"We awaken and find that we have jumped into a culture moving at breakneck speed, powered by great economic forces dedicated to servicing and expanding the appetites of the voraciously hungry selves we've become, and we eat and eat and eat and we're just as hungry as before, so we eat and eat. . . and we're still empty. Hungry. Alone. And we realize that we have become, as we see in flashes of dark honesty, tiny centers, the tiniest centers imaginable. And these tiny centers are not holding."
One of the many positive things about being with many elderly people is that they are more often than the middle-aged or young beyond the foolishness of consumption. Either they never had the money to follow their passions where they will, where their appetites took them, or having the money, they realized too late in life, perhaps, like Solomon, that all chasing after wealth, possessions, and sex is vanity, meaningless, that "[a]man's efforts are for his mouth, yet his appetite is never satisfied" (Ecc. 6:7). My mother, for example, is and has been for years unfazed by new cars, new clothes, new carpet, new restaurants, and so on. In fact she, like so many elderly people, find comfort in the familiar, the tried and true or, at least, the known rather than the unknown. Culture motors by, going somewhere barely articulable ("you deserve it!"), and here they are smelling the billowing exhaust of progress, only when the smoke clears they sense a certain peaceableness and contentment about where they remain. Why, after all, they say, would we want to go to Europe when the beach is so nice? Why would we want to try the Red Robin when the Barbecue Lodge where we've eaten well for the last 20 years is perfectly fine? To say they may discover something new is no answer at all for them.
What Eric Miller is lamenting and critiquing in his short article is our loss in the West of a defining center, one which has historically been a Judeo-Christian framework, one that filtered down through nation, neighborhood, church, school, and family. We found our identity as part of something larger than ourselves, something not driven or defined by the market but by the people we lived with and not the ones we shopped with. As he says, when we want to have a sense of belonging, when in other words we are lonely, "we end up looking for the codes and symbols of those who are part of our own self-selected, generation-driven market niche and follow along, being sure to reserve the right to leave (whether job, church, town, or marriage) at a moment's notice, and so protect our 'freedom.' Sadly, this form of belonging is a faint shadow of the sort of thick membership that words like 'commonwealth' and 'neighborhood' and 'family' and 'church' and 'college' demand." Solomon's wisdom echoes down the centuries: such a life is hollow and empty, and still we chase it.
We laugh at the routines of the elderly at times, their aversion to change, and while it's true that their comfort and tradition can blind them to the God-given opportunity that a new thing may yield, they often have a contentment that we lack. For example, every now and then I have lunch with two gentlemen in their late Sixties, men who have not retired but who have given up the day to day occupational ladder-climbing. Both can well afford to eat where they will, and yet they inevitably and routinely meet weekly at a restaurant sandwiched between a thrift store and a repair shop in a local, somewhat dated strip shopping center for meat and vegetables --- the familiar, the good, and the true. It is not new. It does not fit any market niche. And yet they enjoy a certain community in this place, one hand to mouth and the other free to wave and shake hands with the various people they see in that restaurant.
When I am with my mother, I realize that she wants for nothing, nothing, that is, except to see her family and to enjoy familiar places and routines. For some older folks that's a withdrawal, a kind of giving up on life; for others, a deep contentment and rest, a reflection on the fact that much that passes for life is vanity and the rest can't be bought.
We're not really happy being the center of our world, particularly when everyone is a center. We can't hold it together too well. Deep down we don't know who we really are and where we're really going. Our strivings would be humorous to God were they not so sad.
I know real life doesn't reside in the new and shiny. I've had shiny things, and they grow dull. But the pull of appetite is strong, and I am weak. Thank God "the one who is in [me] is greater than the one who is in the world" (1 Jn. 4:4). He is the real bread of life, the only one worth hungering after.