This is not my father’s world

I’m not sure if it’s age or what, but I’ve been thinking more frequently about my father lately. He died on the morning of November 23, 1999 from metastasized melanoma, at the age of 56. I was 28. He was something of an old soul. He even looked older than his age. What I’ve been drawn toward lately is thinking about where he was and what he was doing and what he seemed like to me when he was my current age—41, as of two days ago. He was grayer at 41 than I am today. He weighed a bit more than I do, though not excessively. I suspect he carried more work-related stress than I do, largely because ministers live in fishbowls while tenured professors have some freedoms, independence, and security that Protestant ministers do not.

Perhaps our parents, when we recall the past—as we should—will always seem older to us than we feel about ourselves at the same age. It certainly makes me wonder how my own children perceive me. A month after his 41st birthday, my dad moved us to northern Michigan, where he became pastor of his third and final congregation. Most children aren’t itching to move, but I think it’s fair to say my brother and I were game for a new setting, and the forests of Missaukee County were a welcome change from the pastures of Grundy County, Iowa. (However, I’m not sure there’s a better place to grow up than rural Iowa.)

Pardon such sentimentalism. Such thoughts also turn me toward reflecting on how the world has changed in 12 short years. Dad wrote out his sermons by hand, complete with doodling in the margins, which obviously functioned as a writing aid. I barely know cursive anymore, and never use it except in signatures. He never had an email account, although he could have. He never surfed the web, although he occasionally looked on while we did. Never had a cell phone, which back then were much larger contraptions and far more expensive than today. I wonder how I could cope with my children driving hours on icy roads without such devices. On the rare occasions he flew airplanes anywhere, it was—at least in our Iowa days—on Republic or Ozark Airlines. (It was probably a more pleasant experience than today.) He was rich in stability and constancy, but not in money. He began paying for his first and only house about four months before he died. Just 12 short years later, I have an iPad, and a tiny phone that accompanies me everywhere. I can actually watch a hockey game on television, which weighs much less than it used to and doesn’t require gymnastics to catch a signal. I no longer have to wait until the afternoon newspaper to find out whether my favorite sports teams won the night before. (My first ever experience with a computer modem, probably around 1983, blew my mind.) And I earn a salary that my father never dreamed of. My mortgage would make his eyes bulge, though, I’m sure.

This is not my father’s world.

I miss some things about that world. It was more Gemeinschaft than Gesellschaft—two terms coined by early sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies. According to that convenient authority Wikipedia, Gemeinschaft (often thought of as “community”) is a form of association in which individuals are oriented to the larger association as much as, if not more than, to their own self-interest. Furthermore, individuals in Gemeinschaft are regulated by common mores, or beliefs about the appropriate behavior and responsibility of members of the association, to each other, and to the association at large. In contrast, Gesellschaft (often referred to as “society”) describes associations in which, for the individual, the larger association never takes precedence over the individual’s self-interest, and these associations lack the same level of shared mores. I’m not so naïve to think that my younger life was all community, no society. Self-interest is not limited to the city or suburb, or the 21st century. But it was quieter—both literally and existentially—and not just because we lived in rural Iowa and nearly-rural northern Michigan, though that helped. Nor is community always better than society; the fishbowl took its toll on my father, especially around age 40. He also did something very Gesellschaft-y: he moved his family between states and in so doing taught me how to do the same. My family of origin has never had, so far as I can tell, close relationships with aunts, uncles, and cousins—though they are numerous—in part because of our lack of proximity to them. That continues with me, unfortunately. However, friends have become like family in a way I couldn’t have imagined then. Replicating Gemeinschaft, however, is difficult. It costs additional money and requires significant time and sacrifice. Gesellschaft is what people expect.

I wonder what the world will look like in 12 years, in 2024. I have some way-too-conservative acquaintances that spend more time than is healthy talking about imminent doomsday scenarios. (As I noted last week, though, it’s good for us to have respectful interaction with very different kinds of people.) On the other hand, I don’t know too many people who think this global era is just getting better and better. There are positive developments to note, however: violent crime appears down (even in cities—remember New York in the 1980s?), wars are rarer. Nascent democracies, dangerous though they may yet prove, are sprouting in the Middle East and without extraordinary, wide bloodshed (so far). Our technological ability to produce food is remarkable, even if we’re not adequately capitalizing on it. We’re working on new energy sources, slowly but surely, while exploring for old ones. We’re slogging through a recession and, with some effort and mixed success, retooling to keep pace with a changing economy. We are at least publicly mindful now that the federal deficit will not likely disappear by itself, although we still lack the political will to address it adequately with a logical blend of modest tax increases and modest reduction in services. We’re building smaller houses today than 10 years ago. We may be enduring more natural disasters than we did previously, but somehow people are finding a way through to the other side, though hardly unscathed. Divorce rates are down (although that’s largely because marriage rates are down, unfortunately). There is much to be grateful for and optimistic about. Which doesn’t mean concerns are unfounded, by any stretch, but it does mean that—like generations before us—we’re moving forward, adjusting, adapting, with both good days and bad.

OK, that’s about as much optimism as I can take.

Back to Dad. Becoming Catholic—something my father probably would never have dreamed that I’d do, and likely wouldn’t have been thrilled about it—has also made me think more about him. That’s because the line between life and death is thinner in the Catholic world than in any Protestant tradition with which I’m familiar. Every Sunday during the Eucharistic prayer, the priest calls him to mind for me by saying: “Remember also, Lord, your servants…who have gone before us with the sign of faith and rest in the sleep of peace. Grant them, O Lord, we pray, and all who sleep in Christ, a place of refreshment, light, and peace.” In the Catholic world, prayers are believed to function in a bidirectional manner between here and the hereafter. I know—that’s a crazy idea. Like many ideas. More on that one in a future post.

May your new year be a blessed one, and may you play an active role in making it so.

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  • Lydia

    Forgive my nitpicking of a single point, but I’m curious: why is it that you say lowering marriage rates are bad?

    Perhaps being Canadian, my views are different, as my parents were never married and only considered it, I’m told, in passing. I don’t see why marriage would be a necessary part of any healthy society, and hope (perhaps for my own self-interest, hehe) that it slowly starts to subside and be seen as something extra, or traditional, instead of expected.