Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Truly Scandalous Post

Before proceeding, I advise you that you may find what I'm about to say offensive.

I'm serious. I intend to be almost brutal here. If you're easily scandalized, I recommend you skip this post.

Very well. If you're still reading, remember that you've been warned. Here goes:

I just turned 51 years old. My income this year has been just shy of $27,000. And oh, yes - I weigh about 240 pounds.

There. If you're a member of modern Western society, you are probably at least really surprised, maybe shocked, and perhaps truly scandalized (but I warned you!) But this response raises a question:


These are all simple facts, some well known and some easy to guess. They have no moral component, and revealing them harms nobody. This being the case, why is it that it is considered at least very unconventional, if not outright rude, to talk about personal details such as this?

There are many facets to that question, but I have a guess as to one reason: we humans are reticent to speak casually about that which we deeply honor. What we worship or revere, that which we perceive as bringing meaning and value to our lives, is not typically the topic of casual conversation. We may talk about these things under certain circumstances, but these are protected matters - hallowed ground, as it were.

Given that our culture reveres - if not worships - wealth, youth, and physical attractiveness, it stands to reason that income, age, and appearance would be protected topics. It has not always been this way. For instance, in literature from just a few decades back you can find quite casual descriptions of people as "pudgy" or "fat" - something that would be considered gravely insulting now, but at the time was merely a description of physique. Back then, different things were revered - two examples being personal religious belief and sexual behaviour. The personal details of those were not topics for casual banter.

Let me be clear about what I mean by this. I am not saying that in prior generations people did not know about someone's religion, or were unclear as to where babies came from. But the deeply personal aspects of these things, the most intimate details, were private. Everyone might know that a man was Catholic, and he might even be quite public about it - but what he discussed with his spiritual advisor, or pondered during his personal times with God, were not for public consumption. It might be public knowledge that a couple went away for a getaway weekend, but what they talked about (and where) would not be a water-cooler conversation topic - and it would have been considered gauche to ask.

This is one place where the purveyors of sexual license got things badly wrong - and were allowed to get away with it. I remember one of the catchphrases of the 1960s being that we needed to talk openly and frankly about sex, because it was nothing to be ashamed of. But shame wasn't the issue. Though some schoolmarms may have misunderstood this, the reason sex wasn't discussed casually was not because it was shameful, but because it was sacred.

In most corners of our culture, that has changed. Now, it is common to find intimate sexual details discussed on television, written up in newspaper columns, and even posted on weblogs. Even people's religious experiences - usually packaged under the category of "spirituality" - are often found in similar places. But have the effrontery to ask someone's age or weight, and you'll probably be stared down as a boor. In this day and age, such things are simply not discussed.

Socially and personally, we humans seem to be hard-wired this way. These matters rarely need to be outlined explicitly - social cues are usually enough. We pick up quickly on what is appropriate and what is inappropriate to discuss, what is acceptable and what is shameful. What topics fall into which categories says a lot about what kind of people we are, and what we value.

Why is this important? Because we can't change something if we don't recognize it. We catch more values from our cultural surroundings than we know. If we're going to cultivate particular values and reject others - particularly if we're going to be passing those values to the next generation - we need to be conscious of where we're getting those values, and their long-term import.

For my part, I don't care if my grandchildren know me as the pudgy grandpa, or know that we don't have enough money to get them elaborate presents this year. But I hope they notice that I spend special time with Jesus every morning, and that part of the reason their grandparents have such a stable and loving home is that we take care to spend time alone together. They won't need to hear every detail. The beneficial results should speak for themselves, and hopefully the message of what is not casually discussed around our home will communicate what is truly important.


Anonymous said...

Excellent thoughts. Isn't it interesting that profanity invariably falls within three categories: The sexual, the physically base (i.e., elimination), and the sacred. In other words, things that are good and healthy in their own place (we humans would be finished without each and every one of these) stripped of their simple dignity and made common and ugly by one thing and one thing only: The WAY they are referred to. The final category, in fact, surely gave rise to another term for profanity--swearing--as a description of a holy utterance gone wrong. Your essay, Roger, does an excellent job of whowing how we as a culture, comprehensively, have shifted from one that exalts the sacred to one that idolizes the profane.

Oh, and I'm balder than you are.

Branwen said...

I can promise you, your grandchildren benefit far more from the time you spend with them and praying for them, than any material gift you might give them!

SongsofLife said...

Very interesting. Are you familiar with Pope John Paul II's teachings about the Theology of the Body? Your post is right in line with the Pope's important teaching in this area.

P.S. This is Songsof Life formerly of The Dancing Lawn forum. Glad to have found your blog, as I always enjoyed reading your posts on TDL!