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Time Traveling Catholics and Confederate Ideals

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.

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There Was a Time

There was a time when it made sense to spit on wounds.

We didn’t have a very good understanding of disease or any of the medical science that we understand today, and sufficient stories were told about the healing properties of human saliva that it seemed like a smart choice to expectorate on any flesh wound within range.

There was a time when it made sense to kill anyone who claimed that the world wasn’t flat.

To say such a thing went against the church’s edict, and to do so meant that everything society was built upon, the very fabric of what kept civilization ticking away, was wrong. In the minds of those making the decisions, a few lives were worth sacrificing for the sake of maintaining power and stability.

There was a time when it made sense to keep marriages traditional and races from intermingling.

As far as we knew, allowing a man to marry a man or a black person to marry a white person would lead to death, destruction, and the sentencing of our souls to hell, not to mention the social instability that would no doubt erupt.

There was a time for these things, but today is not that time. Not anymore.

Back then, we believed things that were later proved to be untrue, and we’ve left many of them behind.

Yet we’ve decided, out of laziness or stubbornness or sheer ignorance, to hang onto others, not because they’re true, but because we’re uncomfortable with change.

Clinging to old, factually-inaccurate ideas simply because your family or church or politicians refuse to update their mandates based on new information is avoiding making decisions for yourself. What’s ‘true’ will change based on the time, because as a species we continue to learn and spread the knowledge we accumulate. To have access to such knowledge and not use it is tantamount to not having it at all.

There’s a quote attributed to Mark Twain that goes like this: “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.”

The same applies to knowledge in general.

If you have access to knowledge but choose to ignore it, or to deny its validity because some other entity tells you to ‘look away! look away!’ because of incongruence with its traditions or tenets, you have no advantage over the poor, ignorant souls of the Bronze Age who didn’t have access to the fruits of centuries of trial-and-error, study, and scientific experimentation.

There was a time when there was an excuse for ignorance. We hadn’t built a proper infrastructure for learning and retaining knowledge, and those who wanted to learn would never gain access to the resources they needed to do so.

Today we have the opposite problem: an abundance of knowledge, and too-few people willing to take advantage of it, either ignoring facts to back up their own opinions, or simply lacking the ambition to reach out and take it.

What field of study are you ignorant about? European history? Algebra? Fundamental coding languages? Cooking? Parcheesi?

Try choosing a topic per week to study. There’s no time like the present to fill the cracks in your knowledge, and these days the plaster is free (though you’ll still have to apply it yourself).

Update: February 13, 2017

This is still so relevant. Perhaps uncomfortably so.

There’s a contrast I hadn’t noticed at the time, but am now aware of, between the dystopian societies portrayed in Brave New World and 1984. In the latter, government prevents people from knowing things by limiting access to information and constricting thought with gibberish language. In the former, though, people have access to anything and everything, but are so distracted by leisure that they never make use of it. We’ve always feared the latter, but seldom gave much credence to the former, despite its seeming alignment with where things are headed (by some estimations, anyway).

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Other People’s Stupid Opinions

We can’t all agree all the time. In fact, most of us don’t agree most of the time.

We argue constantly, each certain of the superiority of our opinions, the totemic high-ground of our viewpoints.

Remember, though, that however ridiculous you think other opinions are, the people who hold them feel the same about yours. To them, you look just as silly, have just as questionable a level of education, are just as bewilderingly ignorant as you think they are.

This doesn’t mean they’re right, just as it doesn’t mean you’re right. All it means is that if you want to convince anyone of anything, disrespect is the least effective way to get there. Not only will you not have brought them around to your way of thinking, you may also have made an enemy out of someone who could be a valuable friend and debate partner.

Other people’s stupid opinions have just as much merit as your own. They are, like yours, opinions backed by individual experience and a finite body of knowledge. Perhaps they, or you, simply haven’t lived long enough yet to see their error of their, or your, ways.

There’s no need to get heated. If your opinions have real merit, they will stand on their own two feet and won’t need you to defend them tooth and claw. Keep your mind malleable, your arguments rational, and your words civil. You might show someone else another perspective, or you might see one yourself.

To do otherwise doesn’t just show disrespect for the ideas of others, but also for your own.

Update: February 13, 2017

I find myself making variations of this argument all the time. Disrespecting the ideas of others might make you feel good in the vein of having achieved a minor personal victory, but it’s probably the worst way to convince someone else of something, or to share knowledge.