I went to visit my grandmother in St. Joseph, Missouri, last weekend.
If you’ve never heard of St. Joseph, I can’t say that 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 70’s. Go figure.
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 hopped over to the Trails West festival that’s held downtown every year with my parents, and we watched some Civil War re-enactors go through their drills and fire some faux-rifles. It was stiflingly hot and humid outside, but it’s always fun to see how locals celebrate holidays in different cities, even when the historical apex they might be celebrating is one in which they fought for the winning and losing sides.
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 surround myself with people who inspire me, I told her, and I’ve never been happier.
“Well that’s a bit selfish,” she replied, folding her arms and looking at me sternly.
I have to admit, these days I’m not shocked easily, but that reply made me miss a beat. What exactly could anyone find wrong with the idea of living the happiest life possible and surrounding yourself with people you care about and having access to technology that allows you to do it even while traveling?
Where was the discord?
But in a few moments it all clicked. My grandmother comes from a traditional Catholic background, and baked-in 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 desire to sacrifice more. These are the values she was likely brought up with, they’re the values that she raised her kids with, and they’re the values she wishes to instill in anyone else who will listen.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s easy to forget that there are strong, lifestyle-defining opinions like that outside of the ones 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 are those of the civil war soldiers that the men were portraying at the fair. Generationally, you just don’t see much old-school Catholic guilt or old-school Confederate training these days, and encountering either one is more likely to make me want to snap a photo than change my direction in life.
So where’s the value in all this? How do outmoded ideas survive in the high-octane meme-ecosystem that we live in today? What purpose do they serve?
I would imagine they serve the same purpose as any organic material that dies: they provide the building blocks for the next generation or two, 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. Maybe even a positive one, if we’re lucky.
Similarly, the ideals of the Confederacy yet live on, even if in small ways, and influence the workings of politics on a large scale, and the intricacies of everyday life for some, though they’re removed from the original intent of those who developed and taught those ideals.
Hell, even no-name 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 (and failing) to sled on concrete.
Think of it like wine: the soil is what 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 for generations, and that fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a speck of whatever 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 will be refined and used years from now, you can make sure that there are as few ‘contaminants’ as possible, to allow for the best possible chance of them aging well.
Take the time to think about what you believe and how you live your life as a result. Future generations probably won’t thank you for the effort, but they’ll be better off for it.