I went to visit my grandmother in St. Joseph, Missouri, last weekend.
If you’ve never heard of St. Joseph, I can’t say I blame you. It’s a city of just under 80,000 people that was once a thriving trade gateway to the American West (and the home of the Pony Express). Nothing terribly notable has happened since, though, except that apparently Eminem was born there in the 70s.
But St. Joe is notable to me because it’s where my mother is from, and where my grandmother still lives, in the same house I’ve been visiting since I was very young. It’s where I saw snow for the first time after flying into Missouri from San Francisco for Christmas one year, and where I busted up my mouth slamming face-first into my grandmother’s driveway trying to sled for the first time that same Christmas.
On this most recent visit I visited the Trails West festival that’s held downtown every year with my parents, and we watched Civil War re-enactors go through their drills and fire faux-rifles. It was stiflingly hot and humid outside, but it’s fun to see how locals celebrate holidays in different cities, even when the historical apex they’re celebrating is one in which their state fought for both the winning and the losing side.
During a conversation I had with my grandmother after the fair, she asked me about my lifestyle and how I was able to keep in touch with friends and family. I replied that because of the technology we have available today, I’m able to keep in touch with the people who mean the most to me, the ones that really add value to my life, and to whose life I can add value in return. I’ve never been happier, I told her.
“Well, that’s a bit selfish,” she replied, folding her arms and looking at me sternly.
These days I’m not easily shocked, but her reply made me miss a beat. What could anyone find wrong with the idea of living the happiest life possible and surrounding oneself with people you care about and having access to technology that allows you to do it even while traveling? Where was the discord?
But then it clicked. My grandmother comes from a traditional Catholic background, and guilt is a big part of that tradition. If you’re having too good a time and not sacrificing enough, you’re probably doing something wrong or not doing enough.
It’s not that she wishes me unhappiness, she and I have a good relationship, but according to her world-view, it would have been better for me to express less happiness and more stern dedication for a cause, and perhaps a bit more indication of sacrifice and a desire to sacrifice more. These are the values she was brought up with, they’re the values that she raised her kids with, and they’re the values she hopes to instill in anyone who will listen.
There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s easy to forget that there are strong, lifestyle-defining opinions of this kind, beyond those you come across on a daily basis. The traditional Catholic views on society and the world are no more a part of my everyday reality than those of the civil war soldiers the men portrayed at the fair. Generationally, you just don’t see much old-school Catholic guilt or old-school Confederate training these days, and encountering either is more likely to make me want to snap a photo than change my lifestyle.
So where’s the value in all this? How do outmoded ideas survive in the high-octane meme-ecosystem we live in today? What purpose do they serve?
I’m guessing they serve the same purpose as any organic material that dies: they provide the building blocks for the next generation and, in doing so, influence them.
Old-school Catholicism has changed the philosophical and interpersonal landscape forever, and its influence will be felt for a long time, even after all of its practitioners are gone. Catholic guilt will live on, and perhaps evolve into something else down the line, divided from the original intent and lesson, but hopefully serving some new purpose. A positive one, if we’re lucky.
Similarly, the ideals of the Confederacy live on, even if in small ways, and influence the workings of politics, and the intricacies of everyday life for some, though they’re removed from the original intent of those who developed and taught those ideals.
Even cities like St. Joseph, well beyond their prime, continue to influence the modern world. Through Eminem. Through young people who visit their aging relatives year after year and bust up their mouths trying to sled on concrete.
Think of it like wine. The soil adds intricacies to grapes, and those grapes go on to become something potentially magnificent. The soil contains components of everything else that has ever been grown in it, and that fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a speck can still be tasted by young lips and intoxicate young minds, today.
Your ideas and actions will potentially have the same long-lasting influence, and though you can’t predict how they’ll be refined and used years from now, you can make sure there are as few contaminants as possible, granting them the best possible chance of aging well.
Think about what you believe and how you live your life, and adjust when you notice misalignments. Future generations probably may not thank you for the effort, but they’ll be better off for it.
Update: February 13, 2017
My grandmother passed away a few years ago, so there no are more visits to St. Joseph these days.
It’s a good point to remember, though, that each generation’s ideologies are building blocks for the next generation’s ideologies. It can sting, I think, when our philosophies are discarded by the young, which we consider ignorant as a result, and we hope they’ll grow out of it. But in reality, that’s how it’s always been, and hopefully will continue to be. Societies that don’t change and evolve tend to stagnate and grow brittle.