[This is a revised version of a post originally published on Jan. 11, 2009, one that I felt was worth revisiting.]
This weekend, I buried my grandfather. He was a giant among men, and will be sorely missed.
He lost his wife of 65 years to cancer over two years ago, and he still lived at home (he was 90), but was unable to fully care for himself anymore. We knew that he wouldn’t last much longer, but it was still a shock to hear the news of his passing. He was my last grandparent still living, so perhaps that’s why his death was hard for me to take. I didn’t realize how much I missed my grandparents until they were all gone.
I heard so many good things about him at the funeral – how many people he had touched with his life, what a strong presence he had, and how much he valued his family and community. His funeral service was standing room only.
As I looked at my mother and her siblings on the stand, I saw them as they were now, getting old and now assuming the positions of matriarchs and patriarchs of their families. I no longer saw the uncles and aunts who always seemed so young to me, and who always looked up to their parents for guidance.
It brought up a lot of thoughts and feelings about family and relations for me. I realized that I was now only a single generation away from being the head of my family, and that felt strange. Could I live up to those standards? What will they say about me when I’m gone?
Every person at his funeral service expressed such respect for him that I found myself with a new admiration for his life. Perhaps the most common thing that people said about my grandpa was that he lived a good life and was passionate and committed to his principles. He left a legacy of service to others.
And I didn’t see that as I was growing up. All I saw was a grandpa. Not a person, not a man. But he was, all of his life – raising a family during the depression and then WWII, and living to see the era of laptop computers and digital cameras and cellphones. What a contrast to his childhood!
It started me thinking about the difference between men of his era and those of my generation. It seems that we’re losing something. I know that I did – both of my grandfathers passed away before I was wise enough to consider the wealth of experience in their lives. A whole generation of giants of men are leaving us, and with them, we’re also losing their ideals and virtues and principles.
When we lose these giants of men, these principles become endangered:
“He’s a good man.” The endorsement of a friend or community member was as simple as that. And it meant a lot. It said that person had honor and integrity and could be counted on to do what he said. My generation has lost this. We still endorse and recommend our friends, but it doesn’t carry the same weight anymore. We’ve become cynical and skeptical about others, and could use a return to trust and integrity in our world.
Cash is king. If you didn’t have the money back in the day, you didn’t buy it. You made it, or you scavenged it, or you did without. If something got broken, you repaired it (again and again). Today, everybody wants to extend credit to us, and we’re all purchasing things that we don’t really need, simply because we can buy them. Having that debt puts us under the gun to make more money every day, and having all that stuff doesn’t make us any happier.
Saving your money is honorable. Those growing up through the depression eras had different ideas about money, and saving it was higher in priority than spending it on consumer goods. Putting our cash aside for a rainy day or for the future is not super-relevant to my generation. We’ve been told that 401K plans and Social Security will be our safety net, not our savings. And we spend huge portions of our lives just paying for a house that we’re told is a good investment, with little to no cash savings.
A handshake deal is written in stone. If you shook on it, a verbal agreement was as good as a contract. Better, even. A man’s personal integrity was what bound him to do the right thing. Now we need multi-page contracts and background checks and credit checks to make a deal. We don’t trust anybody without a signature.
Marriage and children are sacred obligations. Marriage used to be a bigger commitment, not something to take lightly. A man took responsibility for his decisions and his actions, especially when it concerned his family. That’s not to say husbands or marriages or families were perfect then, but simply that it was a bigger deal to get married back then. Today our divorce rate is out of control, and fatherless children are the norm, not the exception. Men go through several wives these days, sometimes within a short time. Why get married if we aren’t really making a commitment?
Mind your own business. Gossip has been a part of the human experience for such a long time, but it used to be considered more of a bad thing. People were labeled as gossips because they were the exception, not the rule. Modern media has now made voyeurs of us – we want to see everyone’s dirty laundry and then judge them on it. Or we want to see someone else’s mistakes and screw-ups so we can laugh at it. If we put that same energy into changing our own lives, we’d be so much farther ahead and much better people because of it.
Do the right thing. Acting on principle is a rare thing these days. Most of us act out of our own best interest, not the good of the whole. Doing the right thing everywhere you go is hard, but it’s what separates the men from the boys.
Row your own boat. Men did what it took to get ahead and to support their families. They worked hard at honest jobs, taking pride in their work. We’ve now got generations that think the world owes them a living, and we expect to get ahead even if we don’t do anything. It’s become more about who you know than what you do, and honest labor, skilled or otherwise, isn’t given the respect it deserves.
This may seem overly simplified, but I really do think that we’re losing something in our culture, and urge everyone to connect with and learn from our elders before they’re gone.
I can only hope that the legacy I leave behind will be something celebrated by my children and theirs. But somehow I don’t think it will be the same.
What do you think?