Letter to a Young Curmudgeon

As a species, we are Homo Hearing Disabled. We are the eternal kid at the back of the classroom staring out the window while God himself is telling us what we need to know for the exam.

Appears in Spring 2011 Issue: Letters to the Young
March 1 st 2011

Dear John,

This is written knowing you won't pay attention to a word of it anyway. If we were speaking directly, you'd already be distractedly fiddling with your new Apple iPatch or your Windows Open or whatever gizmo your kind is using this week to keep from actually looking at the real world. Yours is the generation of negative attention span, so the possibility you have read three sentences of actual text is a triumph in itself. To expect you to think about it, reflect on it, put the parts that might make sense into some kind of action, hey, I'd have to believe my cat really could play the cello if only we could buy him one used by Pablo Casals.

In fairness, your deficiencies in this regard aren't entirely generational. Strike that. Your deficiencies in this regard are entirely human (though those ear buds that have grafted themselves onto your tympanic membranes aren't doing you any favours). Here's a tip: no one in the whole history of humanity has ever fully listened to another person and understood, much less acted, precisely on what was said.

Example? I'll give you an example. There was the Son of God, and there were these twelve fellows who followed him around every day, step for step, for three years. He's the Son of God. And they truly heard barely a word of what he was saying while he was with them.

Admittedly, the Lord could be fairly opaque—okay, downright mysterious—in his pronouncements. But a lot of things he said were straight up, for instance: adultery occurs in your heart long before it involves your twitchy bits. Two thousand and ten years later, we're still bumping into each other going "Ah, gee, Rufus, what'dya think he meant? I didn't quite get the 'heart' part . . . "

Four words: Lust. In. Your. Heart. Yet whole civilizations have collapsed because no one listened. As a species, we are Homo Hearing Disabled. We are the eternal kid at the back of the classroom staring out the window while God himself is telling us what we need to know for the exam.

So here's Curmudgeon Rule Number One: No one ever really listens.

What makes this a curmudgeonly rule is that we take it not only as a natural thing, but a good natural thing. If no one listens—and they don't—it's all the more reason, indeed justification, to keep talking, conversing, writing, communicating, articulating, arguing; to keep indefatigably keeping on, always weighing your words, refreshing your metaphors, fine-tuning your analogies, checking your delivery against pride and for charity, none of which will make a scintilla of difference to guaranteeing you will actually be heard but all of which are essential to your purpose on earth. Yes, your purpose on earth. As curmudgeons, we accept reality. As Christians, we know the real reality is Hope.

Hope—capital H—contains the subset of hope that somewhere, somehow, some way, someone will, by the miracle of accident, hear a shred of a fragment of a particle of a misunderstood sentence you've expressed and say: "Gee, Rufus, that's kind of interesting. I hadn't thought about it or heard it expressed that way before. Let me have a think."

You will, in all probability, be unaware of what's going on in Rufus's blessed pointed head. Yet no matter your profession or pursuit in life, you will have transformed the curmudgeonly acceptance of reality into the reward of a single, halting step being taken toward the conversion of a human heart for a good greater than its own desires. See what I mean about purpose on earth?

What you must never do (you'll do it anyway; have I mentioned I know you don't pay attention?) is expect anything you say to lead to a linear, much less enduring, procession from first step to completed march. Those who don't listen because they can't pay attention will hardly top the list of those who attend to commitment for their entire lives.

Did I say entire lives? Sorry, I meant the entire next five minutes.

That would be the doorbell ringing for the delivery of Curmudgeon Rule Number Two: Everyone wants what's next.

Your generation lives with negative attention disorder. But you're not the first so afflicted. Alexander the Great is reputed to have wept because there were no more worlds to conquer. What were the old worlds, chopped liver? Not exactly. But they were "ex" conquests. Human beings, regardless of historic period, naturally believe that unless "ex" comes wrapped up as "next," it's as interesting as last week's lunch.

Curmudgeons recognize the earthly reality that "next" truly exists only in never-never land, and its vain pursuit is a prime source of all the grasping, selfishness, greediness, egotism, and cruelty that you will inevitably encounter whatever you do, wherever you go, in the years ahead.

Christians, though, know something more. We know that eternal life, worked out through immediate attention to the intricate web of faith, grace, and salvation, is the only "next" worth truly seeking. In combination, being a Christian curmudgeon can afford us the clarity to keep, as Scobie puts it in Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter, "Heaven rigidly in its proper place on the other side of death."

The result, in Greene's wonderful curmudgeonly Christian evocation, is the capacity to see human nature undisguised, with all its "injustices . . . cruelties . . . meanness" and yet still "love human beings nearly as God loved them, knowing the worst . . . "

That is correct: it's called Charity. Curmudgeons understand Charity has nothing to do with being nice or sweet or fuzzy. It has to do with telling the Truth. The Christian part is the loving still. And not just loving them. Loving us. All of us. The all that, as St. Paul tells us, have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

That includes you. Yes, you there, the one fiddling with your new iPatch, who hasn't paid attention to a word I've said.

Sincerely,
Peter Stockland

Topics: Vocation
 

Peter Stockland is Senior Writer with Cardus, and publisher of Convivium.

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