On the Virtues of Old People

On the Virtues of Old People December 16, 2013

Among Mormons, there is a classic short film produced by the LDS Church many years ago, called The Mailbox (1977). The Mailbox tells the story of Lethe, an 83-year-old widow who lives a quiet, solitary existence interrupted only by the visits of a neighborhood child—and pines for news from her children, who never write. It’s a rare example of Mormon tragedy, and even in all of its late-seventies glory, the film still packs an emotional punch today.

Too old and hard of hearing to talk to her children over the telephone, Lethe bundles herself up each day, traipsing back and forth to the mailbox through the chill and snow. She cranes her old, scarved head to look inside, reaches in to feel around, and—almost always—comes away disappointed. Alone in her silent house, she weeps in her loneliness. Finally a letter from her children arrives, and she is overjoyed. Hustling back to her reading chair, she strips off her scarf and coat, fumbles around looking for the letter opener, and then eagerly begins to open the letter. Just then she gasps and falls back, clutching her chest in pain as the letter crumples in her hand. Neighbors come to the rescue but only in time to hear Lethe mumble out a few words about how thrilled she was to have some mail. Little does she know that it’s a letter with news her children are putting in a home. Add to this the Karen Carpenter-like soundtrack, and you have the all the makings of a heartbreaker.

Today, much of the first-world West, it seems, is conflicted about its old people. What should be “done with” them? They seem to get in the way in a contemporary society that prizes freedom and individualism. They can interfere with the frenetic pace of life that many people choose to keep. The hard fact is that old folks aren’t as naturally free and often not as independent as some of the rest of us. Age doesn’t comport well with many aspects of modern culture.

True, the West has always had its Judeo-Christian ethic: “Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land.” But without claiming any expertise on the subject, it seems to me that many non-Western cultures do a better job of this kind of homage. These societies integrate multiple generations to the full range of social life. Experience and seniority have more standing. Careers and other personal ambitions are subordinated to the interests of family life. In other words, in other parts of the world, it would be unthinkable for Lethe to sit silent and alone. Of course there are tradeoffs: most of us are happy, to belong to a society with (theoretically) broad opportunities and freedom of movement and without arranged marriages. The cost of this, however, is that older folks suffer a systematic cultural neglect.

I’m not sure how much better things are among Mormons (say, in the United States or Europe) as a subgroup of modern culture. There are certainly some shining exceptions: one of the great virtues of President Thomas S. Monson is his ministry to the lonely and aged. Among members of the LDS Church today, his steadfast service to eighty-four widows whom he once served as a bishop is the stuff of legend. Personally, I’ve also grown to appreciate the way that the LDS Church partitions its congregations by geography—a protocol that often leads to a mixed demographic of families and individuals in many stages of life. Church meetings present an opportunity for young people and others to become acquainted with and appreciative of the whole social body—including the elderly. Yet Mormons are subject and affected by the same cultural influences and trends as modern society at large.

If conditions on the ground aren’t ideal, however, it’s encouraging to me that Mormonism certainly possesses the theological resources to cherish its old people. In the Church, much emphasis is given today to the nuclear family as the fundamental unit of Mormon theology, in which parents and children are united with bonds that are (ideally) indissoluble. Some attention is paid, too, to the concept of a perpetual chain that links all human generations: this is commonly meaning of the “turning of the hearts”—a doctrine of the alignment of generations. We might just as easily, however, stress our solidarity with our forefathers and foremothers who have grown old. These too are an integral part of Mormonism’s schematic of the human family.

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