LONDON, ONTARIO – During a late summer visit with an old friend last September, we nursed our drinks in the moonlight on his back porch as we discussed a whole raft of newly-crafted social and political conventions that have somehow won wide purchase and which, taken in their totality, leave us feeling like alienated and vaguely criminal geezers from another planet. Though our subject matter was disconcerting, we luxuriated in the rare pleasure of being able to operate our vocal cords in a free-wheeling atmosphere where obligatory boxes of obeisance did not have to be ticked before we could proceed; where taking offense, throwing a snit or crying like a baby would not be regarded as compelling counter arguments. What were some of these preposterous new conventions which we neither accept nor uphold?
In no legal or moral sense did either one of us steal or even borrow the land on which we live from indigenous people. We never owned slaves and don’t owe anyone reparations for crimes we didn’t commit. We are unconvinced that the government will be able to change the weather if only we’d give them a lot more money and let them control every aspect of the economy. We think it’s a bad idea to provide drug addicts with facilities where we invite them to pump anything they like into their veins and then promise to intervene with medical assistance if it looks like they’re going to kill themselves.
And then, of course, there’s lots and lots of hooey about sex. We don’t accept the premise that women have been exploited and kept down by men since the beginning of human history and therefore deserve preferential placement in the workforce and government. We think it’s dangerously misleading to pretend that prostitution is a benign career choice. And if you peer down the front of your trousers and believe that you are not a member of the sex which your personal plumbing signifies, we are not disrespecting you if we refuse to validate you in your delusion. With the possible exception of our own intimate partners, we would greatly prefer it if we were never called upon to validate anybody’s idea about their sexuality. We don’t think it’s any of our business and frankly find it to be the least interesting thing about you.
What we find most pernicious about all of these dubious and rabidly enforced notions is the ever-expanding range of situations in which we feel impelled to keep our mouths shut lest we run afoul of some rancid new consensus that we do not hold to be valid or true. We have learned to read the signs and know we’re in the vicinity of such fatuous chicanery whenever some humorless advocate prattles on about the urgent need for an “expanded dialogue” or a “deep conversation”, at which point it soon becomes clear that absolutely no input will be brooked from the benighted likes of us.
What made it such a hallmark discussion for me was that on this night my friend became the first of the colleagues I’d grown up with to express a sentiment whose utterance I’ve been anticipating for a while now: “It almost starts to reconcile you to the prospect of death, doesn’t it?” he asked.
“I beg your pardon?” I said. I’d heard him perfectly well but I wanted him to flesh it out a little
Instead, he elected to pare it down. “We’re getting too old for this shit.”
“Well, it isn’t just that we’re too old,” I told him. “We’re also too inexcusably white, too oppressively male and too predictably heterosexual. It’s quite remarkable really. Through no deliberate actions of our own, we’ve managed to attain a perfect quarfecta of toxicity.”
By dint of innate and existential crimes such as these – gross offenses which we could hardly be said to have deliberately committed – we have effortlessly managed to place ourselves outside the zone of permissible discourse. And on top of those existential transgressions which neither of us had to lift a finger to perpetrate, we have compounded our villainy by the deliberate commission of other acts which have been similarly redefined as crimes against humanity.
My friend succeeded in business and became upsettingly rich (never mind that over the last 40 years he’s provided employment for dozens of people), while I paid heed to my innermost urgings and became intolerably religious. If I had been born a Roman Catholic and then left the church in a self-righteous huff, it might have been plausible to give me a pass for having seen the light. But to have consciously chosen as a full grown adult to become a delusional zealot . . . well, that places me quite beyond the pale.
Concomitant with this religious affiliation of mine are two other principles of apprehension which I’ve tried my best to consistently uphold. The first of these, growing out of a recognition that most people are involved in some sort of quest to wrest beauty or meaning or honour from their life, is a reluctance to criminalize the motives of people I know little or nothing about. This, of course, cuts clear against the bigoted and merciless instincts of the ‘woke’ who specialize in ascribing and broadcasting the guilty privileges they construe in whole swaths of the population because of those factors cited above such as pigmentation, sex, age or orientation.
The second salutary perception I try to hang onto in all situations is an appreciation for the unlikely miracle of existence itself. I mean, do you ever stop to consider how long the odds were against your ever being born at all? How perfectly well the universe would have gotten along if you’d never even found a way to show up? Perhaps this perception comes more readily to me because, as the significantly youngest of four brothers, I seem to have known from about the age of five that I was an ‘accident’. And a lucky accident, too; conceived at a time when an unintended conception couldn’t be so conveniently and discreetly liquidated by a ‘choice’.
Once you let this second perception really start marinating in your brain, it has the same sort of clarifying power as a mortal disaster narrowly averted. When you’ve come so close to extinguishing your light, all of a sudden you levitate with gratitude for nothing more – and indeed, ultimately, there is nothing more – than life itself. It pushes aside any reflexive sense of entitlement; any trite adolescent assumption that the world owes you a living or needs to subsidize you because, after all, you didn’t ask to have existence imposed upon you. No, you didn’t ask. But God, how you’d beg for a chance at the mortality sweepstakes if you hadn’t been born and were somehow presented with the possibility to be so.
As I go sailing into my retirement years, I find there are more and more occasions when I remind myself of my dad. Sometimes what calls the old man to mind is nothing more significant than that involuntary noise I now find myself making when stooping down to scoop up a carrot nub that’s gone bouncing off the cutting board. Other times, these echoes seem to denote a development that I momentarily wonder if I shouldn’t regard with a little more concern; like perusing a whole list of newly released films and realizing I have zero interest in seeing any of them. Whereas these paternal echoes used to alarm me (“Have I ceased to be a lively and vital animal? Have I lost all sense of curiosity and wonder?); now, as often as not, they carry unexpected notes of liberation and relief. (“Gosh, I may not ever have to watch another stupid superhero movie in my life and do you know what? That’s perfectly all right. And what is more, I’ve got the time – and may even still have the brain cells – to finally read St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica.”)
“I’m getting too old for this shit,” chimes quite nicely with a quip made by the angelic doctor, Samuel Johnson, as he and his contemporaries started to move into their 70s. Once his Biblically alloted ‘three score and ten’ was up (and mindful that whatever else came his way was pure bonus) he deemed that this later phase in life was “a time to be in earnest”. Anyone who’s spent two minutes in the genial company of Dr. Johnson’s literary remains, will know that for him, earnestness did not denote dreariness or any sort of ideological narrowness. But it did signify an end to paying lip service to what he knew to be lies or a waste of time and effort.
And this is something the superannuated are uniquely situated to do. Finally free of the compromising entanglements of the classroom and the workplace, the pressure is off to stifle what you really believe for the sake of appeasement or collegiality or advancement. If you’ve still got a spouse and a handful of friends (and maybe even find yourself blessed with a parcel of grown up kids), well, they probably all know the cut of your jib by now and aren’t likely to freak out if you reserve the right from here on in to fly your truest colours.
If you would like to contribute to the ongoing operations of Hermaneutics, there are now a few options available.
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
ALL LIFE IS A GIFT :
THE IMPORTANCE OF TRADITION :