|The Parable of the Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670)|
For a decade at least, we've lived in the shadow of old folks homes, places that 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. 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 we get to the home--boomers, that is--things will change. For instance, Dad is not particularly enamored with the food. Institutional cooking is probably never going to be haute cusine, but it doesn't always have to be mush.
But 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 their way." He doesn't feel right about talking to the powers-that-be in the home because 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.
You have to hand it to David Brooks, the NY Times columnist, who's his own kind of Jeremiah. Just yesterday 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 on your bumper sticker, the whole business often 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. We're not doing well--me too--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). 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 says, "but you still have to get stuff done with him, week after week."
Those relationships are fewer and far between, and, he says, 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.
The closest I ever felt to fellow churchgoers grew from relationships playing church-league softball, nary a steeple in sight. A pop fly goes up between the shortstop and the center-fielder, neither see each other, and they collide. Maybe the shortstop loses a tooth--it happens. The whole team runs out there. Right then, there are no Hillary voters. In the crowd around the guys with headaches, nobody's talking about Trump.
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, he 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 define our relationships to God on the basis of our politics.
We all need to be more like Dad, Brooks would say--more selfless, less demanding of our own rights. "If we make this cultural shift," he 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 says this, right from scripture: "People experience their highest joy in helping their neighbors make it through the day."
End of story.