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House envy

I love old homes. They’re beautiful and quirky and authentic in ways that just aren’t practical to recreate anymore. I’ve also come to understand the myriad of problems that can develop in a house over time. Turns out, there’s a reason so few of these houses survive the test of time or find owners willing to put in the work and money to keep these structures upright. It can be exhausting to resuscitate these buildings time after time. Eventually, it’s no longer worth the effort or expense.

The other beautiful thing old houses provide is a glimpse into what was once considered typical in housing. It may be hard to believe, but there was a time when a typical home was little more than a few rooms squeezed into a footprint the size of some modern tree houses. And this is when the average family size was considerably larger than it is today. Contrast this with the present climate in which sharing a bathroom is becoming less common, to say nothing of sharing a bedroom.

Not enough
It’s not only time that has affected house size, but location too. North Americans have some of the largest houses in the world. Canada’s average is sitting at about 1,950 square feet, which breaks down to roughly 780 square feet per person. UK residents, on the other hand, seem to need less than half the space, with an average of 350 square feet per person. More urbanized countries average even smaller homes.

What makes this all the more fascinating is that the prevailing attitude among North Americans is that we still don’t have enough. Not enough space, not enough furniture, not enough of whatever it is we see in our neighbour’s yard. Despite the record-high house size, we still aren’t satisfied. Is it envy, or is it something more?

There’s a danger here, one that could be more subtle than a bit of covetousness. Our housing has the potential to become an idol in our lives. Think about it – housing offers us comfort, security and a certain degree of self-sufficiency, while guaranteeing none of this. The potential is there for us to turn the God-given gift of shelter into something we strive for, that we earn, that points those around us to exactly which rung of the ladder we stand on. It has become our measuring stick, and yet it’s not even our true home.

The dream home
In a culture where homeowners can expect to move five or more times over the course of their lives, the stated goal has become finding the “forever home.” This is the idealized home that checks off all the items on the list and promises to rid our minds of that insatiable want. Mine involves a nice rural spot where the kids have room to run and my wife and I can sit out on the wrap-around porch (because honestly, what’s a country home without one?) and pass the evenings on the porch swing. Yes, then we won’t want for anything at all.

In my dream, the foundation never leaks. We never run out of storage space. Mice never find their way inside and the floors creak just enough to provide character but never enough to irritate. Most importantly, the wishing that once occupied so much of our time stopped cold on moving day.

The now home
In the seemingly endless cycle of obtaining and wishing for bigger and better homes, how much of our energy goes into dreaming about what comes next? And how much does this distract from where we are now? Whatever our attitude, where we live gives us a unique opportunity to be a part of the community we are in now. Just as hopping from church to church to find the exact right fit rarely yields success, neither does moving to a new community assure us any sense of belonging. It comes down to what we put into it.

Every community has its own needs, with the constant being that they need people to live there to thrive. Communities need volunteers to grow; they need people to care. The amazing truth here is that when we engage our communities in this way, that yearning for the next neighbourhood fades considerably. There is a reason you are in the place you are in now. While your address may change down the line, you have a chance to bring God’s Kingdom to your community right now.

The forever home
And it is all about his Kingdom, isn’t it? We can search and search for the perfect place in this world where we feel we belong, but that search will always leave us dissatisfied because the truth is we just don’t belong here permanently. Our longing for a change of house, a change of community, may feel real. But odds are it’s a distortion of a greater longing – one that will not disappoint and will trump even our loftiest dreams.

Our dream home cannot compare to that which God is preparing for us. Instead, let us align our dreaming with his. Dreaming of what’s to come – yes – this is what our hearts are longing for. But also of what’s in front of us right now: the opportunity to bring his Kingdom into the communities around us, into the interactions with our neighbours. These are our true desires and they are not hollow. When we make his priorities our own, we may find that moving house shifts pretty far down the list.

Sure, there’s nothing inherently wrong with purchasing a certain house. Best case scenario – it’s inconsequential. But keep in mind that what you’re buying is necessarily temporary, and has the potential to distract from that which is eternal and has already been purchased for you. 

  • Michael Saunders is an architectural designer and home accessibility consultant. He enjoys exploring the many ways our built environment impacts our lives, and helping people adapt their homes to meet their changing needs. Michael lives in Courtice, Ont. with his wife and three kids.

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