The consumer society has given us new phrases that lack subtlety. When you’re filling up at a gas station, it is presumed you’d be attracted to a “Big Gulp” beverage, going beyond the usual soda bottle size and providing a gallon or so of flavored sugar water (perfect for the kids on road trips). Order a hamburger at a fast food place and the attendant is trained to ask, “Would you like to supersize that?” Marketing strategies inflame not only the vice of lust, but that of intemperance as well. But this essay is not about intemperance per se.
We would do well to form our children (mine are children in Christ) to “respect elders” according to the Fourth Commandment and look to elders as more or less oracles of wisdom. Flannery O’Connor, in her signature traditionalist-iconoclastic style (to coin an oxymoron), reminds us that there’s no fool like an old fool. In her short story, "A Late Encounter with the Enemy," O’Connor depicts the vainglory of a 104-year-old southern soldier. Despite his years, which should have brought wisdom with them, he is self-absorbed in the adulation he receives when he dons a Confederate general’s uniform.
The old man is so enthralled by his status as a revered Confederate officer that he has even forgotten the name of his long deceased spouse (O’Connor’s droll humor again). His granddaughter, for her own selfish purposes, uses him as a prop for her graduation ceremony. The nephew is the reluctant wheelchair attendant, repeatedly seeking a big gulp from a Coca-Cola machine. The characters have one thing in common. They are all self-absorbed as they seek their own peculiar forms of instant gratification.
It seems to me the key to the story comes from the lips of the speaker at the commencement. Sandwiched in among the platitudes of the occasion, he reminds his listeners that “if we forget our past … we won't remember our future and it will be as well for we won't have one.” The “general” had forgotten his past. He really wasn’t a general, just an ordinary foot soldier (civic officials for their own selfish purposes crowned him general for a “premier”). He lives only for the superficial pleasure that comes with the praise of being the momentary center of attention.
In recent years PBS television has found it necessary to pander to aging baby boomers (like myself) to round out their mostly tax-subsidized budgets. In an unintended amusing way they have enlisted the now elderly rock and rollers of the 50s and 60s to make appearances crooning their “one-hit wonders.” One of them, an Englishman, was particularly animated as he sang his “Mrs. Brown you have a lovely daughter.” The audience of Boomers erupted with applause, inviting an encore, even though to my jaded ear he sounded like an elderly sexual predator. I couldn’t help but think about the desperate lives most of these entertainers may really lead, year after year forced to belt out the same tunes as a price for the adulation of their faithful, in dread that their next recording will not be well received. Not a bad metaphor for hell. Is it any wonder the entertainment industry is filled with alcoholism, debauchery and failed marriages?
Lest we be tempted to say, “God, I thank thee that I am not like the rest of men,” we would do well to examine whether we live day by day searching for the narcotics of various forms of instant gratification. We may confess that we eat too much, or drink too much, or are impatient when driving, or suffer hair-trigger anger. These are sins of intemperance to be sure. But they might be rooted in a lifestyle that fears the uncertainties of the future by taking refuge in a plethora of momentary pleasures.
It’s normal and healthy for the young to look for exciting adventures in the days ahead of them: sports, love, marriage, babies (in that order). Anticipating adventures is probably not the rule for most of us as we move into our twilight years. At best we hope tomorrow will bring a new day with ordinary challenges in our families and the workplace but-– please God-– no surprises. Except for the delights that come with grandchildren, most surprises tend to be worrisome. My devout sister unexpectedly died in the prime of her grandmotherly life just last year: a surprise we could have done without, but for the Providence of God. As we age we become even more aware that the future is filled with uncertainty and many fears.
But the past is filled with nothing but certainty. We were born. We grew up in our families. Sometimes homes were broken with illness or moral failures. We suffered disappointments and even tragedies. We loved. We hated. We succeeded in the workplace or we failed, sometimes miserably. With hopes for the future we have a gnawing sense that tomorrow may not really be a better day. And so we’re tempted to give into patterns of instant gratification.
But if we conclude that tomorrow carries with it no certainty we’ve fallen into the trap of which Flannery O’Connor warns, because we’ve forgotten our past. Our past cannot be reduced to the quirks of our personal history. It includes the history of our salvation: Creation; the Fall; the promise of the Redeemer; Moses and the Prophets; the Incarnation; our Redemption in Christ. And the future has this guarantee (sic) rooted in the past: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Mt. 24:35). And, “For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting.” (John 3:16)
In extreme cases, pharmaceutical drugs and therapy may be helpful in breaking the shackles of obsessive intemperance and patterns of destructive instant gratification. But the only definitive means requires patience and taking time to remember the certainties of our past in prayerful meditation. As usual Mary the Mother of God provides the key to remembering the future: “Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)
Even a hopeless drunk in his sober moments can find the firm certainty of hope by remembering and pondering the promises of Christ.
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