Sentimental

Some of us are sentimental and some of us are not. Sometimes there are very good reasons for putting the past behind us. Sometimes treasuring the past can enrich our lives and contribute to a sense of place and purpose

Nostalgia can encourage an attachment to keepsakes and memorabilia. I’m not talking about people who simply like to collect things, or those who suffer from the poorly understood affliction of hoarding, though if we live long enough, our accumulation of keepsakes might begin to resemble hoarding to an outside observer.

When it comes to sentiment I’m somewhere between the extremes, but with one foot firmly planted in the nostalgia camp. If it is possible to inherit a tendency towards nostalgia, I know exactly where I got it.

I remember relatives from both sides of my family who filled their homes with memorabilia. Both of my parents treasured their keepsakes. As they got older and began to lose family members to time, their collections swelled to challenge the available storage space with inherited items.

For most of their lives my folks made sure that everything they kept was carefully preserved, labeled and neatly stored away, but as they got older they began to realize that their collection was beginning to get a little out of hand. My dad would laugh and say “One day when I leave this house I’m going to come up out of that basement and lock the door behind me, and then it’s going to be somebody else’s problem!” If you live long and are lucky enough to be able to stay in your own home, see if the same thing doesn’t happen to you. Gravity gets much stronger as we age (I’m sure it’s not a matter of us getting weaker), and when you apply aches and pains and sickness to a steep flight of stairs, the antique quilts and handmade furniture stored in the basement and in the attic just don’t get as much attention as they once did.

Every new generation reaches a point where the halcyon days of youth can seem more compelling than what we face in the present, but I will always wonder if the generation of my parents was more sentimental than other generations because of the hardships they endured. Both my parents grew up during the Great Depression, when country folk who lived without ready access to goods and services, or money to pay for them, learned that you don’t throw away anything that might be useful. They also learned the value of things that modern Americans tend to take for granted. My aunt, who had all the money she needed when she was old, kept a drawer full of plastic bags and rubber bands that she would not throw away, because they were useful.

A large part of my dad’s collection was his WWII memorabilia. He was a combat veteran who served in the navy during some of the most intense campaigns of the war. One of his most prized possessions was an old periodical with a picture on the cover taken in Tokyo Bay on VJ Day, 2 September, 1945. Near the end of his life when he struggled to speak, he could still point out his destroyer, the USS Kalk, among the Allied ships escorting the Missouri during the official surrender of Japanese forces.

It was a cruel irony, but thankfully a short-lived one, that the little strokes known as TIA took away my dad’s “gift of gab,” as he called it, about six months before he passed away. He was a storyteller from a long tradition and a legendary talker among family and friends. On a family road trip to Canada he once talked non-stop across the entire state of Ohio. By the time we crossed the Michigan state line, even my mother’s indomitable patience was wearing thin when she very quietly said to him, “Can’t we just listen to music for a while?”

As a teenager, I would roll my eyes when my dad would say, “I’ve probably told you this before, but I’m going to tell it again.” As an adult accompanying my senior dad on many outings, I did penance for my youthful impatience, watching how people would react to the old man who had just cornered them at the coffee shop, intent on telling a story. There is no doubt in my mind that veterans are the most patient and respectful listeners on the planet. Dad’s “Tin Can Sailors” hat attracted quite a few conversations, and not once did a fellow veteran show any sign that they did not have all the time in the world to listen to one of the last of the Greatest Generation telling his story.

My folks have been gone now for several years, and their stories, (along with their collections of keepsakes) live on with me. I’m grateful that I realized something very important while my parents were still alive. Their collection of memories, the telling and re-telling of stories – these were not foibles of old age. They were part of an effort to keep their memories intact, and to preserve a sense of self in an ever changing world.

Think about it. Over time everything that we hold dear, everything that is familiar, changes or goes away. We can find ourselves lonesome in a world of rapidly accelerating change, and if we live long enough we watch our friends and loved ones disappear on our way to becoming truly alone. (Our nursing homes are full of people who have nothing and no one familiar left in their lives.) Our senses begin to betray our understanding of the present as we lose the context of the familiar. Our memories of the past can become more real, and more comforting, than what we think we see around us.

My dad told stories and collected old tools. My mom kept quilts and photo albums. It was an effort to preserve the rich tapestry of their lives, to bring forward into the present a reckoning of the past. Their efforts carried a hope that the memory of the lives they lived might somehow survive into the future. They knew many years ago that I would not be giving them any grandchildren, so the stories and the treasured objects were a way to pass on their legacy. I intend to share some of those stories here.

If you are fortunate enough to have older people in your life, take whatever time is necessary to listen to them.  Their stories are more important than most of your desire-driven agenda. Like me, you may wake up one day to discover that someone you love has grown old, all of a sudden, when you weren’t looking, or when you were too busy to notice. Hindsight is not universally comforting. It can be like seeing the answers to a test that you can’t take over again. I hope I passed the test. Perhaps I’ll find out one day, when I’m an old man telling my own stories.

Religious Fervor Without the Religion

We usually avoid discussing religion here (in our newspaper column). I consider religion a personal matter, and there are many who are much more qualified to address it.

When it comes to Faith, however, we will speak. Faith is a golden thread that runs through all religious and spiritual beliefs. It is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. Our lives are often defined by its presence, or its absence. It is odd that many will shy away from anything that references Faith, but be quite content with any number of opinions. We should know that Faith and Opinion are siblings.

I have a friend who considers himself an atheist and a secular humanist. He has faith that the inherent goodness of human beings will inevitably move us onward and upward. We debate from time to time our opinions about what is true and what is not.

Our discussions about what is true sometimes do not end well, but our conversation is usually more amicable when we discuss what is useful. My friend finds no usefulness at all in religion, and through the filters of his own experience he focuses on the bloodshed that throughout the ages has accompanied religion like a shadow. That bloodshed continues to this day.

My usual retort to his universal condemnation of religion is to point to the uncountable examples of individual sacrifice and devotion which have also accompanied religion and shined light into the shadows.

A particularly animated discussion we have results from my assertion that humankind needs Faith, and falling short of that still benefits from religion. My point being that we need a code of some kind as a framework for our decision-making process. We need values. We need a sense that there is something larger and more important than our individual appetites.

Even Science is still arguing whether such civilizing influences are innate or inborn or whether they must be taught. My friend thinks that they are innate and require only nurturing. His opinion is at odds with billions of people gathered under the banners of Christianity and Islam and all of their many divisions, who believe that we are born to a legacy of “Original Sin.”

You would hope that two religions which share so much of the same history and so many of the same beliefs would find it easier to locate their common interests, but history has shown this to be difficult, though we suspect that politics has had more to do with the animosity between the two belief systems than anything else.

By the same token, you would think that liberals and conservatives who share a nation, a history and a culture would also be able to get along better, but this is proving to be increasingly difficult. Again, we suspect politics, or more precisely, the power struggles that are being played out behind the political facade, but that is a discussion for another time.

My friend and I do agree on one thing, and that is how belief that is mutated by politics can result in behavior that is almost indistinguishable from religious fervor. And now, as my grandfather used to say, I’m going to “quit preaching and go to meddling.”

We will begin with the behavior of some of our conservative friends. For many years the right has condemned the lifestyles and personal choices of people who do not conform to their beliefs about what is true. Some have judged based on their own research or reading of Scripture, but if we are honest we will admit that most simply echo other people’s opinions, most often those delivered from such perceived positions of authority as a pulpit.

We become what we think and we think what we hear, and our thinking becomes a kind of faith often informed more by interpretation than by fact. The left has had legitimate grievances against those on the right who have set aside Christian principles of universal love and non-judgment in favor of dogmatic discrimination.

On the left, we have a gathering of people less informed by religious belief. This is certainly not true of everyone who gathers there, but few would argue against the observation that the left is more secular (and the right more religious), and statistics support that observation. But while the left often rejects a framework of values informed by religion (Christianity ), it can be hard to describe what, if anything, has replaced that framework.

Herein lies the problem as I see it. A kind of relativism has moved into the vacuum formed by the departure of religion, where “right and wrong” are at best a thing of cultural context and at worst a variable based upon personal appetites.

Humans don’t seem to find much success as independent agents responsible, and accountable, for our own actions. We have always sought after structure and guiding principle, and where none exist, we eventually invent them. What seems to guide many on the left right now is a mutant form of “tolerance.” On the surface, the values they champion are very similar to the core principles of Christianity: universal love and respect for individual rights.

Gathered under the banner are advocates of women’s rights, sexual freedom, racial justice – at a glance just about every group which has at one time or another felt the judgment of the religious right. But while the ideals of the left are sound (and not all that different than those of the right), there is a growing element of militancy in the thinking of some of the left’s more passionate devotees.

This militancy frames what should be simple differences of opinion that could be solved by our still functioning political process into a “fight’ against “injustice, racism, bigotry, misogyny.” There is a laundry list of grievances that must be “fought,” in the language of these devotees. And the extreme manifestation of this “fight” can be found in the numerous stories of conservative speakers violently attacked simply because they are conservative, and in the widespread use of violent language to describe those on the right.

It is a cruel irony that the left now hosts devotees who are ready to “fight” with an almost religious fervor, or a hatred that mimics tragic examples of national zeal. They view anyone guided by conservative or Christian principles – or anyone who disagrees with the left – as possessed by as many flaws as were attributed to any racial or ethnic slur ever made.

Such embers are always smoldering at the roots of every civilization. We will continue to discuss those who are intent on fanning those embers into flame.

 

Welcome to the New Blog

Same as the old blog, but updated for WordPress. It’s a work in progress, updated weekly (usually) with 10 years of archives to follow.

For new readers, here we will be hosting discussions about our shared search for meaning in the Age of Information. We are inundated, perhaps even swamped, by information that is increasingly heavy on interpretation and light on fact. We will try to remain aware of the difference at all times.

We believe that the truth is usually, but not always, found somewhere between extremes of belief.  Therefore our Middle Path is not a straight line. It meanders, climbs and descends like a walk in the mountains. We are not, by the way, a Buddhist of the venerable “Middle Path” associated with that religion, though we do find much that is agreeable there. We find much that is agreeable (and disagreeable) in all the religions.

Truth is neither conservative nor liberal. We refer to our journey to find it  as a “middle path” to remind ourselves that moving forward requires both a left and a right foot. Each year we grow less amused and more weary of those who attempt to hop forward on just one.

Our opinions have evolved over time, and hopefully they will continue to do so. New information should lead to new opinions, just as new science leads to new theories. To cease learning and growing is to begin dying. This is how Faith becomes religion and religion becomes dogma.

We welcome comment and discussion. We invite disagreement. That’s how we learn. Be blunt if you must, but be kind. If you can’t be kind, at least be civil. If you can’t be civil, your comments will be deleted with no further discussion.

A word about your humble scribe. My personal path has meandered, sometimes ascending, sometimes not. The ground has been rocky at times. I began my search as a nuclear physics major, but the prospect of harnessing the fundamental forces of the Universe for profit and destruction was not appealing, so a long walkabout of travel and adventure ensued. After a few years of adventures I neither regret nor recommend, I found myself lost without a map or a compass. A hitch in the Marine Corps first saved and then improved my life.

I returned to college with the love of science intact and finished as an IT major, but I was not ready for the cubicle. I spent ten years as a wilderness guide and counselor of adjudicated youth. That is an adventure that I highly recommend. But when sleeping on the ground and living paycheck to paycheck got old, I returned to IT, studied personal investing and became somewhat successful at both. Somewhere in between I managed to write a newspaper column for the last 12 years.