Out with the Old?

First, I’d like to acknowledge that it’s been a long time since I have posted — back in December, to be precise. This is because the last couple of months have been consumed with completing my doctoral degree, which culminated in the defense of my dissertation on Feb 28. Still riding the crest of that tide, I’m looking forward to posting here more regularly.

That said, I was reading my regional newspaper the other day, and came across an article that included advice from a few career counselors in response to disillusioned job seekers. One of these wanted to know why she had had interviews for seven months, but no job offers. One of the dispensed nuggets of advice was the following: “When writing your thank-you notes, make sure to send them by email. Handwritten ones can make you appear old-fashioned.”

Inherent in this nugget of advice, of course, was the bald and unquestioned implication that being old-fashioned  is automatically bad. I am not a career counselor, so I cannot claim that this advice is wrong. I do, however, remember the days when email was only a few years old and had not yet caught on as a ubiquitous form of communication. In those days, one was warned always to send handwritten thank-yous to an interviewer, and never emailed ones, because a handwritten note would show that you were professional enough to make an effort with a time-honored tradition. Nonetheless, the rapid pace of modern changes of convention is not my main point. I am more piqued by the counselor’s unquestioned acceptance that “old-fashioned” equals negative; this is proclaimed as a truism, taken for granted.

What strikes me particularly (and this won’t be surprising, given my newly-minted occupation as a biblical scholar) is how different our culture is from the ancient world in how it considers the worth of old ways and old things. In the culture of the Bible — to use just one example of an ancient culture here — old ways, old things, and old people carried a cargo of deep respect, and were emulated by younger newcomers seeking to make their own meaningful contribution. A prophet or psalmist, for example, could innovate with a creative idea, but expressed such innovation through deference to older convention, and often with reference to older things. There are too many examples of this in the Bible to do more than scratch the surface here, but one of my favorites involves the use of ascending numbers. This was an ancient literary convention. Here are a few examples:

“There are 3 things that will not be satisfied, 4 that will not say ‘Enough’: Sheol, a barren womb, earth that is never satisfied with water, and fire that never says ‘Enough’ ” (Proverbs 30:15-16).

“There are 3 things that are too wonderful for me, 4 that I do not understand: the way of the eagle in the sky, the way of the snake upon a rock, the way of a ship in the heart of the sea, and the way of a man with a young woman” (Proverbs 30:18-19).

“Under 3 things the earth quakes, and under 4 it cannot bear up: under a servant when he becomes king, a fool when he is satisfied with food, an unloved woman when she gets a husband, and a maidservant when she supplants her mistress” (Proverbs 30:21-23).

“Yet gleanings will remain in it like the shaking of an olive tree, 2 or 3 olives on the topmost bough, 4 or 5 on the branches of a fruitful tree, declares Yahweh the God of Israel” (Isaiah 17:6).

“Thus says Yahweh, For 3 transgressions of Damascus, and for 4, I will not revoke it [punishment], because they threshed Gilead with sharp iron” (Amos 1:3).

It’s worth noting that in Amos, the “for 3 transgressions and for 4” continues in a litany of divine charges against various oppressors. To use a different example, the books of Samuel make several references to God’s deliverance of Israel in the Exodus, but these references are made in the new context of the people at war with the Philistines and other groups; reference to “the olden days” is valuable. We see such references to the Exodus again in the context of the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BCE, in which Second Isaiah (for example), an exilic-era prophet who wrote Isaiah 40-55, reminds the people of how God parted the Red Sea, led them through, and extinguished the pursuing oppressors.

I could go on, but I’m beginning to get tired. The point is clear. There’s a real difference between how our culture perceives “old-fashioned” things, and how the Bible (and other ancient cultures) perceived them. Now this is not to say that “the olden days” represent some golden era where everything was easier and good and everybody was kind and thoughtful, and so on. My recent reading of Mark Twain’s Autobiography was enough to cure me of any such notion, as the great humorist himself goes on at length about what is deficient and distasteful about hypocrisy, politicians, political parties, and the electorate in his day. Excerpt that passage and you could have in front of you an editorial in any newspaper during our modern election cycles. So this is not to say that everything old equals good. But it is to say that by the same token, not everything old equals bad, and not everything new equals good.

And then there are the words of that immortal realist/cynic (depending on your point of view), Ecclesiastes: “A generation goes and a generation comes, but the Earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and hastening to its place it rises there again. Going to the South, then turning to the North, the wind goes swirling, swirling, and on its swirling courses the wind returns. All the streams go to the sea, yet the sea is not full; to the place where the streams go, there they keep on going” (Ecclesiastes 1:4-7).

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

An Epiphany at Home Depot

I was in Home Depot the other day and got to thinking about how our culture has changed. Specifically, how it has changed in terms of the way people interact with one another. Yes, it’s in vogue now to write articles and even books on whether technologies such as email, texting, Facebook, and Twitter have brought us together or moved us further apart, or some combination of the two; but that’s not what I’m doing right here. Personally, I am always a little irked when I hear that “social networking” technologies do not bring people closer together, but rather the opposite, and that they take pride of place among the modern innovations contributing to the assured decay of society as we know it. Such grand conclusions irk me because it is only through Facebook that I have reconnected with friends who were once a daily part of my life, with whom I had lost touch over the natural course of things. Texting allows me to communicate quickly in the midst of a busy day with those who are close to me. There are also various parts of my life that sometimes make it difficult to carve out a significant block of time for phone calls — not to mention the fact that I’ve never really been an enthusiastic phone person. Trying to have an in-the-moment conversation with someone without seeing any of their facial expressions can make for some really weird conversational dynamics.

But I digress. I was in Home Depot the other day with my small daughter, looking for “odorless mineral spirits.” (Yes, that’s its actual name.). Such mineral spirits were going to aid me in the vexing task of prepping our bathroom walls — long the sorry victims of decades-old wallpaper from a bygone era — for painting. I was on my way to the aisle when I passed a kindly gentleman in his senior years whose job it was to stand near the entrance and answer questions and direct people. Figuring that I knew where the mineral spirits were, I intended on giving him a polite nod and passing by. He, however, was enthralled by my (admittedly adorable) daughter and promptly engaged her in conversation. Having recently blossomed into a social butterfly, the likes of which my rather solitary nature has never managed to approach, she complied. The next thing I knew, I too was welcomed into the gentleman’s conversation, and what I thought would be a passing nod became a real interchange among strangers.

The gentleman informed me that his wife helped their local church set up for an annual flea market that was only a few weeks away, and I should remember to go, since I might find some little thing for my daughter. When he told me the name of the church and the town (which is next to the town in which that Home Depot resides), I replied that I in fact live in that town with the church, and it is right up the street from me. Delighted, he said that he lived in my town and even told me his name, street, and described the exterior of his house and the house next to it. In a very easy way, he extended his hand and asked what my family name was, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. I shook his hand and told him. He said if I ever went by his street, stop in because the missus would love my daughter. Then he bade me goodbye and went to help someone else.

I was left with a very warm feeling and a bunch of thoughts about how our American society has changed. Or, if not all of America, at least certain areas and certainly Generation X and below. If that helper at Home Depot had been someone of my generation (I shall coyly state that I am somewhere just north of 30), there would surely have been no spontaneous engagement of my child in conversation — but there would not even have been an unsolicited engagement of me, a peer, in conversation. We would have politely let each other be and never discovered that we live in the same town. I would not have learned about the local flea market, and I certainly would not have been extended a hand, informed of a family name, street, house exterior, and asked for my family name; and never in this time-space continuum would I have received an invitation to stop in while passing by on that street.

Most importantly, that warm feeling, that feeling of someone wanting to talk to me, to be interested in me just because I happened to be in physical proximity, would never have been experienced. No casual friendly bond would have formed. An easy, pleasant experience between three human beings would not have come to pass.

This is not the fault of Facebook, email, or texting (probably). I honestly do not know what caused it. Do you? That’s not a rhetorical question: if anyone has ideas, feel free to post them. My best guess is the faster pace of daily life now, and who on Earth knows the ins and outs of how that process developed over the decades. Generations older than my own still experience this faster pace, but spent much of their lives and formative years in a culture that valued stopping to chat with someone you don’t know, going across the street to say hi to your neighbor without worrying that you would intrude, extending your hand and asking someone their family name and telling them your own and having it be the most natural thing in the world.

But in my broad geographical area, even members of older generations tend not to be as interested in conversation if they are working registers. Yet I experienced the opposite recently in New Hampshire. They still have “general stores” there, which have become an endangered species in Massachusetts except perhaps in the western part. At the general store (or even most stores), we experienced something unusual to us: the clerks actually wanted to talk to us beyond “Hi” and “Have a good day.” They would ask us genial, easygoing questions about how we were and how was our day, and if they didn’t have a big line, they’d unfailingly start with anecdotes about their own lives that seemed to dovetail with whatever we’d been talking about. And the conversations went from there. No hurry. No implications that you’re taking up their time and they’d rather not be talking to you.

Why is this still in New Hampshire, and undoubtedly in similar places? Is it the countryside? A slower pace? Fewer people? What is it, and why has it been lost in so many other places? We can’t blame email and Facebook for this; it is something else. I, for one, would be sorry indeed to see no more of that old-fashioned interaction.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010