This morning I finished reading Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society. I mentioned it a few days ago as a book I’d set aside with the advent of Covid but had finally gotten back around to reading. It’s a good read, one part looking back and another part looking ahead. In the previous post I mentioned “the four horsemen” of decadence from the author’s perspective: stagnation, sterility, sclerosis, and repetition. And while Douthat uses these terms to understand our particular moment in history, the four terms could also be used as a diagnostic framework for any institution in a self-reflective mood.
After identifying and discussing his “four horsemen,” Douthat moves to four ways that our current societal decadence could actually become a steady state. The book ends with a selection of ways that decadence might come to an end. And while these two sections are the “looking ahead” section of the book, they are still rooted in trends evident in bits and pieces today. They represent a kind of sober speculation we would be wise to consider even while the possibilities might seem so far away.
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Two other concepts came to mind as I was finishing the book and thinking about my own day-to-day experiences with different facets of life: sustainability and exhaustion. Exhaustion has to do with a real depletion of what has been present and necessary for an endeavor to succeed. Exhaustion is a kind of running out. Sustainability, on the other hand, has to do with having what it takes to keep going. The two are obviously connected. If something isn’t sustainable, it is a resource that gets exhausted. That is particularly true of people, who ought not be treated like resources but too often are. Here at the end of a school year, exhaustion is a very real thing. It’s almost like some things, school calendars included, are mean to be ended, are not (in a way) sustainable. But what does that look like stretched out across space and time, across classrooms and curriculum and the extra-curricular? What does it look like for a church community as it tries to understand what goes into and what comes out of life lived together?
All things to think about, of course. And things with answers that probably vary. We don’t like to think about exhaustion on any level as it’s just another name for burnout. But like Douthat’s “four horsemen,” these two things are also worth our time.