A lean and relatively young man stumbled out of a Starbucks, audibly groaning. He seemed stunned. At first, those passing by probably thought that he was drunk. Then, his attacker appeared behind him, cursing the young man out as he collapsed. A growing pool of his own blood grew around him. As he died, he was likely thinking about his fiancée and young toddler. It later came to light that they had been waiting outside and had seen it all play out. He had lost his life after asking his attacker to stop vaping near his child.
The video had been in my feed all morning. Notifications were popping up in group chats with my hometown friends. A bystander had recorded the whole incident while giving live commentary, and the video promptly ended up online for clicks. Many were angry that it was ever shared. I’ve always believed that self-deceit, especially about what kind of place you live in, is a far worse crime.
These kinds of confrontations do not themselves create a sense of a downward spiral—of the march of uncivilization. Healthy life can assert itself in moments like those. What makes for uncivilization is when life quietly slips away from the body as bystanders shuffle, chatter, and avert their eyes. What disturbed me at a more visceral level was the sense of growing collective impotence. I’d left town years before, but that didn’t matter. In every city I have lived and worked in since then, similar arcs of civic dissolution have played out before my eyes.
I can recall my first times wandering through San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood or exiting the BART station at 16th St. Mission, keeping a wary eye out. The destitution didn’t really discomfort me, though. Growing up in the Vancouver metro area in British Columbia, I’d long been accustomed to these sights, especially from journeys through that city’s downtown east side. In high school, that neighborhood had played a role as a sort of nightmare scenario invoked in parental warnings. Say yes to drugs at a party, or start running away at night, and you just might end up among the tents and cardboard beds that filled the streets there.
It was not an empty threat. The endemic synthesis of poverty, drug abuse, and mental illness that we euphemistically just call “homelessness” might be written off as a tragedy of the poor, were it not for the fact that many of those living in this way were once good middle-class kids. It wasn’t uncommon to hear that someone’s problematic older sibling “ended up in the downtown east side.” It was a landing place for those kids who slipped through the cracks and disappeared. Sometimes, the fight against uncivilization doesn’t take place over territory, but over the lives of the people you love.
Of course, not everyone fell quite so far as to end up on a cardboard bed in the bad part of town. Some families had the money or the sheer willpower to dampen the self-destruction of their offspring. One common outlet for these more functional types was the frequent use of more respectable kinds of party drugs.
But eventually, a running mental baseline of MDMA-induced serotonin depletion has its consequences. I saw it take its toll on friends, especially as they reached their twenties and many people moved on from the relative decadence of university life. On more than one occasion, the party drugs facilitated or disguised spirals into full-blown mental illness. Other people had no need for chemical help as they underwent their own collapses into depression or conversations with schizophrenia-induced voices.
There was a time when I was skeptical of the “mental health crisis,” but today a list of cut-off friendships, broken or abandoned families, suicides, and people who just exploded and vanished has made me rethink that. There is a reason that the industry for helping people navigate or terminate the increasing number of social ties defined by psychosocial damage control is so lucrative.
It’s difficult to exhaustively define this ongoing human scattering that seems to be playing out across classes and places. In a body, dissolution is the mark that it has undergone too much damage for its fundamental harmony to maintain itself—it is the process of dying. But the people that a dying social body leaves behind don’t cease to exist. They live to endure the process of dissolution and must struggle to find a way forward.
It is usually depressing to realize that a social script that defined your whole life is meaningless. But the end of a particular pattern of life does not mean the end of life as such. In the late Roman Empire, the early Christians made a big bet against the norms of the society around them. A millennium and a half later, the early Puritans risked life and limb on the belief that the New World, not England, was where a better society would be built. In both cases, they gave rise to forms of life whose full development they could never have foreseen: respectively, the medieval and American civilizations.
Their example is instructive. There is never any guarantee that things will work out quite so well, nor that you will live long enough to see it even if it does. You are left in a position to take reasonably good bets on what is worth pursuing and to operate accordingly. By building up strong social bonds that are disciplined by a tangible common purpose, you have far more reason to invest in the social capital of your relationships and to expect others to do the same. You escape the process of uncivilization by targeting a healthy form of life and cultivating that instead.
A Better Form of Life
Every form of life is a pattern of material self-organization that draws in its constituent parts into tight, dynamic relationships informed by their place in the whole. Mitochondria may once have been lonely prokaryotes, but now their role is defined by the activity of powering an entire cell. Collectives of people are no different, and they remain healthy insofar as they are able to continually draw their people into their basic pattern of life. I learned this valuable lesson in the walls of a little Byzantine church.
The community had established itself under constraints, especially that of sky-high city rents. To solve this, it took over an aging, ramshackle wooden house and converted it into a space for both worship and living.
When you arrived on a Sunday morning, you pushed past the metal gates at the entrance, headed up porch steps, and moved through the front door into what would have been a living room. There, you crossed from earth into heaven. The golden glow of candlelight reflecting off icons, the rhythms of chant, and the slow undulation of a crowd on its feet let you know that you had entered the vital core of something active and alive. The liturgies were full immersions into a total way of living, thinking, and being. Everything had meaning.
It was the beautiful services that first brought me to the little church. What sticks with me to this day was seeing a collection of people with different strengths, temperaments, and backgrounds—often with little else in common, and occasionally ones that might have been foes elsewhere—transform into a single body.
Some had come upon the little church in dark times of their lives or in the middle of great personal struggles. They were exactly the kinds of people who, in most other places I spent time, would have eventually slipped out and been forgotten. Here, things were different. The bonds that formed over shared meals and time spent together were personal and deep, but also animated by an explicit command: love your neighbor as yourself. Once people knew you, they checked on you. If you didn’t show up for a while, you would get a text from someone asking if all was well. Sometimes, a person had a bad day or a bad month. When they came back, it was to open arms. For those who needed them, the community maintained a number of rooms above the church with token rent requested from those who could pay it.
This openness did not entail a lack of obligations. In a small community, things only happen because people do the work. Someone has to bring the food for common meals. Someone has to chant and read and assist at the altar. Someone has to prepare the eucharistic gifts. There was no central directive for most of these things. Instead, people took them on through personal callings and individual encouragement. I was surprised that it was sometimes those dealing with the greatest personal struggles who were the most dedicated to their roles, which became stable anchors in their lives.
Many people found strength in confession and spiritual direction with the priest. Those who undertook this received religious solace, but also more direct individual instruction on how to correct or better shoulder the disorders in their lives. It was largely not a place of dramatic transformation or flashy, instant healing. Instead, people formed deep roots over time, drew strength from those around them, and grew. Sometimes, they found themselves becoming central, supporting figures in the community.
The pattern of life in the little church was greater than any single individual, including the clergy. Those ordained as priests and deacons had authority, did formal teaching, corrected, and occasionally censured where needed. But the centrality and necessity of their role as cultivators did not make them sufficient to embody the form on their own. The pattern of life grew and reproduced itself through an increasing intensity in the lives of its members, a growth in its complexity and coherence as the community itself expanded. Love of God and love of neighbor were its highest callings, and I saw both translate into deeply felt instincts and actions among those who spent time in the fold.
This experience was completely different from what I had seen elsewhere. Having become used to the dissolution, it was a shock to become immersed in a body of people so obviously alive, with its form and ligaments exhibiting health and vitality. On those occasions when people still slipped away, it was an obvious failing and a pain to those who knew them.
But another aspect of it all surprised me as well. The rhetoric about the love of neighbor was something I had seen beyond the walls of the little church. Rather than health and life, it had been in the service of something chaotic and destructive.
The Good Samaritan’s Bastard Children
Living in a big West Coast town means becoming familiar with tent cities and the fights that come with them. What sparks it off is when homeless encampments annex formerly public parks—often with direction and oversight from activists—and make them functionally off-limits to the locals, especially in what were once “nice” areas. The sudden loss of space and threat of violent crime, along with open drug use and prostitution, tends to shock the locals out of complacency. The homeless crisis is easy to ignore until it spills out of its confined areas.
In these circumstances, the affected neighborhoods tended to rally in their own self-interest, organizing against threats of violence, property crime, and the seizure of public space. Whenever this happened, an array of full-time activists, as well as mobilizable students and sympathetic professionals, turned out to champion the cause of the tent cities. The language they favored was that of neighborly love. “Defend our neighbors without homes!” was the sort of thing I would hear them chant. On its face, it was the very same ideal I had heard preached at the little church. And yet, the fruits of it were entirely different.
The total absence of real communal ties was evident to me from the start. I remember meeting a friend for late-night coffee shortly after such an encampment had sprung up near where we lived. He did not hide his sentiments. “They need to burn that place to the ground,” he muttered at one point as we looked out into the night, less than a mile from the tents. Drug use and property crime were spilling over into the broader area. “It’s too bad there isn’t somewhere to move them,” I ventured. “Somewhere they can actually get clean and start doing some useful work.”
“Maybe. Who knows?” he responded. “They just need to get them out. They’re stealing, they’re selling drugs. It’s getting bad.”
Perhaps there was a time when the locals would have seen such camps as a place of misfortune that was in some sense still part of the community, or at least populated by people with whom they had a real neighborly kinship. By the time we were sitting there, that time was long gone. As this pattern played out repeatedly across the large metro region, robberies and harassment sparked counter-offensives. Locals yelled when they drove by obvious camp dwellers. They used cameras to confront and document outsiders wandering through their neighborhoods. Facebook groups sprung up to monitor the situation. The most violent incidents saw a homeless woman set on fire, and a mass shooter in one of the suburban towns target multiple homeless people in a single night, killing two.
Despite the talk of neighborly solidarity and human rights, the actual bonds involved grew weaker and vanished over time. The encampments reproduced the social dynamics of survival and codependency. Addictions were not broken, and the criminality that threatened both people and property only ever got worse. There was no concept of collective moral reciprocity, nor even any real unified community to have such duties toward. The communities in play were the local neighborhoods and the camps, and they were locked in a struggle for territory.
The professional activists that positioned themselves as defenders of the tent cities had no conception of imposing or even encouraging a better pattern of life for those involved. Instead, they handed out their own supplies of heroin and other drugs, supporting “clean” addictions as their solution to overdose deaths. Meanwhile, the ample public money dedicated to providing proper shelters ended up funding dilapidated hotels to the benefit of well-connected beneficiaries, the ranks of which included the wives of both the mayor and the province’s top public housing executive. The dirty secret of homelessness is that it’s an industry, and no one is going to abolish their own industry.
By proclaiming a self-serving ideology in which reciprocated ties and social duties did not exist, what such activists had helped to establish was a parasitic dynamic. The established neighborhoods were expected to extend toleration and material support on an open-ended basis, which the tent cities received free of any social or even legal expectations. But in practice, this was not sustainable. Those living in the tent cities could not constrain the criminal and antisocial elements among them. Conflict was inevitable.
The activist defenders of the tent cities had seized on a moral language deeply ingrained in Western societies. The notion of duty to neighbors, especially those who are poor and vulnerable, is a particularly strong inheritance from Christianity. But they were using concepts they did not care to understand. For the activists, the homeless weren’t neighbors in any reciprocal sense, just a battering ram to use in their own conflicts with society. By rhetorically re-premising neighborly duties as a one-way relationship of tribute and deference paid to the wretched by society, they rendered the very moral concepts they invoked useless. They demanded neighborly duties from strangers but provided no possibility of those involved ever becoming anything like real neighbors to each other.
It was not until the experience of the little Byzantine church that I fully understood the difference. Both used a language of neighborly love and leaps of faith on others. But one operated on the basis of a compelling form of life. Their radical charity extended an open hand toward others with the intention of integrating them into their own functional pattern of life. They did not see charity as an open-ended license to parasitic behavior.
When members of the community fell out with each other, the practice of forgiveness was not intended to enable the behaviors at fault. Rather, forgiveness allowed people to move on from slights and return to baseline cooperation and affection with one another. It was not intended to facilitate destructive norms or people, particularly ones that threatened to undermine the community as a whole.
Moreover, the form of life practiced by the church community was both attractive and functional. As people embraced it, their lives improved in concrete ways. They took on roles of support and responsibility in their community and began to realize their own agency. They gave up destructive habits and formed healthy ones. Multiple categories of relationships—some egalitarian, and some not—existed to ensure moral correction, and the basic norms were clearly and explicitly taught by those with authority in the community. There was a way you ought to conduct yourself, a life you ought to live, and evil you ought to avoid. In extreme cases, that authority extended to initiating a formal censure through excommunication or barring a particularly destructive person from the space.
No counterparts to any of this existed in either the moral framework or the social structures of those who defended the tent cities. The norms and behaviors invoked were presented without any of the broader structures that put them in the service of life. Used this way, the very same moral norms that had served the life and health of the little church ended up giving cover to the most destructive behaviors. Rather than resolving civic conflicts, they only served to intensify them and make the concept of a neighbor meaningless to those involved.
The Logic of Christian Charity
Once, the extension of neighborly love to strangers and even enemies was a radical moral principle. Today, familiarity has made it banal. But familiarity is not the same thing as understanding. When Jesus told his famous parable of the Good Samaritan, it was to demonstrate his broader teaching that in addition to loving God, men should love their neighbors as themselves. A prudent follower asked who counted as a neighbor, and Jesus told his famous story:
A Hebrew man lay beaten by robbers and half-dead. The respectable gentlemen of his own people—likely his neighbors in the literal sense—avoided him as they passed by. Eventually, there came a Samaritan, whose nation was disdained and reviled by the Hebrews. Despite all this, he spared no effort or expense to nurse the injured man back to health. After telling the story, Jesus then asked who had fulfilled the law of love and acted as a neighbor to the Hebrew. “He that shewed mercy on him,” answered the follower. “Go, and do thou likewise,” Jesus instructed.
A casual misreading of the parable is that the Samaritan viewed all men everywhere as his neighbors, regardless of ethnic enmity or ability to reciprocate. But that misses the point. The Hebrew and the Samaritan were heirs to centuries of communal feuding, and their assumptions of mutual contempt and distrust were entirely rational. The virtue of the Samaritan is not that he considered all men to be his neighbors, but that he himself took a leap of faith and acted as a neighbor to someone who was not yet one. The Samaritan’s act bore fruit, and he left the Hebrew he saved behind as a true neighbor, perhaps even a friend.
The momentary decision to show mercy is not, strictly speaking, a rational act. Rivals and enemies don’t merit such expectations. Any moment in which one shows mercy or offers the hand of cooperation to an enemy is a leap of faith. But charity itself has a rational character to it: by putting aside private advantages to work for the welfare of another, you offer a moment where they can start to do the same for you. That bond of reciprocal commitment to a common cause is the beating heart of every friendship, brotherhood, marriage, cult, warband, aristocracy, and other instance of society that has ever graced the earth. The initial moment where an open hand is extended makes it possible for a new “us” to emerge.
Once the offer is accepted, the process of reciprocation begins. You begin to develop norms and expectations within the context of the new relationship. Here, the instincts of justice have to take over. A bond between people always exists for the sake of some goal, and how well the relationship helps its members achieve that goal is usually a good measure of its overall health. In the little church, the goal was to worship God together and assist each other in living Christian lives. In a family, it is to care for one another and establish a home. Even robbers have to do right by each other for a brief time in order to pull off a heist together.
The little church’s ideals of neighborly charity existed side by side with divine commands that, if followed, allowed people to trust one another, cooperate, and maintain the foundation of common faith on which everything else rested. The Byzantine liturgy includes extensive readings from sacred scripture: the community would hear the story of Ananias and Sapphira, whom God struck dead when they lied to the Apostle Peter about their charity in order to boost their reputations, and perhaps also the injunctions of the Apostle Paul to the Thessalonian church that “if any would not work, neither should he eat.” When meditating on their own relationships with God, everyone knew that repentance was the first step toward forgiveness and that real repentance must lead to a change in life.
In order to create the kind of environment where a leap of faith on someone is likely to be rewarded, it becomes even more important to enforce the basic norms of justice, truth-telling, and reciprocity, not less so. Among individuals or small groups, people can just leave or be excluded. But on the level of larger communities or societies, this isn’t an option. This means that allowing people to leverage the norms of good faith or mutual support with no intention of reciprocity only serves to establish parasitic norms instead. The members of the community might not be able to leave easily, but they can shift to low-trust expectations of behavior.
This puts the community into a death spiral: having burned the stores of high-trust social capital, its members are eventually no longer able to follow the norms required to build them back up again. A newly dead body burns up its last stores of cellular health before the full, visible decay takes hold.
When you have functional authority and control over a defined group, it is possible and right to punish parasitic behavior by censuring or removing the people who engage in it. In that case, it becomes easier for those within the group to make their leaps of faith on each other. But you exercise greater courage in the situation in which the Samaritan and the Hebrew found themselves, where no such basis exists. This is the case in which making such leaps is the most risky. But it is also when such leaps can become the basis of a new set of bonds, and a new pattern on which to cooperate and eventually draw in others into a higher order of life.
The Lesson of the Seed
The ongoing dissolution of bonds across mainline society is not merely a sign of social death. It is also an opportunity to establish a new and more functional basis for loyalty, cooperation, and the development of social capital. When the world around you is increasingly dysfunctional and the people are scattering to the winds, your ability to create something functional and unifying has a far greater impact. To understand how a new growth of social capital can take root amid decay, learn the lesson of the seed:
The seed begins with an independent vision of life and value. An acorn contains within itself the genetic vision that animates and becomes the adult tree and all its metabolic and immune processes. All cooperation within the body of the organism is organized around that vision, and the same is true of any functional social body. The early Christians lived their lives fully in reference to the messianic kingdom of Jesus instead of the pagan empire of Rome. The Puritan settlers in the New World embarked on ships to build the true and real Jerusalem away from the corruption they perceived in England. The Mormons created a new society on the American continent based on their mission of becoming planetary gods. The foundational vision implies encouragement of the behaviors that serve it and exclusion of those that undermine it.
The vision of growth contained in the seed admits no fundamental compromise with the world around it. It may have to contort into appropriate shapes, make use of local materials, find unique niches to fill, and accept whatever level of success its environment affords it. But its purpose is to fully realize its own genetic logic, not become recuperated into rival patterns of life. It will grow according to its own proper form, or not at all. Christians, Puritans, and Mormons were all known for being so morally inflexible and dedicated to the absolute purity of their faith that they accepted martyrdom and exile rather than worldly compromise. Whatever seed of a social body you build or join must have this uncompromising nature, or it will not achieve a new destiny.
As an organism operating on its own pattern of life, your new social body cannot act as a mere movement within the existing social body around you. An organism already in the spiral of fundamental decay cannot be salvaged from within, although some of its matter may pass along to what replaces it. The new pattern of life must have its own internal processes of reproduction, mobilizing resources and effort, constraining and encouraging behavior according to sanctioned ideals, and purposeful organization.
The Puritan leader John Winthrop prepared to lead the Massachusetts Bay Colony with a sermon titled “A Model of Christian Charity.” In it, he laid out in minute detail how the colonists would treat each other’s needs, conduct their work, manage resources, and relate to one another. This set them up with their own reference point of behavior distinct from the English society they came from. Any new social body has to develop its own extensive body of customs and conduct that aligns the life of its members with its fundamental vision.
However worthy your ideals and goals, they will remain useless if all the people around are mentally broken, physically decrepit, and unable to even carry out basic functions like reproduction. Modernity tends to resemble something like a nutrient-stripping monoculture crop: it homogenizes cultures, disciplines populations into collective infertility, and extracts the benefits of high IQ, cooperative norms, and other human capital without ever regenerating it. To grow, the little seed must pull material from the surrounding decay into its own superior pattern of life. For your social body, this means people. Not all of them will fit, and some will even bring corruption, but this integration is necessary for growth.
I saw this process play out repeatedly in the context of the little church. One friend had undergone personal struggles over the years he had been involved. But through his deep immersion in the community, he had taken on increasing responsibilities within it. He became a valuable source of advice and friendship to people within the community. He even helped to lead worship, assisting the clergy in carrying out the rituals and public teaching of the lengthy Byzantine liturgies. The Christian ideals of the community did not remain abstract concepts or purely theoretical teachings for him. Instead, they became ever more intense and real to the point of transforming his life.
Those in the community had judged their leap of faith well, invested in their bonds, and reciprocated each others’ goodwill. Any social body that accepts an outsider is taking a chance that the new person can integrate into the bonds it has established and make them stronger. A truly compelling form of life often brings people in under the power of sheer attraction, drawing in outsiders through its obvious beauty and worth. This makes it even more important that the social body rigorously enforces its own norms on those who enter, reforming or rejecting behaviors that could threaten to undermine it. To transform strangers into valued kin and highly functional members of your social body, parasitism must be ruthlessly punished and excluded.
Parasitical strategies against your social body can take many forms. Sometimes, people attempt to gain social benefits from association without ever committing anything useful, or by lying about their contributions like Ananias and Sapphira did to the Apostle Peter. Sometimes, hostile outsiders exploit the internal trust and goodwill of a community for their own goals, as the poverty activists did when establishing their encampments. If a competing faction recognizes the personal functionality, high trust, useful infrastructure, and valuable resources of your own social body, it may target them for expropriation, taking control of your project for its own use. If that competitor is sufficiently powerful, it may try and simply snuff your community out through direct persecution.
A functional social body must have ways of evading and defending against all such attacks. The Christian virtues of poverty and non-worldliness had a strategic value in this context: by being relatively poor and powerless, as well as explicitly disowning political revolution, there was simply less obvious wealth to expropriate and less reason to suspect treason. The Mormons and Puritans took their congregations into the wilderness where they couldn’t be as easily persecuted. Your social projects will likewise need an appropriate set of defensive mechanisms against extractive social strategies.
Sometimes, the temptation to defect from your fundamental vision can even come from your own internal success. If your social body is disproportionately functional, it becomes tempting to exploit various kinds of arbitrage schemes against the world around you. Arbitrage projects of this sort differ from a simple trade deal that supplements the core functions of the community. Think of the Amish selling furniture to outsiders: it may be useful to them on the margin, but the whole thing could collapse and the Amish would be fine.
Making arbitrage between your functionality and the decay of the surrounding system the fundamental activity of your body, on the other hand, aligns your incentives with the surrounding death spiral and not with the new pattern of life. If your social body of competent people ends up just becoming a way to find each other cushy jobs, all you’ve done is become disproportionately good at getting paid by the system around you. This relationship is symbiotic and even parasitic. You have now made yourself dependent on the old system specifically in its degraded, broken, and contradictory form.
Keeping loyal to your own fundamental vision, and developing the germs of behavior and reciprocation it contains into a cohesive social body, is an arduous task. But it is also a bet that you are better at identifying what is best in life than the stories you were told by the dying social bodies around you. The point of this defection is not to be original for its own sake. A redwood tree is no less strong and healthy for being in a forest of other redwoods—in fact, it is better off for it.
The real divide is between life and death, which is to say between growth and dissolution. You will have to abandon the dying social forms to remain loyal to the living ones you pursue. But with a social body serving that vision and operating on the right methods, you will be able to extend a hand to those left behind.