some of that is being rediscovered under the current circumstances, as difficult as they are. In the current lock-down situation, she writes, “we don’t play outside because we have a few free moments before violin practice that we can spend. Rather, we play outside because it brings joy and expresses our desires. We don’t pray to God because that is the time Mass is occurring at our church. Now we read Scripture, say our prayers, and gather together as a family because we want God to be at the center of our lives. We don’t wake up at a certain time, go to bed at a certain time, and eat lunch at a certain time because that is what the world has scheduled. Now we do those things when we do them because it works for our family.”
In normal times we allow the external structures to shape our lives because they promise success. And, in many ways, if we live in accord with them we will have this worldly kind of success. That form of success, however, can lead to a feeling of dissatisfaction, an emptiness that we can try to fill with more of what the external structures and social conventions tell us will give us fulfillment. The current circumstances in which everything is shut down and we have to recalibrate our daily lives together are hard and stressful, but they also offer an opportunity to reconsider the external structures that we typically allow to order our lives and whether they really lend themselves to human flourishing. I do wonder if our buying into them whole-heartedly has something to do with popular culture’s common depiction of grown-ups as fools in the eyes of their children.
Knapp concludes her thoughts, saying: “The more I try to navigate this new world, the more I think back to the old ones and the more I recall those lessons learned from that small family on the prairie. It’s comforting to know that we aren’t the first to live lives centered mainly and mostly around family, and if we work hard during these days, I think we can find that the world we wake up to in the future may be much more kind and humane that the one with which we started.”