Sunday, January 15, 2017

Late-Arriving Wisdom: A Sunday Rumination

     “Ve get too soon old und too late schmart.” – Originator unknown

     I mentioned yesterday that I’ve been exchanging thoughts with a colleague in this madness, another survivor from the founding days of opinion-blogging. Our exchange has mostly been about religious matters, but in his most recent missive he included something that jarred me:

     “Too bad it takes so long for us to realize that our parents were basically right about every danged thing, ain’t it? Well, some of us, anyway.”

     My impulse upon reading that was to double-check the sender tag. It’s essentially what I’ve been muttering to myself for several years.

     Far too many members of the Baby Boom generation owe our parents a heartfelt apology for having been such arrogant say nothing of a huge debt of gratitude that they put up with us nonetheless. It’s among the greatest of tragedies that the harm one has done, especially harm done to himself, only becomes clear as he nears the end of his life.

     “Keep the old so long as it is good, and take the new as soon as it is better.” – from a Salada tea bag tag

     There is wisdom to be gleaned from tradition. Not all traditions, mind you; some are associated with “ways” that arose from the necessities of times long past. A favorite story illustrates that nicely.

     Mary Smith was preparing a roast for the evening. As she had done for many years, before she put the roast into her roasting pan, she sliced half an inch off of each end and put the slices aside. Her ten year old daughter Jane, who was watching her, asked “Why did you do that?”

     “I always do it,” Mary replied.

     “But why?” Jane said.

     “Well,” Mary said, “your grandma always did it.”

     “But why?” Jane persisted.

     Mary was about to remonstrate with her daughter, when it occurred to her that there was “an easier way.” “Let’s call Grandma and ask her. I’m sure she can explain it better than I can.”

     And so Mary called her mother, put the phone on speaker, and said, “Mom, Jane noticed that I slice off the ends of the roast before I put it in the pan, and asked why. I thought you might be the best person to explain it to her.”

     Upon which the reply came at once: “I used to do that because my roasting pan was so small. I have no idea why you do it.”

     It should follow that not everything our forebears did is something to be emulated today.

There exists…a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I do not see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer, “If you do not see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it…”

Some person had a good reason for thinking (the gate or fence) would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable.

     [G. K. Chesterton, The Thing]

     Human laws, customs, folkways, and institutions must be judged against the intentions of those who originated and maintained them. What were they trying to accomplish or prevent? Were they successful? If so, at what cost? Might there have been a better way? Might developments since then have obsoleted their aims?

     Sometimes the thing being judged by such questions migrates from intention to intention. For example, at one time people kept cats as a defense of sorts against rodents and other vermin. With only a few exceptions, today’s Americans don’t worry too much about rats in the root cellar. However, we still keep cats, for their beauty and the companionship they bestow upon us.

     The moral here is that things are done for a reason, and if the reason be “reasonable” – i.e., if the end in view is a worthy one and the means chosen for it is moral, effective, and adequately efficient – then the thing is itself worthy and not to be lightly discarded.

     In some cases, the original motivation will ultimately change, as it was with cats. In others, an underlying premise will be found dubious, yet the practice will persist because it serves a need the originators didn’t foresee. The central need is to know what you’re doing – or refraining from doing – and why.

     “Most people are willing to give up their preconceptions, once they’ve had them tattooed on their heads with a blunt instrument.” – Keith Laumer

     A lot of the above probably strikes my Gentle Readers as “too obvious to need saying.” Time was, I would have agreed with them. Not today. We’re in the middle of a nationwide lesson in why our parents and grandparents were not buttheads.

     Some of the things our parents and grandparents tried to tell us, including a few against which recent generations have staged wholesale revolts, are more important than ever:

  • All things have a price.
  • Don’t go where you’re not wanted: know who “your people” are and remain loyal to them.
  • All other things being equal, keep silent: you’ll learn more that way.
  • Tolerance is not approval and must not be taken for such.
  • You’re less likely to “get away with it” than you think.
  • Many a pauper was once a millionaire.
  • Give thanks for your blessings.

     There are others, of course, but as I look out over the vast sea of disgruntlement that constitutes our present age, the ones above strike me as the most imperative, the lessons so many of us rejected as youngsters that we desperately need to acknowledge.

     But this is a Sunday rumination, isn’t it? So I must have some aspect of the life of the spirit in mind, right? Well, as it happens, I do. It’s only this:

     God does not police Man. He has laid down the laws of nature, most important among them the laws of our human nature. Those laws are largely self-enforcing. It is the immutability and universality of those laws that impels the thoughtful man toward religious faith.

     But the religiously inquiring man must know what he’s about. All theology, no matter how interesting or inspiring, rests upon unverifiable, unfalsifiable premises. A successful religion must help its communicants to live right. A religion that insists that its communicants embrace misery or endure squalor will not long survive. Religions that survive and flourish are those which most effectively assist their communicants in living right: healthily, prosperously, and peacefully.

     The evidence is in: the grand champion of religions, the one that most effectively and economically conduces to “a life well lived,” is Christianity. Our parents and grandparents knew that, too. Many of us ignored them. Perhaps they put too much emphasis on what to do and too little on why to do it.

     May God bless and keep you all.


Anonymous said...

Not only may one learn more by being silent but one may also not make known their ignorance by being silent.

One adage passed to me from my father was that you may ALWAYS learn from others. Some will teach you how to do things and some will teach you how NOT to do things.

My parents became very wise suddenly one day when I was about 25. As time goes on they continue to become more wise.

I think one of the failings of the Church (lay people included) was the that why behind the what/how were often not explained. As I've learned more of the why my faith has become stronger. I am very pleased to see our catechists are teaching our youngsters not only how but why. Perhaps if more why was explained there would not be so much of young adults falling away from the church to hopefully return later.


On the wall of my Grandparents backwoods retreat, was a wooden plate with a Dutchman smoking a pipe and the words "Ve git to soon
ault, Undt to late schmart." Now that plate hangs on my wall and I'm the Grandparent. I hope my Grandchildren learn from me, as I learned from them. May the circle be unbroken. Sempre Avanti

Anonymous said...

Doesn't the biblical Old Testament book of Proverbs list those essential truths?
On a semi-related note, in his homily yesterday our priest discussed social sin; apparently the pope's latest encyclical implies that by my sins of omission I am somehow responsible for poor water quality in Africa, or something like that.
The social sin issue has me perplexed, it is a second order effect due to the majority of people not adhering to personal moral values, causing an overall failure of social morality. By inference, however, regardless of my own adherence to God's law, I am guilty for not actively working to fix society....