There is an old Joni Mitchell song that has this verse in it:
“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone! They paved Paradise and put up a parking lot! “
We all like progress, and as Americans we are always in love with the ‘new’, but we seldom count the cost of that modernization.
I remember when my Mom asked my Dad if we could buy a toaster. My father liked things very simple. He asked what we needed it for, so my Mom told him that she would like to toast bread. My dad took a piece of bread with a long fork and turned on one of the oven jets. He waved the bread over the flame until it was golden brown. Then he gave it to my Mom saying, “There’s your toast!”
My Mom eventually won the battle and we got the family toaster. But my father’s ideas were cautionary and had certain validity. It is not a good thing just to buy something because everyone has it.
Now, I am not against toasters! But when we look at all the gadgets we have around (even extending to the hightech), I wonder if my Dad did have a point. This is especially true when we are trying to get rid of the things that don’t work anymore.
There is a beauty in simplicity. Now that we have a thousand channels on TV, are we any happier? And what have we lost: reading time, time to converse with our families, opportunities to think and to pray, and that delicious silence that has a healing presence in our souls!
I love telling the Academy children when I visit them in class what it was like to grow up in the 1950’s. When I give them the particulars (no remotes, 6 or 7 channels on TV, no cell phones or computers), they look at me like I was a Cave Man when I grew up!
But when I tell them about the safety in the streets, the long languorous summer days with the ‘gang’ on the block, the invented games like Kick the Can, the unsupervised trips on the Subway to Yankee Stadium, they sort of begin to see that they are missing something that we had, something so mysterious (community!) that their isolated connections on the Internet can’t even begin to approximate.
Perhaps the song was right: we paved paradise and put up a parking lot. Maybe we needed parking, but how can we calculate what we have lost?
At the center of this real community was the Church. I grew up in St. Rita’s parish in East New York, Brooklyn. Our Church, humble as it was, was actually an underground building that was initially intended to be the first stage of a larger, more imposing edifice; and the large school building with its adjacent Youth Center was often at the nexus of all our concerns. We went to school there, we worshiped in the Church that was seemingly always open, and we played ball in the ‘Marian Yard’. In the Convent there were 20 to 30 nuns in full habit, members of a strict contemplative order named the ‘School Sisters of Notre Dame’. The rectory had 4 to 6 priests assigned to our parish. Twice a year we had a giant feast and bazaar. The first was in June dedicated to St. Michael and St. Joseph, run by our Neapolitan parishioners. The second was in honor of Saints Cosmas and Damian and was staffed by our Barese parishioners.
In this Italian-American neighborhood, there was great respect for the priests and nuns even though we saw them as flawed human beings. But the faith was central and it informed our lives in many often-imperceptible ways.
This solidity was mirrored at home by the strong family structures we enjoyed and often put up with!
Today, we have a great deal more technologically. And, if we are honest, we would not easily give up our smart phones, our material prosperity and the remotes we use to run our lives. But it has come at a deep price. We have paved paradise and we like the expanded parking. But at what a cost! Maybe it is better that the younger amongst us do not realize this and blissfully think this the best of all worlds!
After all, there were some terrible injustices that we accepted without understanding what we were doing. I think of the racism and the restricted role for women. And I am sure we have many blind spots today (abortion as reproductive freedom).
But there were things that we have lost, and maybe will never see again.
Even with these losses, God is still at work; and every time that we fulfill His Commandments and live a life of faith and love, we incarnate the essentials that make for future paradises. For our faith is constantly renewed, and we are taught by God through detachment to let go of even the glories of the past, for He is always making all things new.
Maybe the Paradise we are moving toward in God’s providence will far our shine the ones of the past.
We are a people of hope as long as we put God first in our lives.