This week, my two oldest boys are attending a Catholic camp where they’re learning to serve the TLM, playing games and sports, learning their catechism, and other such worthwhile pursuits. It’s the sort of thing that might have been done in the old days, each morning beginning with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (and the subsequent admonition from Father not to talk in church, to always offer silent prayers of thanksgiving after Mass, and never to dart for the door as soon as the liturgy is over.)
Since it’s a bit of a drive from our home, I’m working out of whatever place I can find with WiFi and an outlet to keep my laptop running. This morning after Mass, I was hungry, so I swung by the local McDonald’s. Like most people who care about not dying a horrible food-related death, I don’t go very often. But I’m on the road, so I bent the rule.
Something funny happened as I entered the building, though. I saw a large contingent of senior citizens sitting together at various tables, smiling, talking, drinking their coffee and eating their food. The sun shone through the window on their conversation in a way that brought me almost instantly back to my childhood, when a trip to McDonald’s with my dad for an apple danish or some hot cakes was one of my favorite things. When we didn’t worry so much about it being bad for you.
When you could just live a little.
I walked out to my car reveling in nostalgia, and promptly discarded the muffin portion of my Egg McMuffins. You see, for whatever reason, I can no longer eat gluten without it making me sick, so my food needs to be pared down to its flora and fauna essentials. (What I wouldn’t give for a slice of hot apple pie!) Of course, I’m not alone. Who doesn’t know someone today with food allergies, gluten sensitivity, or a some other ailment we never heard about as children?
Like my diet, it seems that everything else today has grown complicated. Difficult. Untrustworthy.
I was talking to my wife the other day about how when I was a kid, I walked everywhere. Even when I was small. I was all over town, meeting up with friends, walking to the library or the store or to school, just doing what kids do.
Now, you can get arrested if people see your kids playing unsupervised in their own yard.
At the same time, kids in school are being exposed to every conceivable form of immorality, and told that it is good. We have to worry about them being inundated with the homosexual agenda and told to experiment with their own sexuality, shown pornographic materials, or witnessing the the promiscuity of classmates so young they can barely be called adolescents. As they grow older, they face the possibility of seduction by an alarming number of teachers who have for some unfathomable reason developed a taste for trysts with teenagers.
Do you remember what it was like to know that pornography existed, but not to ever dream of buying one of the wrapped magazines behind the counter? The only exposure most boys ever had to that kind of thing would be when the one weird kid smuggled one of his dad’s Playboys into homeroom or shop class. What must it have been like for parents, who didn’t have to worry that their sons would be exposed to hardcore pornography before the age of ten? That even their most innocent online interaction would somehow draw the inevitable porn-bots or perverts, or that a simple search might land them in a very dark place?
What was it like when parents could find clothes for their girls that didn’t make them look they were selling their services in some seedy red light district? Before every female celebrity was marketed as an overt sex object? Before “sexting” existed? Before the cartoons children watched veered suddenly and unexpectedly into unacceptable themes? Before every TV show had a sympathetic gay character?
What about being able to drive through town without seeing men holding hands with men, or women arm in arm with women, or even more graphic displays of public affection between people of the same sex? Do you remember what that was like? What it was like to take your kids to the grocery store, or turn on the local news station on the radio, without having to explain to an eight-year-old what “transgender” means?
Do you remember the days before cell phones? Before Internet? The days when you finished up work or school and got to leave it at work or school? When if you wanted to call someone, you had to stop somewhere and drop a coin in a big ugly phone to do it? When if you wanted to know something, you had to look it up in a book at home, or go to a library, or ask someone? When you didn’t feel the constant impulse to drink from the firehose of information?
Do you remember what it was like to look at other people, or engage them in conversation, instead of spending every spare minute twitching with the need for distraction?
There has always been economic uncertainty, but there used to be a fairly stable middle class. Now, in our ever-shrinking and unfavorably evolving economy, money worries have intensified for most of us. How many people have real careers or a prospect of retirement? How many Catholics with large families can afford to live on one income? How many, in a post Obamacare America, even have health insurance? (Do you know how much it costs to have a baby without it?) There seem to be fewer and fewer real jobs, as corporate America perpetually downsizes. Most of us sit at computers, our sedentary bodies growing ever larger, typing away in front of glowing screens all day, uncertain at the end of our shift what we have actually produced, and whether it means anything.
Do you remember what it was like to have a President you believed in? A country you could, without a list of caveats, be proud of? To not have to worry that just practicing your faith would get you sued or thrown in jail? To not have to wonder if your own government was spying on your most private moments and conversations, just storing the information for when it could be used against you?
Do you remember what it was like when competition was good, when excelling at things was awarded, when being the best at something wasn’t evidence of your privilege or racism or bigotry or clear need to pay more into the system? When you didn’t get a trophy for just showing up? When public schools were still a viable option for Catholic families who couldn’t afford private school or manage homeschool?
Do you remember what it was like when the Church stood for something? When you had a pretty good idea what it meant to be Catholic? When you knew that no matter how bad it might be in your diocese, the pope had your back? When you never found yourself having the very words of the Vicar of Christ thrown in your face by the staunchest enemies of the Church? When heretics weren’t given a seat at the table in Rome while the orthodox were left out in the cold?
Do you remember what it was like not to want a stiff drink before you read the news? When words meant something? When “gender” wasn’t a construct, and race wasn’t a matter of feeling? When there were other politics than identity politics? When people didn’t campaign for office based on whether they had an X or a Y chromosome?
Do you remember what it was like to feel safe? At peace?
I’m only 37. But in my lifetime, so much has changed. I worry that I belong to the last generation of Americans who will know what it was like to live in a world not yet completely insane.
For just a moment this morning, I was a kid again, living during the prosperity of the 1980s, emerging from the shadow of the Cold War into the promise of a bright future where anything was possible. I miss the optimism of those days.
But we were born at this time for a reason. Ours is a dangerous age, and the storm grows darker as it gathers.
There is no way forward without faith. There is no way through without Christ. Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. We can’t see what’s coming, or exactly how hard it will be, but we can still prepare, and we have hope, because we know the final outcome.
Until then, we just have to keep the faith and play our part. It won’t be easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is.