Family  /  Argument

Yearning for Roots

We're born with a hunger for connection with our ancestors – both biological and spiritual.

The “pervasive rootlessness” that Haley identified afflicts not only America, but also virtually everywhere that modernity has touched. Whatever occasional interest people may take in their family history is too weak to overcome a far stronger current of indifference bordering on hostility toward the past. In the words of the Belgian critic Paul de Man, “Modernity exists in the form of a desire to wipe out whatever came earlier, in the hope of reaching at last a point that could be called a true present, a point of origin that marks a new departure.” If all that matters is the now – what philosophers call presentism – then there seems to be little we can learn from past generations. Instead, the cult of youth wields near-total cultural power. One result is that the old are cut off from the young, socially and often physically as well. Traditionally, the role of elders was to pass on inherited wisdom to the next generation. But if the past is judged useless or morally suspect, the elderly can seem to have little to offer their communities. Even China, a country proud of its Confucian tradition of filial piety, felt compelled in 2015 to pass an Elderly Rights Law requiring grown children to visit their aging parents.

This bitter truth is now coming home to the once-young-but-now-aging radicals of the Age of Aquarius. And the wheel keeps on turning. Since the turn of the millennium, the pace of technological churn has accelerated the expiry date of youth for each generation. The same Millennials who wield the “OK Boomer” meme against sixty-somethings find themselves mocked by Zoomers for their skinny jeans, avocado eating, and cringe emoji use.

The devaluing of the old was laid bare during the Covid-19 pandemic, with particularly high mortality among those living in nursing homes, who also tend to report higher rates of loneliness and isolation. According to a study published in the Journal of Health Economics, in 2020 residents of US nursing homes were twenty-three times more likely to die of Covid than Americans age sixty-five and older with different living arrangements; in at least five states, one-eighth of nursing home residents at the beginning of that year were dead by its end.

The sheer number of deaths is a crass illustration of what Pope Francis calls “throw away culture,” in which the old, rather than passing on their wisdom to the young, are warehoused until they die. In Francis’s words: “The elderly are so often discarded with an attitude of abandonment, which is actually real and hidden euthanasia! It is the result of a throw away culture which is so harmful to our world.” Meanwhile, literal euthanasia, in the form of “medical assistance in dying” (MAiD) now legal in several jurisdictions in North America and Europe, is also becoming increasingly common as a logical extension of the same way of thinking. Most insidiously, elders begin to see themselves this way: with no cultural script of reverence for the wisdom of age and respect for its honor, the aged believe themselves to be above all in the way.