My wife, Dorotka, enjoys watching programs about real estate and houses. A sub-genre of those programs is old houses, and the treasures to be found in attics, especially (but not only) in the attics of hoarders.
Attics have ceased to be an accessory in most people’s housing, which is too bad: it was another way that people were liberated from the tyranny of the moment, the now. Children especially love those treasure troves, even if they don’t always understand the treasures they find: how I wish I had some of the things in my grandparents’ attic that were there when I was an 11-year old.
Modern mobility undermines the attic, because we have gradually lost the sense of a “home” (especially one passed along for multiple generations). Houses are not necessarily homes: our modern mentality has turned them into commodities, assets to be “flipped” or speculated in for a quick return. The recession of 2008-11, prompted in part by speculation of an artificially overpriced housing bubble, is but one symptom of the commodification of the home as a “house.”
My reflections are prompted by a story in the July 27 New York Times about the legacy of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. Fifty years after that “giant leap for mankind,” the Times reports that the family and those who knew him may be divided over his sons’ plans to auction his material inheritance. Neil Armstrong, it’s said, never sought to profit or even highlight his place in history; the paper reports that Armstrong “…stopped signing autographs in 1994, after he discovered that many of those requesting his signature were then selling them. His personal lawyer, Ross Wales, said his client resisted the idolatry focused on his signature and possessions in part because he considered himself only the frontman for a huge NASA enterprise.” One son says he wants to use the money to fund an environmental nonprofit. Armstrong’s second wife (after a divorce), who has donated Armstrong memorabilia to musea and archives, is said to oppose the sales as contrary to Armstrong’s wishes.
The Times writes that son “Mark Armstrong said that the question of what’s best for posterity and what his father might have wanted is not so simple.” That’s true, whether one admits that out of cynical (the argument is self-serving) or trusting (life is complicated) grounds.
It comes up in various ways. If someone donates money for something, how long should his name stay on the gift? (I’d argue permanently, or give it back — a question that has arisen about naming of buildings but which would also prove problematic for the current generation of parish downsizing U.S. bishops.) What happens when a previous honoree or even benefactor is discovered with modern (think institutions named after Theodore McCarrick) or historical warts falls into contemporary bad odor (think Robert E. Lee or at least one-time segregationists like Robert C. Byrd, who plastered his name over numerous federal institutions in West Virginia)?
I don’t want to address the quasi-Puritanism of contemporary politically correct iconoclasm, but I do want to reflect a little on the Armstrong inheritance.
A man may want to leave his mark posthumously and his will should be respected. When a parent designates a guardian for a minor child or stipulates assets be divided in certain ways, we should honor their will. If it’s in a legal last will and testament, we’re legally bound to. But even absent what probate can force us to do, the dispositions of the deceased generally deserve our respect.
Obviously, there are times when those dispositions are manifestly unjust or even immoral, which is when people challenge wills, usually at the cost of generations of future familial estrangement.
I don’t know what Neil Armstrong stipulated or whether there was any guidance beyond oral wishes. But the debate calls to mind a play I read in college, Everyman.
Everyman is a late-15th-century morality play, in which the main character — who is every man who has or is walking this planet — is summoned by God to the great democratic leveler of humanity: death. The question is: who will accompany him?
Everyman’s material Goods abandon him. When he invites them to go with him, Goods demur, saying: “Nay, not so, I am, to brittle, I may not endure// I will follow no man one foot, be ye sure.” They insist that they belong to man but for a time: “As for a while I was lent thee//A season thou hast had me in prosperity.” Then, in an almost dualistic tone that suggests that the primary role of Goods is one of temptation, they jeer him: “My condition is man’s soul to kill // If I save one, a thousand I do spill.” That tempting role is also characterized as extending across generations: “Therefore to thy soul Good is a thief // For when thou art dead, this is my guise // Another to deceive in the same wise // As I have done thee, and all to his soul’s reprief.”
Even if a man manages to keep a sane and balanced attitude toward the goods of his life – the Church teaches, after all, that man’s right to private property comes from the very demands of his human condition (see Rerum novarum nos. 6-13) — there’s no guarantee his heirs will also do so. Such are their deeds.
It’s interesting that, in Everyman, the one companion to be found on the journey through death is grace-filled Good Deeds. The one thing man takes into the next world are his deeds. As Karol Wojtyła was wont to point out in his philosophical anthropology — an anthropology that tallies with the Church’s moral vision — our deeds go with us because they have made us who we are. Our acts just do not do things in the world, accomplish results out there. They shape us, make us good or evil, exercise their fundamental influence in us.
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart” says Job (1:21) after receiving news of the loss of his goods and family. Because they’re spoken in the context of a book in which the main character suffers absolute reversal of his fortunes, we perhaps think of these words only in extreme situations.
The truth is that they apply to Everyman. We bring nothing into this world, and take nothing away from it except what we have made ourselves into during our sojourn in it. A flag carried to the moon still must remain in this time and space. Even our prized childhood Teddy Bear — like Neil Armstrong’s — may go on the auction block. Perhaps more distressing may be the realization that one’s man’s treasures may be his heir’s junk – and in an era that has abandoned attics, that treasure may soon find its way to the junkyard.
St. Ignatius taught his disciples to be “indifferent,” by which he meant attachment neither to wealth nor repugnance to poverty, but the desire to put material things to the service of God’s greater glory.
One benefit of today’s mobile world is that, when people move frequently, they are forced to downsize: the cost of, and limits on moving our accumulated “stuff” has the beneficial effect of fostering a weeding out of what we carry along. That’s not a bad thing because, as Frank Capra and Christianity both reminded us anyway, “you can’t take it with you,” and your wishes may only be met for so long.
All views expressed herein are exclusively the author’s.