For a decade at least, we’ve spent hours and days and years and ages, or so it seems, at old folks homes, places that it seems to us don’t have to be as oppressive as they sometimes are. Losing one’s sense of personal value makes life miserable, and it doesn’t help when knees buckle and bladders leak. Put a hundred of old folks together, as we so often do, and what results normally isn’t a barrel of laughs. Six million elderly Americans suffer some symptoms of depression that are common in old folks’ homes, but don’t have to be normal.
My wife and I have often told each other that when, in the not-to-distant future, we get to the home–boomers, that is–things will change. We’re not going to take it, like Dad does. He is not, for instance, particularly enamored with the food at his place. Institutional cooking is probably never going to be haute cusine, but we think it doesn’t always have to be mush.
No matter. He doesn’t complain. Sometimes we think he should. When he comes here for a hamburger on the grill, he eats like he just left football practice. Loves it. But he doesn’t complain about the food in the home.
Boomers will. We’re used to getting our way. Dad’s a child of the Depression, a time when nobody got his way or her way or their way. He doesn’t feel right about mentioning lousy chow to the powers-that-be in the home because, you know, he doesn’t want to make a scene. So he doesn’t complain. He’s selfless, in a persistent, rural Midwestern way. Poverty could be just around the corner to him because in his life, it once was. Things could be worse is a kind of mantra with him.
You have to hand it to David Brooks, the NY Times columnist, who’s his own kind of Jeremiah. Just last week he asked a serious question–“How can we make our politics better?” Few of us are proud of the madness these days, right? It doesn’t matter who’s name shines from your bumper sticker, the whole business feels like something I’d rather see in my rear-view mirror.
You got to hand it to Brooks–he seems to believe it can change. I’m not so hopeful.
His analysis goes like this. The American people are doing well at relationships with friends and family, the people in what he calls “the inner ring.” They even do well with Facebook relationships on social media. But we’re not doing well–me either–with what he calls “middle ring” relationships–the PTA, the neighborhood watch, even with our neighbors (it’s amazing how many American don’t know their neighbors’ names, he says). We don’t rub shoulders much with people who don’t share our politics. “The guy sitting next to you at the volunteer fire company may have political opinions you find abhorrent,” Brooks writes, “but you still have to get stuff done with him, week after week.”
Those kinds of relationships are fewer and far between, and we’re worse for the wear because we don’t have to “get along,” because in most ways, we can “get our way.” We don’t have to respect people who don’t think like we do because we don’t have to deal with them.
This sounds awful, but it’s true: the closest I ever felt to fellow churchgoers grew up from the dirt on a softball field–church-league softball, nary a steeple in sight. A pop fly goes up between the shortstop and the center-fielder, neither of them see each other, and there’s a wreck. Maybe the shortstop loses a tooth–such horror happens. The whole team runs out there on the wet outfield grass. Right then, there are no Hillary buttons or Trump t-shirts. In the crowd around the guys with headaches, nobody’s talking politics.
Making a habit of being engaged with people who don’t share your political views would make our politics better, says David Brooks. And the way to get there is not to demand our rights but to give them up, not to “get my way” but to practice a kind of selflessness that seems almost unAmerican. The way there is to become more like Dad.
We’re asking too much of our politics, David Brooks says. “Once politics becomes your ethnic and moral identity, it becomes impossible to compromise, because compromise becomes dishonor.” I could add, “your religious identity,” because more and more these days we tend to employ politics to determine righteousness.
Maybe we all need to be more like Dad–more selfless, less demanding of our own rights. “If we make this cultural shift,” Brooks says, “we may even end up happier. For there is a paradox to longing. If each of us fulfill all of our discrete individual desires, we end up with a society that is not what we want at all.”
And then he offers a line only slightly tweaked from scripture: “People experience their highest joy in helping their neighbors make it through the day.”
It seems so much a cliche, doesn’t it?–“do unto others. . .” But the last two posts on The Twelve, carved so painfully–and artfully–from the long trial some of you just went through, bear witness to the reality that, cliche or not, the ethic that “do unto others” insists upon is almost humanly impossible.
We need a savior. All of us.