I am particularly fond of biography. Stories of people’s lives, save for the cheaper accounts of the lives of the rich and famous, are a special kind of literature. A good story always throws light on everyone’s life since, as Willa Cather says, “there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened.” This is even more true when we are dealing with the story of someone of our own generation, someone who, even though his or her life may be very different from ours, has felt the changes of the world at the same time we did. There is a certain affinity, compassion, connaturality, and even a mysticism, that exists among those who experience the same things at roughly the same time.
Where were you when Kennedy was shot? Do you remember the cold war, the fall-out shelters, the advent of Presley, the Beatles, hard rock, hard drugs, Woodstock, the Vietnam war, the world going crazy in 1968? Do you remember the time before the sexual revolution, Vatican II, the slide of marriage and family life, the hopeless fragmentation of knowledge, and the anger, polarization, and yuppyism of the 1980s? These events were the acid, we are the litmus paper. Most of us, I suspect, turned the same colors.
Given that affinity among us, I want to share part of my own story. Not because it is in any way extraordinary, but, precisely, because it is so ordinary and typical. I want to describe some of the colors I’ve turned and still am turning. Perhaps it will be helpful to you in dealing with your own story since we share a common place in history. We’ve been dropped in the same test tube. I am a child of our age and, for this reason, straddle two cultures and am subject to two voices:
The earliest voice that spoke to me was the voice of my parents and of their culture. They were immigrants, economically poor, pious, Christian. So was their culture. Their voice spoke as follows: Worldly success is not important. What’s important is Christ, family, church. Duty and self-sacrifice are more important than personal fulfillment. Life here, in this world, is not so important. We can live in dissatisfaction and frustration since, before death, we live as in a valley of tears, in a world in which the symphony can never be finished. Ecstasy must be postponed until the next life. Personal morality, especially if it has to do with sex, is a big deal. So too is private prayer. You should be charitable to the poor. (There was little talk of social justice since we were, in fact, the poor). The world is a cold and pagan place, set over against the church. The voice said: be suspicious, always suspicious, of the world and its ways.
But already as a child another voice and another culture began to seep in. I read magazines, listened to the radio, watched TV and movies, looked at catalogues and travel brochures, and began to read a literature which spoke in another voice. Each year, too, I watched events irrevocably changing our lives and our culture. This new voice spoke as follows: You are poor now, but you can move from rags to riches. You were born the immigrant, but you can live as something else. Family, church, and Christ are important, but so too is success, a career. Make something of yourself. Be admired. Duty and sacrifice need sometimes to be jettisoned for personal fulfillment; after all, you only live once and there is meant to be some life after birth (as well as after death). Private prayer and private morality, including sexual ethics, are not such a big deal. Don’t be suspicious of the world. It often affirms life where the church does not.
Be suspicious instead of the church and its hang-ups, timidities, and fears. Look at where it blocks life. I’ve spent most of my life caught between these two voices…confused, stretched, unsure, torn, testing one, then the other.
One of these voices, that of my parents, has won an essential victory. But that victory is still bitterly contested and is far from complete and unequivocal. Parts of me belong to the culture that wasn’t my parents’ and these sometimes win their own kind of victory. Moreover, in head and heart, it is not so clear that that one voice, my parents’, is everywhere identifiable with Christ’s voice and that the other voice is always identifiable with the world.
My parents’ culture had its faults. It could be racist, bigoted, prejudiced, narrow, timid, and unhealthily fearful. Invariably there was the timidity of the immigrant, the bias of the ghetto…“us against them,” “stay with your own kind,”, “don’t even selectively try to love what’s outside.” As well, the other voice, despite its obvious bias for the world, speaks of a universalism, an openness, and a challenge beyond fear and timidity that echoes the Gospel better than does the former voice.
So where does that leave me?
Living a question. Uncertain of a lot of things. Steady in some convictions, gasping for oxygen in others. Convinced that old-time religion and fundamentalism are not the answer, but suspicious that perhaps I, we, somehow need to be inner immigrants. Beyond those questions, though, is a growing comfort, totally undeserved to be sure, in a surer knowledge that we are loved by God, myself no less than everyone else. Given that comfort, I feel no panic about the two voices. Being pulled between them is quite an adventure.