Today I came across this striking passage in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France:
To avoid therefore the evils of inconstancy and versatility, ten thousand times worse than those of obstinacy and the blindest prejudice, we have consecrated the state, that no man should approach to look into its defects or corruptions but with due caution; that he should never dream of beginning its reformation by its subversion; that he should approach to the faults of the state as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude. By this wise prejudice we are taught to look with horror on those children of their country, who are prompt rashly to hack that aged parent in pieces, and put him into the kettle of magicians, in hopes that by their poisonous weeds, and wild incantations, they may regenerate the paternal constitution, and renovate their father’s life.
There is a relationship between filial piety and patriotism. The reverence we have for the traditions of our political communities is analogous to the reverence we have for our parents. Are we able to receive from our parents and from our tradition?
To what extent is our political culture reflective of “hack[ing] that aged parent”?
What difference could restoring filial piety have on renewing authentic patriotism?
Even though it was published five years ago, I still remember this news article in my local paper in which an 89-year-old man describes his life at a retirement home.
It begins with this section on small talk:
Unlike soldiers, prisoners or students, we at the lodge are here voluntarily and with no objective other than to live. We don’t have a lot in common other than age (and means). However we are encrusted with 70 or 80 years of beliefs, traditions, habits, customs, opinions and prejudices. We are not about to shed any of them, so the concept of community is rather shadowy.
The common topics of conversation are the weather and the food, and since they both change every day, most of us never lack for conversation. For those contemplating a move to a lodge such as ours, it is wise to polish up their encrustations to make them as smooth and inoffensive as possible.
Thus we engage in the never-ending table talk with the minimum of disagreement.
Now I understand that the piece is intended to be a bit humorous in a certain way, but I haven’t been able to forget the grim picture painted in those short paragraphs.
By contrast, consider the aspirational vision that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel gives us in his piece, “To Grow in Wisdom”:
Throughout Pope Francis’ pontificate, he has been emphasizing the value of encounter between the young and the old. One of my favourite quotations ever of his is this: “We, the elderly, can remind young ambitious people that a life without love is arid. We can say to young people who are afraid that anxiety about the future can be beaten. We can teach young people too in love with themselves that there is more joy in giving than in receiving. The words of grandparents have something special for young people. And they know it.”
I think the reason I appreciate this quotation so much is because these are indeed the very things my grandfather taught me and, equally, the very things I most needed to learn from him.
My grandfather was deaf in his 80s and 90s, but his mind remained sharp until his death. I wrote to him A LOT and was the scribe at family dinners, usually transcribing the flow of the entire conversation for him.
One day, several years ago, I decided to ask my grandfather what he hoped I would do in my future, what he thought I would be.
The answer he gave me in this 1-minute clip is one of my most precious memories.
Indeed those words were special, and I knew so right away.
The other day, my friend Ada and I were discussing the discovery of Indigenous children’s undocumented remains outside of the former residential school in Kamloops.
Ada is passionate about the Arctic and through her studies, research, and work is involved in cooperating with Inuit in the north with sensitivity, respect, and mutuality.
I could tell the news had shaken her and so I asked whether she had ever been to a First Nations cemetery.
“Yes, twice,” she said.
It was 2018 and Ada had just completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Victoria. As a member of the Catholic Students’ Association, she joined four other students, led by university chaplain, former Anglican-turned-Catholic priest, Fr. Dean Henderson, on a cultural mission exchange to a First Nations reserve in British Columbia.
Recently, I sat down with my friend Anna to listen to some of her stories.
It might surprise you that this young woman told me, “The happiest time of my life was working 16-hour days in a retirement home during COVID.”
“My body ached and my heart rejoiced,” Anna testified.
She spoke with such empathy about the elderly residents.
“Imagine! A person who has lived a hundred years might be reduced to ‘June at Table 20.’ The residents might have lived a long, fruitful life only to be reduced to their dietary preferences in their final months and years.”
Because Anna regards these seniors’ long lives with reverence, she does not like to see nor participate in taking such a reductive view of the human person.
Instead, she relishes doing her utmost to serve the residents and considers every conversation as an opportunity for a meaningful interaction.
“My favourite residents are the ones who would get agitated easily,” Anna told me. “And it became a challenge: ‘How can I make them happy?'”
This evening my friend shared a story with me about a couple she knows.
The couple is in their 80s and both the husband and wife are undergoing the loss of their memory.
This couple has been married for more than sixty years and they have three adult children.
One son and one daughter, who each have families of their own, have been committed to caring for their aging parents in the home in which they had all spent their life together as the children were being raised.
In an effort to preserve the routine and normalcy of family life, and in order to avoid needing to put the parents into a long-term care home, the adult son and daughter have developed a ritual of care.
Every single day, for the past six years, the daughter arrives to the home at 11:00 a.m. to serve her parents lunch.
And every single day, for the same six years, the son has arrived at 5:00 p.m. to serve dinner to his parents and then to open the door to the personal support workers who then take over in assisting with the parents’ care into the evening.
Here is a short piece I wrote a few ago on the value of and the possibility for intergenerational friendships.
During the Year of the Family, Pope Francis devoted one of his Wednesday addresses to the elderly and another one to grandparents. He thinks that part of the culture of death is a poverty of intergenerational friendships: “How I would like a Church that challenges the throw-away culture with the overflowing joy of a new embrace between young and old!” What are the obstacles to such an embrace? In his Ethics, Aristotle observed that young people tend to seek pleasure in friendships and that the old tend to seek friends for utility, but that good, enduring friendships involve being friends for the other’s own sake. Given the distinct tendencies to which the old and young are prone, can they actually be friends?
Aristotle observed “the old need friends to care for them and support the actions that fail because of weakness” and friendships aimed at useful results tend “to arise especially among older people, since at that age they pursue the advantageous.” Because of their frailty, older people may depend on others to ensure their physical wellbeing and because of their age, they may be especially concerned about conserving their acquisitions. He says, “Among sour people and older people, friendship is found less often, since they are worse-tempered and find less enjoyment in meeting people, so that they lack the features that seem most typical and most productive of friendship. That is why young people become friends quickly, but older people do not, since they do not become friends with people in whom they find no enjoyment—nor do sour people.”
This is coherent with 89-year-old Douglas Walker’s account of life at a retirement home: “Unlike soldiers, prisoners or students, we at the lodge are here voluntarily and with no objective other than to live. We don’t have a lot in common other than age (and means). However we are encrusted with 70 or 80 years of beliefs, traditions, habits, customs, opinions and prejudices. We are not about to shed any of them, so the concept of community is rather shadowy.”
This evening I was speaking with one of my dear friends who is a doctor.
She told me, “I know you’re looking for uplifting stories for your blog, but lately I have been seeing a lot of elderly patients who have had bad falls. Since many of them live alone and are not able to get back up by themselves, sometimes they are not found until the next day or two. When that is the case, the person may be found sitting in their own feces or urine, profoundly helpless, until a support worker or relative comes to visit.”
Of course the best situation is when a vulnerable person can live in a family home so that their presence and wellbeing is continually and naturally monitored by their loved ones. The next best thing for the elderly would be to live in retirement homes where many services are provided and there are attendant nurses. This, however, is quite expensive and not within everyone’s reach.
On hearing about this from my friend, I remembered a recent conversation I had with a senior buddy of mine with whom I have been having weekly phone calls throughout the pandemic.
He and I have never met, but we have sure gotten to know one another through our Wednesday visits.
This gentleman with whom I speak just turned 90-years-old. His wife passed away last year and so he lives alone. Some of his adult children who live in town visit him and each week he brings his 88-year-old sister some shawarma.