Does it mean that this evil is totally eradicated? The answer is that man, wounded by original sin, must always remain vigilant. Most diseases are chronic and while remaining dormant for a while, will “resurge” if given a chance to do so.
We are definitely more “socially conscious” that our grandparents were. Today, it would be inconceivable that rich people who have live-in servants would not guarantee that they have running water and a toilet. Yet, in the early 20th century, it often was the case. Today it would plainly be unacceptable and moreover, there is a very good chance that helpers would request their own television. Who can, today, live without one?
I know of a very rich lady born in the late 19th century whose house was heated, except for the servants’ quarters. “Why in the world would they need heat?”
The point I am trying to make is that, unfortunately, “moral improvements” in one domain do not prevent other ethical domains to be shamefully neglected.
In past ages, it was a matter of course that the younger generation had a feeling of respect and awe for elderly people. Their “white hair” guaranteed their being respected and looked up to. One only need read books about Indian tribes: they were under the authority and guidance of “elders” who were always consulted when a grave decision had to be taken. They were respectfully looked up to. Today, it is so far from being the case that most people dye their hair as soon as some of them turned gray. It is almost “shameful” to be getting old and therefore this “disgrace” must be “hidden.” I personally recall my love for my grandmother’s white hair; I thought it was beautiful.
In the past a person over forty or fifty was assumed to be better qualified to give a wise advice than one just out of college.
Experience is something precious that textbooks do not and cannot teach. Today because of our ingrained materialism, young people are more highly valued than older ones. They are “dynamic”and will bring “new ideas.” The past is past and should be buried. The young symbolize health, strength, and invention. Old categories ought to be replaced. Everything should be new.
Obviously if one values a person according to his physical strength, if “materialism” in all its various forms is the dominant philosophy of the day, old persons are “useless” – good enough to be relegated to a home where they will inevitably sit on the death-bench. As a matter of fact, assisted suicide is an act of “compassion”; an important dimension of this “virtue” was overlooked in the past. Today we have “progressed” and clearly perceive that when a person’s life has run its course, when his possibilities of benefiting society have been exhausted, it is “charitable” and kind to put him to sleep, without having to undergo the agonizing business of dying. One should die “with dignity.” The person has a “right” to decide when and how he will leave this planet. The noble “virtue of compassion” has been hijacked by materialism.
Nourished in and by what Dietrich von Hildebrand dubbed our “anti-culture”, young people have been fed on a disastrous philosophical diet, claiming that the value of a person is to be gauged by his “productivity.” “Tell me how much you produce; I will tell you who you are.” Far from being looked up to, an old person is looked down upon as an unproductive member of society. Inevitably it makes young people assume that elderly and old people have nothing to teach them. Place them in front of computers you will immediately perceive how “intellectually deficient” they are.
As human strength inevitably decreases with age, and as persons tend to live longer and longer, the elderly will become an unbearable burden for the younger generation who will have to provide for their ever increasing medical needs. The logical consequence is that for the “good of society,” they should be eliminated. Not only are they useless, but they no longer enjoy life anyway. This is the “ethical” and “logical” justification of assisted suicide.
In one of my classes at Hunter, I recall making a distinction between “scholarship” and “wisdom.” I asked my students whether they knew scholars. Practically all of them raised their hands: “My professor of history just published a book with hundreds and hundreds of footnotes and quotations. I was deeply impressed by his incredible knowledge.”
Then I raised another question: “Do you know a wise person, someone whose judgment you would trust then facing grave personal decisions, someone who knows ‘how to live?’” Deadly silence. All of a sudden, a tiny girl from Puerto Rico raised her hand and said shyly, “My old grandmother is someone I fully trust. She left school in the third grade but always seems to know what life is all about. She is the one I turn to when in need. Years ago, I had a cleaning woman who, though not particularly efficient, was a gem of a person. I enjoyed talking to her, and was always enchanted by her remarks; everything was “sound.”
(Column continues below)
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At one point, I said to her: “Alberta, I much enjoy talking to you. Everything you say is so wise.” She cut me short and said, “You see, Mrs. Von Hildebrand, I have not been ruined by ‘education.’ I left school in the third grade.” How many of our students leave college, deprived of the crumbs of wisdom they had then they entered these places of “higher learning?” According to Msgr. Heyde, chairman of the Newman Club at Hunter, 65 percent of persons of Catholic faith studying in this noble place of “higher learning” lost their faith by their senior year, having been illuminated by scholarship to distinguish between facts and “myths.”
Let me be more concrete. When I was a child in Belgium most people did not have cars (and were spared the curse of traffic jams); public transportation was the normal way of going to work. Trolley cars and buses were inevitably overcrowded. Yet I cannot recall that young or middle age people did not immediately get up and yield their seat to elderly people or mothers with young children. It was a matter of course, and ingrained in education.
This is rarely the case in our “democratic” society: one man, one vote. No one is superior to another (except then he is younger and more productive).
This introduction leads me back to my previous query: when should help be requested and when it is improper to do so? The result of our analysis will shed light on the “moral state” that Dietrich von Hildebrand called – as mentioned above – “our anti culture.”
Let us imagine the following scenario. An elderly person (and today elderly mostly refers to people over eighty) has the well deserved reputation of being generous and kind-hearted. One will never see the sign on her door: “Do not disturb.” A young person (whom she hardly knows) accompanied by a friend (she does not know at all) asks her to be her guests for several days. This would enable them to go sight-seeing in New York with minimal expenses.
Am I wrong in asserting that never would have people of my generation dare make such a request. I purposely say “dare” because the fact that they even thought of it, betrays a grave lack of reverence for “white hair” when the person in question has them. Before making such a request they should sincerely have asked themselves whether the burden placed on an elderly person might not be out of proportion with the subjective advantage of saving money? Have they asked themselves the question: “what actually is old age?”