The Suburban Trap

Jesse Fried • Jun 14, 2017

The commuter suburbs are a hyper-domestic environment, aptly referred to as "bedroom communities." The commuter's routine sets the tone here to a large degree: the town is a calm place to retreat to at the end of a busy, socially intense day, a comfortable haven where the pleasures of family life and the home theater system can flourish apart from the the vicious temptations of the city. Even to the extent that this arrangement is satisfying for commuters, it presents a problem for other members of their families, who spend their entire days in a community intended as a respite from the real world.

Countless bright, well-meaning people fall victim to what I would call the <b>suburban trap: </b>the resort to physical comfort as a palliative for moral or psychological discomfort. The conditions of isolation and unreality experienced by full-time suburbanites have a way of constraining the human spirit - a pain keenly articulated by second-wave feminists of the wealthy suburbs like Betty Friedan. The broader injustice of the current social arrangement is also visible to any suburbanite aware enough of the outside world to notice such sights as the downcast faces and and avoidance of eye contact of some of people of color who can be seen walking downtown. On the other hand, physical comforts abound in the suburbs, where the enjoyment of leisure time activities and domestic comforts dominates the culture.

Now far be it from me to take moral issue with a dad, a kid, and a dog playing with a frisbee in a grassy park. The combination of simplicity, fun, order, family togetherness and fresh air can be genuinely, wholesomely, meaningfully satisfying. But these innocent pleasure alone, added to a typical career, build a life that, however privileged and enviable, is not quite complete. The desire for deeper engagement in the world is too easily and too often cast aside in the suburbs. There is a strange bleary-eyed softness and docility in the suburban character, which I think comes from certain parts of the soul being lulled to sleep.

A partial blindness to reality, or at least very lazy, narrow view of it, is symptomatic of a trapped life. It's funny to think about how many of these people have careers which require an enormous amount of intellectual effort - they are high-power lawyers, executives, medical specialists, etc. - and yet their understanding of the actual conditions of their life can be astoundingly simpleminded. I'm not just talking about social consciousness here. It is sadly common to see extremely hardworking, well-meaning suburban parents so devoted to their work and otherwise so lost in the innocent fantasies of their collapsed psychologies that they are blind to the actual needs of their spouses and kids. And we're not even getting into the darker side of human nature, the suburban assholes, here...

How well equipped are these people to be informed citizens in a democratic society? More troubling still, how capable are they of the leadership roles in business, law, and politics that they so often attain? It is easy and seductive for the suburbanite, citing their principled life or hard work, family values, and responsible lawn care, to plead innocence in all public matters. In other words, to retreat from reality into their physical self.