The answer to hipster and hustler culture is a novel so undramatic I couldn’t put it down.
The rise and fall of hipster sub-culture has been a reaction to excess. Hipsters take pride in minimalism. Old things are better than new things, less is more, and understating the obvious is cooler than overstating anything. Doing nothing is the way to be something. Significance comes from washing dishes at the foodie elitist café downtown, selling second-hand vintage clothes at a high-end fashion boutique, or living in the zip code of America’s best universities (but not actually studying there). Proximity to cool is crucial. But it is also important to let everyone know that you’re not the head chef, owner of the boutique, or a graduate of the school.
On the other end of this understated reaction is the hustler, whose primary concern is building brand, acquaintances, accomplishments and acolytes. This sub-culture often assumes the style and garb of hipsters, but feels compelled to overstate things.
What holds these two kinds of people together is the need to announce it all. Twitter is more than a helpful tool. It’s a new language that requires fluency.
Can narcissism get any worse?
I love blogging, Facebook, and Twitter too, but these platforms tend to fuel the projection of personal brands, individual accomplishments, voyeurism in relationships, and the peddling of one’s opinions on any issue imaginable. Today nothing accomplished goes unannounced. Tweets that read, “I just got back from the market” or “turned in my final paper today” will get you un-followed. Just saying.
Maybe that’s why I found “The Housekeeper and the Professor” by Yoko Ogawa so captivating. It is so undramatic that I couldn’t put it down. It’s a robust and dense story of a woman who wouldn’t know what to do with a Twitter account if she had one.
A struggling, working-class lady is employed by a temp maid service. As a single parent, she is dependent on whatever work she can get. The novel unfolds her relationship with one particular employer, a math genius whose short-term memory lasts only 80 minutes.
Each day she reintroduces herself and has to reestablish the trust to begin the friendship anew. The story is as tragic as it is winsome, absurd as it is gorgeous. The maid continually gives herself only to be routinely forgotten. Her acts of kindness and service go unremembered.
Early in my own journey of vocational exploration, I was fortunate enough to spend quite a bit of time with Mother Teresa. The public persona of Mother was legendary, but the majority of her life was spent living in the very ordinary. The rhythms and routines of the Missionaries of Charity demanded it: early morning prayers, daily mass, hand-washing dishes after each meal and tea time, manually washing laundry, and sweeping and mopping the floors. When it came to Mother’s ministry with people, it was often bathing and drying people who were so malnourished they couldn’t take care of themselves, or feeding people so hungry that they often fought their neighbors for an extra handful of rice.
If I actually took the time to add up the days, weeks, and months of my volunteer service in Mother’s House for the Dying since 1993, I imagine it’d be close to a year of my life. And, thinking back on all of that time, I don’t recall anyone ever saying, “Thank you.”
In “The Housekeeper and the Professor,” somehow the single mother is able to find a form of friendship. This friendship that doesn’t have to be played out on a Facebook wall or playful sting of Twitter replies. It’s more personal and intimate than that. Her service is loving and selfless, affectionate and careful, never blogged-about or teased out into an article.
The book leaves us with a challenge to discover the ordinary places of love and the undramatic areas of life that require the best of our efforts and intentions.
Christopher L. Heuertz is International Executive Director of Word Made Flesh. He is based in Omaha, Nebraska. His most recent book, co-written with Christine Pohl, is “Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission” (InterVarsity). Follow him on Twitter @chrisheuertz).