Jenny Flannagan is super cool. Into drama, music, and the arts, she writes about the realities of her neighborhood with crushing clarity, empathy and a much-needed sense of humor. Seriously, the girl is funny. I had my eye on her writing for this series from the get-go and am so pleased to have this essay here today. I identify with so many aspects of her story, but none more than the apparent joy she gets from all the pleasures of her abundant life. It just doesn’t look abundant in the way that the world would have for us.
Downward Mobility — Guest Post by Jenny Flannagan
A few years a man who was compiling a book entitled Success wrote and asked me to contribute a statement on how I got to be a success. I replied indignantly that I was not able to consider myself a success in any terms that had a meaning to me. I swore I had spent my life strenuously avoiding success.
So wrote monk and mystic Thomas Merton in 1979 in his typically provocative and paradoxical manner. His words feel important and at the same time bewilder me. They’re not what I grew up with.
More words, quoted recently by Shawn Smucker in his guest post:
My whole life I have been surrounded by well-meaning encouragement to go ‘higher up,’ and the most-used argument was : ‘You can do so much good there, for so many people.’ But these voices calling me to upward mobility are completely absent from the Gospel.
Henri Nouwen, Here and Now
These words give shape to the fears and anxieties that assail me when I hear the term downward mobility, a phrase we have used in the past few years to describe how we are trying to live.
The truth is, I’m not sure quite what it means and if I qualify or if we’re just kidding ourselves. When I really think about it, I get confused as to whether it’s even a goal we should be pursuing.
It makes sense when I think how we’re not trying to earn as much money as we could, that we’ve chosen part-time work and rejected career ladders and embraced a lifestyle with less money to have more time in our neighbourhood and for our family. It explains why we’ve chosen to stay in the inner-city and live on a government housing block alongside people from different immigrant communities as well as long-term locals, many of them on low incomes or benefits. It’s a fitting commentary on our attempts to live light and cheap and thrifty and open-handed.
It feels hollow and pretentious when I head out with my suitcase on another international adventure for my job, past my neighbours, some of whom have never left the country and who have lived their whole lives within a mile radius or others who can rarely afford to visit their homeland. It feels like a lie when I consider the choices we have because of our family’s support and our savings and our education; the invitations we get to share our stories at conferences and write books and make albums. Occasionally people tell us “we could never do what you do,” and I think of my comfortable bed and colourful home, our friendly neighbours and amazingly central location, and wonder what on earth they have in their head.
We aren’t part of a missional order or an organisation. We have taken no vows. We don’t have a project. No-one supports us with donations or ministry gifts*. We just live here and try to be good neighbours and listen out for what God is saying and doing so we can be part of it. And pray to see the stuff we read about elsewhere happen here. And plug away.
We don’t have a team. We have church, and a few friends who are trying to do similar things, but no-one in the same neighbourhood or building. Most of our friends are making really different choices, the ‘responsible’ choices that give them bigger houses and gardens for their kids to play in, and on my worst days my heart is full of pharisaical judgement for them, my thinly disguised resentment of their successful upward mobility.
Often I feel lonely and wonder what we’re trying to do exactly.
Even working out what downward mobility looks like in the UK is a stretch. The inner-cities have become the preserve mainly of the extremely rich and the poorest communities (whose housing is subsidised), with few others able to stay. It’s at its most extreme, of course, in London. The private market is so obscenely expensive that anyone on an average or even fairly good income usually has to leave the moment they need some space or have a family. But we have a system of social housing that means that subsidised accommodation is available across our cities for those who meet particular criteria like homelessness, sickness, unemployment – and other kinds of intense social needs. If you don’t qualify for this kind of housing but want to stay on the stigmatised council estates, the supposed hotbeds of crime and your only chance of life in a mixed income environment, it won’t be cheap. You will have to pay a lot of money to rent them privately or buy them. The most expensive places I’ve ever lived are inner-city council flats.
So somehow you need to find enough money to live amongst people with a lot less money, making a real sense of solidarity increasingly inaccessible. And, like them, you end up living across the street from the crazily-wealthy whose lifestyles are insanely out-of-your-reach.
Downward mobility feels complicated and compromised and confusing. As an end in itself it seems a bit pointless. Unless, unless it makes other things possible.
And I think that’s what I believe. I keep coming back to this conviction that God doesn’t call to us to more frugal life, but a more abundant one. Only it looks totally different to what the world would make us assume. Abundant living is free from aggressive and destructive (and even complacent) consumption, which numbs us and distracts us from really experiencing life. It is rich in relationships and vulnerability and community, it isn’t sheltered from chaos and pain, it is sometimes agonising but always creative and steeped in hope and faith.
It was certainly never the life I planned. Oh no, I was going to be wildly successful but then generously give away most of my winnings. Invisibility, obscurity, doubt, identity crises, these were never my ambition. Success was inevitable.
But then if downward mobility means anything at all to me, it has started to mean a death to success in more and more of the ways I counted it. I have old friends from college taking Hollywood by storm, sitting in Parliament and writing acclaimed novels. That’s not my life.
We’re here because we believe it does make a difference when people stick around in the inner-city and build lasting friendships and raise their kids here and love their neighbours and work for reconciliation and hope. Even if the fruit of it is hardly visible in this generation, we have faith that we’re part of a bigger, better story that has a good ending, and we want desperately to be part of that story in this neighbourhood.
But we’re not just playing an endgame. We live this way because we believe it is a better life (on our good days we believe that).
It is, however, a daily affront to all the assumptions I made for so many years about how successful I would be, an affront to my pride and my competitiveness and my belief in what a difference I can make.
I don’t know if our income or square footage or CVs will look ‘downwardly mobile’ in the decades to come (and maybe that would just become a counter-intuitive, an alternative success indicator for me), but I hope that my heart will find the long-haul courage to choose something real rather than just something everyone else is trying to sell me, to look down more up, and most of all to listen for the life Jesus is inviting me to live rather than everyone else.
Jenny Flannagan is a writer, actress and film-maker. She has worked for Tearfund for the past 9 years, spending the past 6 of them travelling a lot, finding ways to capture and share stories of Christians serving their communities in diverse and amazing ways all around the world. But now she is pregnant and can’t get on any more planes. She is also a founding member of the theatre company The Ruby Dolls, described by Time Out as “an elegant, inventive and absorbing fusion of theatre, music, storytelling, dance and puppetry“. She lives on a council estate in South London with her husband Andy, where they are trying to be downwardly mobile. They are part of The Well Community Church and lead a fledgling missional community.
For all posts in the Downward Mobility series, please click here.