I have noticed that many adults my age tend to read obituaries quite frequently. I read them in The Times every morning. Perhaps we want to be reminded that we are still alive, but it could also be that we gain inspiration from the lives that have been lived well. Obituaries often document such lives.
Those lives have a distinct pattern. There is a religious element — they are now in the Lord’s keeping or are with Christ, they were devoted to a church which they served throughout their lives, and they have funeral services at their church pastored by at least one clergy.
There is a marital element — they have had long marriages in which they were faithful spouses in good times and bad, “for better or worse.”
There is a family element — they usually have a large family of children, grand-children, and even great-grandchildren, whom they love and support.
And there is a “work” element — they have served some enterprise for many years by contributing their loyalty and gifts. “Work” in this case also includes “home work,” managing and caring for a household, as well as serving in voluntary associations. If they have served in the military, that is prominently mentioned.
When our family moved to the Roanoke Valley thirty-six years ago, we noticed such a pattern deeply ingrained in the adults of the valley. It was in sharp contrast to the secular and family-unfriendly neighborhood in Chicago from which we came. It was good to be back into a more coherent and solid culture, one that was more like the ones in which my wife and I grew up.
We believed that basic pattern — based upon firm religious grounds — was more important than the economic vitality of the valley, though we knew that was important to sustain the social life we admired. It was far more important than the accoutrements of which the leadership of the valley now seem so enamored: a Deschutes brewery (which was awaited almost like the Second Coming even though the Second Coming is a lot more certain that the arrival of the brewery), bike trails, a lively nightlife downtown, scads of good restaurants, and tons and tons of millennial-oriented entertainment. Though we appreciate these niceties, they pale before the basics.
My sense is that such religiously-based solidarity is waning, as is the quality of life in the valley. Along with the obituaries of those oldies I mentioned above are a smaller, but significant, number of death notices of younger people, often single or divorced, that look like drug overdoses or suicides. Such early deaths contribute to a disturbing drop in the life expectancy of Americans in the last three years. An astounding number of Americans took their lives by suicide (45,000) or lost them through overdose (70,000) in 2017, far outstripping traffic or military deaths. A large portion of those deaths were single or divorced males who were religiously and socially unengaged. According to one study (Health insurer Cigna) slightly over half of Americans feel lonely. Younger people seem to be the loneliest.
My hunch is that the oldies mentioned above were not likely to take dangerous drugs, contemplate suicide, or feel persistently lonely. They attended to the four crucial callings in life: church or temple, marriage, family, and work. Those vocations provided purpose and meaning, as well as social engagement in their lives, which are great blessings.
To what are we to look to renew and repair those callings. Not to academia, which is busy “deconstructing” traditional culture and replacing it with hyper-individualism on one hand and identity politics on the other. Not to government, which is inept at building a healthy culture. Certainly not to entertainment, which specializes in relentless sex and violence.
I believe it can be provided by religious renewal, much as American society was renewed by the First and Second Great Awakenings in the 18th and 19th centuries respectively. Many colleges, including Roanoke College, were founded in the Second to instill religious and moral virtue in the young so that the new republic could flourish. American history is replete with such revivals, perhaps the last one coming at the end of WWII when returning veterans filled the churches with their families.
I do not have a clue as to how such an awakening might take place in today’s America. I expect that it will come in surprising ways and will not replicate the pattern that I experienced in my growing up years. But it will involve a renewal of the four great vocations we have been given. Thousands of Christians in the valley pray for such a renewal each Sunday. So let it come in the Lord’s good time.