Rip Van Winkle and Culture Shock
When I was a New York City super adenoidal sophomore in college in 1941, college men wore ties, clean shirts (tucked into trousers), jackets, (sometimes with padded shoulders). Crew cuts were the acme of ‘Class“. Long hair was considered gauche and sort of dirty. Everyday we “dressed” to go to school as we tried to be “sharp.”. We desperately tried to overcome the slurred and indistinct speech so associated with Hell’s Kitchen or San Juan Hill. We were in the special class called “college men” and we consciously tried to live up to some kind of social expectation. In our own self concept, we were “educated.” Even the non-college guys wore ties and fedoras to go to the Yankee Stadium to watch Gehrig and DiMaggio and Dickey. There was a kind of dress code the breakage of which drew frowns and scowls even from my minimally educated uncle J.J. who was a mechanic in the Sanitation department of the City.
We danced the Lindy, the Bunny Hop and the Shag. We debated the musical virtues of Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. We loved the smooth, velvety sounds coming from the throat of a skinny Italian kid from Hoboken, named Sinatra who wore classy straw hats with a wide ribbon. A guy from Spokane nicknamed “Der Bingle” (or Crosby) was the Gold Standard with the golden voice. Kate Smith was everyone’s favorite when she sang “God Bless America.” To call a person “Communist” was analogous to giving someone the finger in this era or using the N word!
There were unspoken rules of conduct, consensually ingested and generally observed by both genders. The girls wore saddle shoes, swirl skirts and short curled hair. They rarely smoked and were anxious to have a “good” reputation. A good date was going to the Parish dance and having a Cherry Coke at the local hangout. That was it! A baby born outside of marriage was called “illegitimate” and social disapproval was enormous. Divorce was something one spoke of in whispered tones. Same sex behavior was so verboten it was hardly noted except in medical journals.
If by some strange potion I should have been put under a kind of Rip Van Winkle trance in 1941, and just woke up in 2015, it would be a cataclysmic shock to see what I am seeing today!. How would I or how could I handle it?
The shock one would get from the miracle of technology would alone be enough to destabilize one! Calculators, computers, cell phones, push button dialing, ipads,
washer/dryers, television sets, four wheel drive cars, the unending list of scientific
marvels, all would look like a kind of science fiction from the cartoon astronaut
Buck Rogers of the 25th century or Dick Tracy, the cartoon detective who had a two way radio watch to catch the bad guys. I would be awestruck, speechless but enthused and fascinated,
However, the gross materialism, the “throwaway” mentality, the utter absolutism in the need to possess the latest would be more unsettling ---to put it mildly. I would have been deeply scarred by the terrifying years of an economic depression where we had no security but lived with the ever brooding specter of eviction from our cramped, little apartment. While we always had sufficient food, it was never gourmet. We were taught to be thrifty. Our clothing likewise was adequate but plain and far from plentiful. We were amazingly happy (even in pervasive insecurity) with a meager wardrobe, one radio shared by the whole family and, of course, no automobile. To own one was possible only in one’s fantasy. We were thrown emotionally together, talked much to each other and laughed at little things.
During the Great Depression, I saw my father’s hair go white, almost overnight. His days were suffused with worry in caring for his little family of four. He took it all as his responsibility. Not the government’s. Not family members. Not the Church. The current notion of entitlement would have been Greek or Sanskrit to him. He insisted that we work for what we get. With his uneven income as an actor we understood that sometimes we simply “did without.” To eke out survival was a truism we easily grasped. To suggest today that one might do without non-essentials would be met by a vacuous stare of incomprehension or an angry retort about “my civil rights.”
The options, in the old days, for a college education were meager. Apart from winning a scholarship and working a night job while going to school, one’s ambitions were focused on the generally secure “city job” where one was fairly assured of that priceless commodity,
“security”. To be a cop or firemen or mailman was the gateway to the American dream.
To see every teenager take for granted that he will have four enjoyable years as an undergraduate with someone else paying the bills or with easily accessible government loans to be paid off in some distant future would strike the 1941 citizen as irresponsible if not daydreaming.
But beyond the economic, the basic value system prevalent today would probably be the most unsettling of all. Religious, spiritual, social, family values, in contrast to1941, seem either essentially scuttled or abandoned altogether. And the abandonment is passionately justified, often with furious self-righteousness and almost vicious tirades against any disagreement. As a general impression (with ample space for the truly impressive grown up current modern), the modern I meet so often claims he is more adult, more accepting, more authentic, more tolerant than any previous generation including the “Greatest Generation.” He easily disparages those who disagree with him as racist, homophobe , bigoted, ignorant or hypocrite. His impressions seem more based on his deep feeling level (what he calls his empathy) than on adult delayed gratification. A true Catholic values compassion but believes that compassion does not mean endorsement! Compassion without truth can be mush.
Yet, he seems more restless, more harried, more worried and using an old but descriptive term, more neurotic. His mental health index shows heavy uses of tranquillizer medication, prolonged services of mental health professionals, more suicides, more breakups of marital and non–marital relationships. He seems to me to be very angry.
But about what? My own “gut“ sense is that he, too, is looking for and needs some form of basic “security.” The widespread notion that anything goes and that there is no right or wrong except being uninvolved in eco-environment issues and caring for the seal population in Alaska, can be unconsciously unsettling.
When a white woman decides, in spite of the hard empirical science, that she is really black, when a 56 year old male decides that despite his XY chromosomal formation, his big feet and an Adam’s apple, that he is really female, when two men announce their “marriage” with neither one supplying the female requisites for procreation, when living babies are aborted with the nonchalance of taking an aspirin, even with baby body parts being sold as an “honorable” business, the thinking (to one out of 1941) is, at the very least, borderline psychotic. That is to say the classic definition of “psychotic” is to have a break with reality. The current facts don’t match the fantasy. The lame attempts to justify such thinking with maudlin and sticky sentimentality are thunder striking in their fragility.
The blindness to reality would seem to leave one with the notion that one’s thinking decides what is real. There is no bedrock “security”. There is only trial and error with a huge swath of luck and blind hope. There is no reality “out there”. And the result may very well be an anger at being left in a morass of cosmic mush. The “mush”, the ambiguity, is all over the modern scene, even with religious persons. A very “with it” nun I know went to a pub, dressed in slacks and sweater, met a young chap at the bar and after a few pops he made the usual pass. Sister indignantly informed him of her exalted status and rendered the poor dude with mouth agape. But how would he know? In 1941 such an event would have been intrinsically impossible. Self concepts indicated that such behavior collided with the conscious self definition one clearly possessed. Is there no normal criterion of “correct” behavior? Or, in fact, is it that anything goes if one desires “it”?
In 1941 Catholic priests were required to wear clerical attire in all circumstances with possible exceptions of the shower and the beach. It was de rigeur, at the very least, to carry a hat, usually black, except perhaps in scorching weather when one might sport what was called a “Panama”, or light colored straw. To see a priest today dressed in clericals is a rare event. And if he wears or carries a hat he must be an actor in some re-make of “Going My Way.”
Priests were called “Father” with undercurrent mutual understanding that the priest lived “for” his parishioners as a spiritual parent. There was an automatic respect and regard for any priest. Today the priesthood is generally regarded as a disgraced, questionable, child molesting, marginalized group. Churches were overflowing with believers in 1941 with souls the “modern” scorn- fully labels as infantile while he, the enlightened, announces that while he is a Catholic, he doesn’t believe in many medieval practices as unfitting for his superior attainment. He blithely ignores clear teaching of his church and supports manners, mores, practices and customs which are antithetically opposed to the Faith. These differences of these eras under study are blatant.
But some Catholic leaders are equally perplexing. Even on the Cardinal level, we find instances where leaders seriously advocate and lobby to allow people in the state of public objective sin to receive the Eucharist in spite of the centuries tradition of “state of grace” requirement. Apparently, they do not care for or are unaware of the consequent pain for the simple devout Catholic who doesn’t read the sophisticated musings of professional theologians.
There are, of course, many good adult developments such as the obliteration of the disgraceful racial discriminations of the past and the unjust treatment of homosexual people. The sin of anti-Semitism has been surfaced and confronted on all levels of Catholicism even though bigots seep through the cracks everywhere.
On the whole, however, the eyes of 1941 would never recognize the “life” of the modern progressive Catholic. Or the state of the modern Church. Modernity can please the elite but it often leaves the mass of the Catholic body perplexed and insecure. Their favorite and sustaining devotions are either obliterated or marginalized. Rarely are the laity urged to “visit” the Blessed Sacrament ( or even so to refer to the Eucharist reserved in the Tabernacle). The stations of the Cross for most of the Liturgical year are ignored except for Lent and weekly Church dusting.
Yet, there seems be deep Faith underlying the spiritual life of the 2015 Catholic who remains true to the Faith of the Fathers in spite of the modern gooey style of leadership, priest infidelities, secularism, ridicule from a progressive media, empty Churches, relatively few vocations. The belief that Jesus will be with this Church until the end of time seems in good health.
So, half a loaf is better than none. In general, Rip Van Winkle prefers it as it is now. The technology, communication, transportation facilities make life a pleasure. The available money and luxuries are hard to ignore. He can still worship God as he pleases with his Rosary and visits to the Blessed Sacrament and his saints and devotions.
In spite of the obvious almost antithetical differences of the two eras, human nature remains the same. Natura non fallitur! What is wrong with expressing one’s opinion even if one is in a tiny minority? Ah, yes! We must not forget the great American privilege----the right to espouse unpopular causes. It is great fun to do that and still say: “I am proud to be American and Catholic.”
Welcome, Rip Van Winkle, to 2015.