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    Back to Reality

    The good life is found in stubborn reality, in poor neighborhoods and dirty gardens, in the thick of life in community.

    By Frank Mulder

    July 8, 2022
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    • Júlia

      Dear Frank, I am deeply touched by your example... I wish I had a community like yours--or the courage to start building it myself. May God bless you and yours!

    • Russell Kendall Carter

      The great sin of mankind is poverty. This has been true since man began walking the Earth. We are a greedy lot. Only God can save us.

    • Trish

      Thank You for sharing how to live an exceptional life! The truth of community, connectedness & sharing the messiness of life with people who are often overlooked & unseen is beautifully depicted in this piece. Inspiring….

    • Delores Douglas

      Wow! If this article doesn’t make one PAUSE and THINK I don’t know what will. Thank you for this and I know I will need to go back frequently to read. You gave me much to think about and hopefully your words will encourage me to look each day for opportunities to serve where I am. I sent to my daughter who has such insight as you.

    In the final chapter of his book Hyperreality: How Our Tools Came to Control Us, Frank Mulder turns from a critique of society and technology to his own experiences establishing an intentional community in a deprived residential neighborhood in Utrecht, the Netherlands.

    The dilapidated garage doors behind our house are as charming as a parking lot. The doors are kept together with makeshift latches, under balconies from which the paint comes peeling off. The square in front of the house is surrounded by gray four-story building blocks, which no one has cared for in the last thirty years, at least. A Turkish woman wearing a hijab is doing her laundry, as usual, and her neighbor is calling to his child downstairs in the Moroccan Berber language. Two boys on their scooters are racing up and down the street, without helmets, practicing a wheelie.

    On one of the sides of the square there’s a former shopping block with upstairs apartments. In front of this building, under a few sycamore trees struggling to survive in this stony desert, we have prepared a dinner for a group consisting of a colorful mixture of people, and when Iranian and Syrian food is served, I feel proud to say that this is my home.

    I live in this community that I started with a few friends in 2008. I was just married when we got the chance to rent a few apartments in an empty block that was destined to be demolished. We decided this was the ugliest place in town, in a neighborhood that was number one on all the wrong lists. We lived together, ate together, set some rooms apart for refugees, had dinners with neighbors, had weekly prayers, and organized game and movie nights with neighbors and friends. At times we have been completely fed up with everything, but at the same time we have learned to love this place.

    I want to tell you something about this, not to explain how I think you should live as an ethically good citizen, but because the good life, the real life, is not found in a theory but in life itself: on squares, in dilapidated buildings, and under sycamore trees.

    The good life is not the same as the successful life, not even when you define success as, for example, finding solutions to world problems. If I focus on the here and now, other things emerge as important goals of the day. Sometimes just working hard to earn my living, but sometimes reading a book about dinosaurs with my son. Sometimes taking care of the apple tree we planted behind our house, or taking time to learn to play a new song on my ukulele. Sometimes giving my money to someone who is in debt, or a room to a guest, or not seeing anyone because it’s time for rest, or for romance or music. Putting energy, in short, into things that are inherently good, that would also have value if the earth were to perish next year.

    Living like this doesn’t leave much time for collecting stuff. Not that “stuff” is necessarily bad. Money, a car, a career, a position, things, Facebook friends, status, media: all of these are not necessarily “bad” per se, but they tend to trap you by becoming indispensable. The best litmus test I can apply to check if they have become powers that rule over my life is to do what powers usually don’t like: sharing. I can share money by dropping it in someone’s post box anonymously. Or by doing voluntary work. Not just to achieve something, but because it is healthy and liberating to share. I can also share control. I can try to empower others. I can train myself to listen to other people in a group where many people tend to listen to me. I can also share status, by opening my life for people without status. For people who are not so cool, who are not so dynamic, or even have no legal right to live in my country.

    One way that helps me to share, to share my life, is to do it collectively, in the neighborhood I have described. In our society we often have too much space for ourselves, too many walls, big fenced-off yards, and too many things. Living together with others is a way to share this. We have an apartment of our own, my wife and four kids, but we share our lives and our building with a bigger community, so I am constantly unlearning my exaggerated need for privacy. When we look back over the last twelve years, we feel that this is really healthy for us.

    We call ourselves Overhoop, which is a combination of Overvecht (the name of the neighborhood) and “hope,” but in Dutch it also means something like messy, upside-down. For us, this living together is something spiritual. That does not only mean praying or singing together but also sharing a washing machine or giving a room to a refugee or to someone who is just-divorced. And also having a secondhand shop where everything is free and where you can find the strangest people on earth. Or organizing community action against government plans to sell our square to a property developer (a struggle we have recently won because we have more friends in town than the developer).

    friends gathering at a table outdoors for a meal

    All photographs by Ilvy Njiokiktjien. Used by permission.

    We have formed a church together with others in the neighborhood. “Church” might sound very religious for some, and we do follow Jesus, but for us this heavy-laden term just means coming together with people from different social and ethnic backgrounds for prayer and meals, and caring for each other – in other words, being a family.

    Often it costs a lot of energy – sometimes too much. But at the same time, it makes us very, very rich. We have more frustrations and tears than we did before, but also more music, cake, parties, and deep friendships with people from all over the world. Sometimes I lie awake, full of sorrow about some of our friends who cannot escape their traumas and depressions, who feel bad and sometimes even turn against us because they find it almost unbearable to trust someone. But at other times, I find myself dancing to Kurdish music in our community living room because someone just got his residence permit after nine years of waiting.

    Many people I meet call this idealistic, but it is not. On the contrary, we have discovered idealism to be a trap. If we let ourselves be guided by ideals, we start to aim for a certain perfection we will never be able to reach. Those ideals are goals that steer my thinking automatically toward more resources and influence, and they usually result in judging other people. There are always housemates or other people who don’t fit into whatever nice plan I might have come up with.

    Ideals should never take precedence, but rather the Way must take precedence. The way is a rocky path (“The road to hell is paved with good intentions, the road to heaven is not paved,” The Psalters, an American music group, shouted once when they performed in our house). The good way is bumpy. Sometimes we ask ourselves what on earth we are doing after wasting our time on a useless house meeting about how to interpret a certain rule. Or we organize something that attracts only white people, and we feel that we have failed in our good intentions. Many more times we are hurt by someone, often by someone we took in for a few months and who left without saying thank you or goodbye. Henri Nouwen writes about the difference between effect and fruit. We shouldn’t worry about effect, he says; we should live in order to bear fruit. Sometimes our plans fail. Groups fall apart. Or people die. But we are not responsible for the amount of fruit we generate, only for the way we follow.

    In the 1970s, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard coined the word hyperreality. It literally means over-reality. Hyperreality is a constructed world, a world made as a simulation and an improvement of natural reality. It is not a fake reality. On the contrary, it is hyper – more real than reality, in the sense that our senses experience much more. I think this describes the slick and streamlined world we are currently building, where everything is planned optimally to make us satisfied, by catering, with the help of technology, to all our needs and desires: the needs for economic well-being, security, and social acceptance.

    We could describe hyperreality as the showroom of the modern project of “progress”: the promise that everybody can achieve happiness by a more rational organization of the world. But hyperreality does not deliver what it promises; instead, since everything and everyone becomes an object, an instrument, it eats our time, our relations, our security, our trust, and our planet; in the end it undermines the fulfillment of our very desires. This streamlined world is increasingly becoming a machine that is beyond our control. Indeed, it is controlling us.

    I do not believe that we can fix this problem with better organization, smarter technology, or different politics. For me, it is a spiritual problem, so we will have to find a spiritual answer to it. We need a spirituality that can liberate us from our dependence on the machine.

    happy people dancing together

    The British doctor Paul Brand, who died in 2003, worked his whole life with lepers in India, Ethiopia, and the Unites States. He learned that deformations to the leper’s body were not the result of the disease itself. Limbs hurt and died off because people wounded themselves by accident because they couldn’t feel pain. Leprosy doesn’t kill the limbs but rather the nervous system, he discovered. Healing a leper means giving him back his pain.

    We, the children of hyperreality, have a kind of leprosy too. We are losing our connection to the pain of real life. Pain is bad, we think, and should be abolished – by pills or by concentrating it in a home for the elderly at a safe distance from society. As a result, we are numbed, and this is what kills us slowly. To be healed we must open ourselves to the pain again.

    Living in a community in a poor neighborhood helps me to be healed from the leprosy of hyperreality. It helps me to wake up from the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream,” as President Donald Trump called this, where one is “no longer bothered … by having low income housing built in your neighborhood.” We are bothered indeed. We are bothered by broken families and children who shout or even fight on the street. We are bothered by broken people who become our friends but still bear the scars of trauma, alcoholism, and personality disorders. My happiness is bothered when one of my friends is taken to a detention center because the authorities don’t want him in my country. I am bothered when my housemate can’t sleep because he misses his children in Eritrea whom he hasn’t seen for three years.

    This shatters my shiny Suburban Lifestyle Dream into pieces and warps me back into reality in a split second. But, unexpectedly, it gives me more reason to get out of bed in the morning. It gives me reasons to fight. It’s healthy to learn to struggle and fight in a society where we are so amused that we are bored to death.

    It liberates me from a lot of illusions. When boys on the street smash my door, the illusion that I am a quite decent guy is smashed along with it, since I feel an anger coming up from deep within, and I discover myself to be able to sentence a whole ethnic group to a re-education camp in my mind. This part of me would not be uncovered if I stayed in the city center, working behind my laptop with my latte macchiato and a brownie.

    More illusions die here. Our faith in the human ability to remake the world, for example. If I think about the amount of sadness around our square, the depressions, the fights, the debts, the joblessness and other worries, it seems so desperate – there is absolutely no way that the state or social institutions will ever solve these problems. The only thing we hope and pray for is: God, have mercy.

    I do not believe that we can fix this problem with better organization, smarter technology, or different politics. For me, it is a spiritual problem, so we will have to find a spiritual answer to it.

    And unexpectedly, sometimes indeed things happen that are too miraculous to describe. In the midst of this stubborn and painful reality, we discover glimpses of a reality that is fuller and richer that I often dare to believe in. If people start to dare to give themselves, if they start to care for each other, if we unexpectedly get the impossible chance to buy our house and even find the money for it, if we look around the table and see all these strange people mixed together and someone grabs an accordion and makes everyone dance, including Samira, the Somali woman who had been too sad to dance before, at these moments I wonder whether miracles do exist. Sometimes hopeless people feel enabled to change their lives because they have seen something from God.

    Again, it is not true that poor people are better people. I encounter many people here who are difficult to deal with. Life here is not healthy. Life in the city is not healthy: I have a strong feeling deep within that we are not made for it. But the encounter with poverty, with brokenness, with community is healthy since it connects me to the pain of the world, it rescues me from the trance of hyperreality, and it gives me more joy than I could ever find in the Suburban Lifestyle Dream.

    It’s not only community between rich and poor that can save us from hyperreality. Some people find it in music or literature or other forms of art. Or in nature, in wilderness, where life is not over-clean and optimized and where we can be touched by an impressive creativity that is freely available, that takes its time, and that doesn’t impose itself.

    This is the reason that I share a small vegetable garden with some friends, just five minutes away. I know that the philosophers and technicians may find in this a proof of my romanticism. But it helps me to connect to the ground. I don’t feel just the earth but also the sun and the rain and my body. It gives me muscle pain and hunger, which I can still with an apple that I picked myself. It’s as if I activate parts of my body that I lost connection with.

    Nature is not a luxury, it’s a pure necessity. I think of this when I look at the boys in my neighborhood, uprooted from Turkey, Morocco, and other places, trapped in a hyperreality of concrete, scooters, violent movies, and money, while at the same time trying to look like pious Muslims. In a certain way, their lives are detached from reality too. With a few of them I have quite a good connection, but it’s easier to pierce their armor when you take them out of their habitat. For that reason I once took them to a very small forest, in the middle of the night, to make a little campfire on the top of an old bunker, fry some halal sausages, and teach them fire breathing. It’s only seven minutes by bicycle, but they had never been there. They were scared in the dark, these macho men, but they experienced a little bit of this joy. One of them even said “thank you” afterward.

    A very simple way to break the connection with hyperreality for a while is an old trick: stop eating for a day. It’s not for nothing that fasting is a very important element of so many spiritual traditions. If I don’t eat for a day, consciously, I feel how much my whole life turns around comfort and feeling nice, if only through coffee and snacks. Skipping that is not cool, it’s not comfortable, and it even makes me a bit grumpy. But it is a really simple method to step out of the permanent Jacuzzi around me, to say no to the siren song of everything that promises me contentment.

    You can also take a fast from incentives. To be someone, to become someone, we need that: spaces where there are no others, no opinions, no news. We need free space in our life, space where we’re not distracted and influenced. We don’t have to know all the latest news. We don’t have to be online all the time. People often wonder how I can be a journalist without a television and without a smartphone, because they think these things are necessary to be connected to the world. For me it’s the other way around. I didn’t become a journalist to help grow the information mountain, I became a journalist to help people think. Thinking becomes much easier when you pull the plug from the media and start to talk to people, read books, and be silent. Not knowing the latest remark made by whatever politician or expert is not a high price to pay.

    shop windows lit up at night

    “Instead of thought there is a vast, inhuman void, full of words, formulas, slogans, declarations, echoes, ideologies,” the famous writer-monk Thomas Merton wrote. According to Merton, our thinking is numbed by media we passively swallow. We need silence in order to think.

    If we become silent, we step out of the hectic tangle of our relationships. We need solitude sometimes. Without others, we don’t have a community or an identity, but sometimes we need to step back and stand still to contemplate our relationships to other people. And to God, who is most of the time a silent God, a God who doesn’t shout but whispers – a whisper we can’t hear until we silence all other sounds. Ultimately, that’s where we can find an identity that gives rest, an identity that you can’t prove or defend. That is a force that can beat the deep fear we all have inside of us, a force that can also beat the need to control our lives. Only then we can become really free. I admit that I am not good at it, being silent. Sometimes I long for silence, but with a lot of thoughts in my head, emails in my inbox, and children in my room, it’s hard to find it.

    A change is only possible with a deep, moral turnaround, together with structural changes. But the system is strong. Seventy years ago the French thinker Jacques Ellul wrote:

    The only successful way to attack these features of modern civilization is to give them the slip, to learn how to live on the edge of this totalitarian society, not simply rejecting it, but passing it through the sieve of God’s judgment. Finally, when communities with a “style of life” of this kind have been established, possibly the first signs of a new civilization may begin to appear. (Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom)

    That is an active spirituality. Already in the 1930s, Ellul, together with his friend Bernard Charbonneau, founded youth groups to draw young people away from the propaganda disseminated by the totalitarian left and right. He took students into the mountains for weeks as a kind of parallel university outside the civilized world. There they could debate and think about society, study difficult writers like de Tocqueville or Kierkegaard, and at the same time learn to bake their own bread in a self-built oven.

    Ellul doesn’t call on us to retreat into the mountains without smartphone and microwave to return to a kind of happy, a technological state of mind with self-baked bread. He didn’t believe in that. His hope for us was to find our freedom again by becoming humans enabled to think and judge for ourselves in the midst of a technical-economic system that reduces us to cogs in the machine. Of course we are conditioned from top to toe. We must start by acknowledging this, because then we judge it, and in moral judgment lies our freedom. Let’s use this dazzling freedom, Ellul proclaimed at the end of his life, to fill the cracks that will surely appear in society when the machine pushes up against its boundaries.

    That’s a mission I want to join in wholeheartedly. Cracks will appear – they appear all the time. Dark clouds are coming. Resources run dry, communities are undermined, and rivalry is howling through the streets and the dark alleys of social media. Resentment and victimhood tempt groups to see others as a dangerous enemy. This happens not only in the West but also in many poorer countries where leaders are kept in place because we need their resources and cheap labor to keep our machine going.

    Let’s start acknowledging this. Only then we can actively start to search for signs of hope. Let’s use our technologically conditioned eyes to find signs of life outside our human systems. That’s no escapism: that is an active attitude that can sow the seed of something new.


    Adapted from Frank Mulder, Hyperreality: How Our Tools Came to Control Us (Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2021). Used by permission of Wipf and Stock.

    Contributed By a portrait of Frank Mulder Frank Mulder

    Frank Mulder is a freelance journalist in the Netherlands. He lives with his wife and children in a community with refugees in a poor neighborhood.

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