I am only just now back from celebrating my in-laws’ 60th wedding anniversary. A quotable quote from the event was noted by my wife. She said that when she picked up flowers for this auspicious event, the clerk upon hearing about the anniversary, told her that her parents “came from the era when you didn’t throw things away.”
We talked a bit about this around the table. At a literal level this was true. I remember my Omma’s basement, once rife with the things that my mother would have thrown away in a heartbeat, and think on my mother’s basement, once rife with things that I would have thrown away in the day. With every generation, it seems, comes a little less anxiety about tomorrow’s basic needs. And yet other anxieties accrue.
I was chatting at this event with a relative who has worked for the same company since his twenties. I commented that it is becoming a very rare thing that someone should live out their working days with one company. Of course, in his instance, it actually wasn’t the same company since this company had been bought out along the way and he had somehow managed to ride out the waves of downsizing, rightsizing and outsourcing that more commonly characterize the “rationalizing” of resources in a globally competitive world. The “logic” of this economy is expediency: the image of the economy as a reflection of the household is sacrificed to the image of the economy as a reflection of a well-oil machine: rid of excess. If something is not needed, then, toss it out: an employee, a friendship, a faith, a relationship, a whatever.
I am not being nostalgic for the past here. I know that the days of my grandparents where marked by lack and loss. They hoarded because they (barely) lived through the Great Depression; but still, they held onto virtues that are not only too rarely present today, but too often forgotten. These virtues include, among others, patience for delayed gratification and fortitude for commitment. You stuck with something believing it would pay off in the end; and a promise was a promise. I am fully aware that this too often resulted in commitment to loveless, and even abusive, marriages and more. Such simply cannot be countenanced, and yet, in our life together we need to re-imagine what it might mean to think twice before throwing things away and tossing people to the winds of change.
The upcoming generation gives me hope in diverse ways. I think, for instance, of the awareness of some of my students of global issues, or the growing popularity of board games against the onslaught of video games or the arrival the zero-waste movement. Some seem well aware that technology is not enough to meet humanity’s deepest needs. I am heartened by those in my children’s generation who seek after something beyond the quickest way up the corporate ladder, somehow intuiting that the bottom line is simply that: the point from which we begin to be by moving beyond “me”. My generation has been seduced by technology, but theirs – I think – might well be able to take some distance in knowing that know-how needs to be replaced by know-who: know who you are, and know from whom you come. They may yet become the generation that refuses the quick fix and a throw-away way of being in the world. Perhaps we may yet see the proverb come to fruition: “a little child shall lead them.” We can but hope.