A member of my high school class (St. Louis University High School, 1955) keeps us in touch through an email list. About two hundred of us graduated in 1955 and most of us are on the list.
The emails received in the early years had “happy news” as their subject, announcements of weddings, the birth of children, exciting career moves etc. But recently, most of the emails I’m receiving have “sad news” as their subject. Yes, our class is gradually dying.
We were the generation between World War II and Vietnam, too young for the former, too old for the latter. So our losses have been to accidents and health problems, not to deaths in combat.
In our high school days, there was a “Senior Smoker” where seniors could play pool or ping-pong and smoke. It was pointed out at one of our reunions that the guys who most frequented the “Senior Smoker” had all died of smoking related diseases. So much for the appeal of the Marlboro man….but then, he died of lung cancer too.
Just a few days ago, I learned from one of these “sad news” emails that Tom O’Keefe had died, a guy who had politics written all over him, even when he was in high school. He was one of the “North St. Louis Irish”.
Like Gaul (about which we all had to read as sophomores struggling with the Latin of Caesar’s war journals), we were divided into three parts: the North St. Louis Irish, the South St. Louis Dutch (which meant German), and the West End kids (Clayton, Ladue etc.)
The first two groups were ethnic; the third group was rich. There were, of course, a few Italian kids from “the Hill”, some Polish kids etc. But what we all had in common was that we were the star pupils of the Catholic grade schools from which we had been drawn.
St. Louis University High School (SLUH, pronounced “slew”) provided a rigorous Jesuit education preparing its students for college. Many of the South St. Louis Dutch, like myself, ended up as college teachers. The North Side kids (like Tom) went mostly into business, while the West End kids became the CEO’s. All in all, we had been educated for success. Not merely secular success, but success as Jesuits understand it.
So Tom’s death was announced as “sad news”. It’s true that people dying in their early 70s seem fairly young these days. And a loss is always sad, leaving a gap that can never be filled. Tom O’Keefe, with his red hair and freckled white skin, was a bold extrovert, a natural leader. So intensely alive when we were both eighteen, so dead as I speak of him now. Sad news indeed.
And yet, something in me wants to protest that these deaths, and I too will one day be the subject of one of those emails, are more than sad news. These classmates were mostly good husbands and fathers, productive members of their communities, men trained in the Jesuit tradition to emulate Jesus as “the man for others”. That was the model held out to us for true success.
I’ve been doing some research on happiness, beginning with Aristotle who saw happiness as the primary goal of human behavior, the end or goal that aimed at nothing beyond itself and therefore deserved to be understood as our chief aim and purpose. Everything we do, argues Aristotle, aims at happiness: our foolish choices, as well as our wise ones. The alcoholic taking one more drink wants happiness as much as the person who chooses moderation.
Recent studies suggest that happiness is not immediate, like pleasure. It is most often the by-product of doing something that we believe benefits others. Lake Forest College had its annual “day of service” yesterday and teams of students/faculty/staff went to some twenty different sites to perform a service.
I went with a group of students to the Lake County Housing Authority in Grayslake. We basically cleaned the hallways and common areas of a complex of fifty apartments for people over fifty with limited incomes. Coming home on the bus, I looked around and saw clear evidence that the students were happy in a job well done, happier than when they were partying or simply “having fun”.
So I would argue that most of my classmates are dying “happy deaths”. They’ve lived lives that have benefitted others. In Catholic language, they died “fortified by the sacraments and surrounded by loving family members”.
Perhaps they heard, in their last moments, the voice of Jesus, the man for others, saying to them: “Well done, good and faithful servant, I’m calling you home now”. Can this kind of death, and its equivalent in other sacred traditions, adequately be described simply as “sad news”?
By Ron Miller on 2/6/2011