Mystic Chords of Memory

by Michael Sean Winters

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All week, events have conspired to pluck the mystic chords of memory, and each pluck reminds me of how unreal is the cultural and political sensibility that values only human autonomy, celebrates “self-made men,” and enjoys re-reading Ayn Rand. I use Cardinal Newman’s favorite derogatory expression, “unreal,” because it seems so apt: This hyper-individualism of our day does not bear any resemblance to the actual lives we live.

This morning’s Washington Post has an article by former Post editor Jeanne McManus about attending Blessed Sacrament school 50 years ago. She remembers the one Holy Cross nun who oversaw a class of 53 all day and for all subjects. McManus recalls the crate of milk arriving every day for lunch, with 52 chocolate milks and one carton of white milk and notes that she still remembers the name of the boy who drank white milk. It is her closing paragraph that struck me most: “It is not likely that anyone there [their forthcoming reunion] will try to reinvent himself. When you’ve come through the crucible of Blessed Sacrament, of perhaps any Catholic school, from kindergarten through eighth grade, when you’ve grown from child to man surrounded by 100 other kids who knew you as a lump of clay, it’s not likely that you can feign pretense or affectation. And if you did, some nun would set you straight.”

Yesterday, I had to go to a hospice to visit a friend. The hospice is one my friends and I know as “David’s hospice” because it was there, in 1989, that my mentor and best friend David Pickford died. David had taken me under his wing when we met in 1983, introducing me to the group of people who would become my friends, encouraging me in my studies and my writing, but also giving instruction in the finer points of joie de vivre, such as always buying a work of art every year so that you are not just supporting “the arts” but actually supporting artists. David taught me that there was no greater gift than extending hospitality in such a way that you reminded even your oldest and most familiar friends how special they are to you. I recall a dinner party when one of David’s sisters was in town. We were all seated, a gorgeous bouquet of gardenias in the center of the table. The waiters came round and, before offering a menu or taking a drink order, they presented each of David’s guests a tray with long pins on it. As soon as everyone had a pin, David invited us to reach into the centerpiece: a third of the gardenias were actually boutonnieres.

One day, when David’s health had taken a turn for the worse, I asked him how I could every repay all the kindnesses he had extended to me and he replied, “You can’t. But there will come a time, many times, when you will encounter bright young people who need a hand up, a moment of guidance, an introduction to someone who can help them. You now have the moral obligation to pass on to that person the kindness I have shown you.” I thought of these words of his yesterday, not only at the hospice, but when I read George Will’s attack on Elizabeth Warren because she had dared to suggest that those who are successful in our society have an obligation to “pay it forward” to the next generation.

On Wednesday, NPR had a story about the Friendly’s restaurant chain filing for bankruptcy protection. The chain may successfully re-organize itself, it might not. As the NPR story acknowledged, the chain has become a little grungy, the carpets a little dirty, the menu more than a little passé. But, if you grew up in New England in the 1960s, a trip to Friendly’s was part of your weltanschauung. Right up there with Robert J. Lurtsema in the mornings: Lurtsema was the host of the Morning pro musica program on NPR and I can still close my eyes and hear his sonorous voice introducing another piece of classical music. The cold mornings of autumn recall trips to Buell’s orchard to pick apples. The memories of Friendly’s and Lurtsema and Buell’s bind me with other people of my age and place, and that bond does nothing to infringe my sense of human autonomy.

I do not know any self-made men. And I do not wish to know them. Anyone who lacks the bonds and the memories of those who helped them must be an obnoxious person, and a spectacularly lonely person. The heroes of Rand’s novels are not people likely to mentor a college student. A person who really acts as if the ideas of von Mises and Hayek were true is not the kind of person capable of the rich friendships with which I have been blessed. There is something insidious in the way those who wish to eviscerate Social Security or Medicare are always careful to point out that their proposals will not affect those aged 55 or over, planting the seeds of an inter-generational conflict of interest that would further eat away at the tenuous familial and social bonds in our society. It won’t work: Those over 55, most of them anyway, cherish their grandchildren more than they cherish Ms. Rand. But, it is scary nonetheless that the attempt is even made.

Again and again, the Catholic view of the human person stands as a rebuke to the hyper-individualism that is celebrated today. Not only does our Catholic anthropology see the human person as a social animal, we recognize that even our property – and Catholic teaching has long upheld the right to private property – is not only our own, but that the goods of the earth belong to us all, and that it is immoral for those with much to ignore the need to guarantee that the poor have at least the necessities of life. Our belief in the common brotherhood of man is rooted in our belief in the common fatherhood of God. It is a belief I do not see acknowledged at Tea Party rallies, but it is a belief I know to be true. The particulars of my life and of my memories confirm what the Church teaches: We are bound one to another and those bonds do not enslave, they liberate.

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