The 1970s country-western song “Pancho and Lefty” was written by Townes Van Zandt, and is most famous in the form of a cover by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. (For what it’s worth, I personally prefer the Van Zandt original, and a relatively lesser-known cover by Emmylou Harris.)[1] The song tells the story of Pancho (a deceased Mexican bandit possibly inspired by the historical figure Pancho Villa) and Lefty (a former compatriot of Pancho’s living in self-imposed exile in the American Midwest after, it is implied but never stated, betraying Pancho to the Mexican authorities for money). Now Pancho is long-dead, while Lefty is slowly squandering an impoverished life in wintry Cleveland. At the emotional and thematic climax of the song, the singer intones:

Pancho needs your prayers, it’s true

But say a few for Lefty too

He only did what he had to do

And now he’s growing old.

Van Zandt, as is well-known to country music fans, never did grow old himself; he died in his early fifties of a heart condition probably caused by long-term substance abuse. Like the dead ex-boyfriend Michael Furey from James Joyce’s “The Dead,” he was in some sense spared of the “fad[ing] and wither[ing]” that comes with becoming elderly and withdrawing from front-line economic and social participation.[2] But what of those of us who do grow old? There is a certain lack of charity, or a fear of mortality and limitedness of the kind that Tolkien often criticized, in the way songs like “Pancho and Lefty” and stories like “The Dead” discuss old age.

It’s a commonplace statement to make about old age that it comes along with diminishing social connections to the world as old friends and loved ones begin to predecease you. The non-Catholic C.S. Lewis, when asked to defend his oddly Catholic practice of praying for the dead, famously said, “I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age, the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to him?”[3] About Lewis’s own death shortly after writing this, his friend Tolkien said much the same. On that level, the “loneliness of the old” that Pope Francis speaks of is simply a fact of mortality. But there’s something more to it that makes it a genuine social evil rather than a mere fact of life in a Fallen world.

In my previous post in this series I mentioned the “ok boomer” meme (full disclosure: I’m young enough and get frustrated easily enough that I say this from time to time myself). I alluded to how, while it’s an expression of real frustration with older people’s frequent inability to understand problems facing young people, it also reifies the difference between the old and the young as if it’s some sort of inherently adversarial class distinction. I stand by this, and I think—to be utterly, by-the-book, fire-and-brimstone orthodox for a moment—that the fundamental cause is sinful human self-focus and inability to look beyond our own issues and problems to broader moral principles: justice, respect, humility, duty. Insistence on one’s own perspective to the exclusion of attempting to understand others is a failure of both imagination and moral sense; insistence on one’s own “generational” perspective is destructive even to oneself. As Pope Francis puts it, “It is unhelpful to buy into the cult of youth or foolishly to dismiss others simply because they are older or from another generation. Jesus tells us that the wise are able to bring forth from their store things both new and old.”[4]

The treadmill on which each generation castigates the old, then, upon growing old itself, both castigates and is castigated by the young, is in some ways an act of forgetting. It is an act of burying a store of wisdom in favor of a constant push towards novelty. Pope Francis reminds us in Amoris laetitia of the importance of the connection and sharing history between the young and old in families:

Our contemporary experience of being orphans as a result of cultural discontinuity, uprootedness and the collapse of the certainties that shape our lives, challenges us to make our families places where children can sink roots in the rich soil of a collective history.[5]

The old too are, as people, essentially forgotten, shut away in “homes” that for many are anything but, effectively institutionalized; not due to wrongdoing or even to insanity, but merely due to the normal challenges and decrepitudes of age. Into this treatment of the old the specter of violence creeps. In the past this sometimes came in the form of the overt homicide depicted in bleak Asian period pieces like The Ballad of Narayama[6] or in tasteless, racist jokes about the Inuit sending out their elderly on ice floes; in our time, it just as often takes the form of clean, medicalized, sentimentalized euthanasia or assisted suicide. Add to this the problem of pension cuts forcing many elderly people to remain in the workforce after the nominal retirement age, generally in diminished and often invisible or overlooked capacities that do not afford the comfort or self-respect long thought to be typical of a gainfully employed life.

I recently read Kazuo Ishiguro’s fantasy novel The Buried Giant,[7] which is set in a post-Arthurian Britain in which, to cover up massacres of Saxon settlers, Arthur has enlisted the aid of a magic dragon to breathe a magic mist over the land that makes people forget—not only forget the massacres, but forget everything, even about themselves. The main characters are an elderly couple about whom the book hammers home two essential facts: they truly and deeply love each other, and they cannot remember the vast majority of their marriage. (How much worse must the situation be for people in the world of this book who aren’t happily married: those who are widowed, estranged, gay or lesbian, clergy, etc.) The book deals with both public and private memory, and with the isolation and disorientation caused by forgetting; in all too many cases, in novels and songs as well as in real life, the old both forget and are forgotten. Pope Francis says it best, quoting the Psalmist:

“Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent” (Ps 71:9). This is the plea of the elderly, who fear being forgotten and rejected. Just as God asks us to be his means of hearing the cry of the poor, so too he wants us to hear the cry of the elderly.[8]

_______

[1] The relevant albums are The Late Great Townes Van Zandt (Van Zandt, 1972); Luxury Liner (Harris, 1977); Pancho & Lefty (Haggard and Nelson, 1983).

[2] The story is in Joyce’s, Dubliners; the whole collection can easily be found online.

[3] C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2017; originally published 1964), 144.

[4] Christus vivit, §15.

[5] Amoris laetitia, §193.

[6] This is a movie that depicts a practice that may or may not have ever actually existed but that is described as potentially existing elsewhere in Japan as far back as the eleventh-century Sarashina Diary. Ivan Morris, translator, As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams (New York: Penguin Classics, 1989), 109 and 147.

[7] London: Faber and Faber, 2015.

[8] Amoris laetitia, §191.

Image: Stained glass window of Methuselah, the longest-lived figure in the Bible, from the south transept of Canterbury Cathedral, England. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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3 Responses

  1. Petee says:

    I’m a great Imamura fan so it’s nice to see “Narayama” mentioned.

    There is great longevity on one side of my family and I may have to reckon with life at age 90 and more. I grew up in a culture where age was respected, but I’m not in one now.

  2. a sinner says:

    Christopher Lake, where are yooooooooou? 🙂 I miss your posts.

  3. Marie says:

    An issue near and dear to my heart, thank you. While I don’t get the entire ok boomer thing, I certainly do when it comes to caring for our elderly. We may be the sandwiched generation as well, but we just haven’t done a great job providing unconditional emotional care and security for those whom we are responsible. You’ve summed up the root of the problem perfectly “…inability to look beyond our own issues and problems to broader moral principles: justice, respect, humility, duty. Insistence on one’s own perspective to the exclusion of attempting to understand others is a failure of both imagination and moral sense.”

    Great article Nathan, thanks!

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