Newsletter Archive

The Ever-Present Present and the Seventh Generation

I've been reading the classics, and it's given me a new awareness of history, and the difference between short-term and long-term thinking.  Thucydides, in "The Peloponnesian War," says "I have written my work win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time."  He wrote those words 2500 years ago (that is, 125 generations ago).  Things that were created "for all time" are markedly different in quality and function than things created for short-term gain.  In our culture, we are drowning in things made for short-term gain, and must search long and hard for creations intended "for all time."

Americans have always avoided learning from the past ("History is bunk," said Henry Ford), but increasingly we neither look towards the future.  We are adrift in an ever-present present, devoid of history, context, or significance.  "When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness," said Alexis de Tocqueville.  Illustrations abound:  Companies like Enron defraud investors for every short-term dollar they can get.  The average citizen saves little or nothing for his/her own retirement, not having thought that far ahead.   And just consider the outcomes of parents making decisions from a short-term perspective.  

What kind of culture is created in this slice of time, without past or future? Television dominates, especially reality TV.  People are shown in contrived (and often humiliating) situations, without reference to story, character, history--all the elements that used to be considered essential to good entertainment.  And the citizenry itself prefers mediocre reality shows, while scripted programs are canceled. (My favorite recent casualty was "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," full of witty dialogue and sympathetic characters.  Gone in less than a year.)  Video games, even more empty of real-world context, keep growing in popularity.

In music, there is a growing gulf between "hit songs" (literally designed "to win the applause of the moment") and good songs, the ones that speak to us year after year.  Thank goodness folk music seems to be a cultural exception, connected with history, filled with enduring songs, and good people who keep the long term in mind.  The culture at large could learn a lot from this music, and its communities around the country.

I've done my best to create music and build relationships, personal and professional, from the vantage point of the long-term.  An appetite to keep learning history (both History, and the smaller histories of our own lives) helps me do that.  And, I believe that we all could benefit greatly from a shift away from short-term thinking and towards a long-term outlook.  It would help heal some of the divisions in the country, put our differences in perspective, and better equip us all to make responsible decisions about some of the tasks ahead of us, individually and collectively.

The Iroquois have a concept that major decisions should be evaluated by how they will impact on the next seven generations to come.  Isn't that a marvelous wayto re-think our priorities, and the impact of our actions?   I want to invite you to try incorporating the "seventh generation" perspective in your own life, if you haven't already.  I'd be eager to hear how it goes.    Let's let 2008 be the beginning of a longer-term outlook for us all.

P.S. My longtime friend Phil Terry and I run phone-based reading groups of the classics. If you are interested to read the wonderful first historian, Herodotus, in one of our groups this year, then e-mail and say you want more information or want to join (it's free).

"The Landmark Thucydides," Robert B. Strassler, ed.
Alexis de Tocqueville, "Democracy in America."
"The Landmark Herodotus," Robert B. Strassler, ed.

Ears and Eyes:  What I'm Listening to and Reading:
    Jeff Lang, "Everything Is Still."
    Kelly Joe Phelps, "Tap the Red Cane Whirlwind."  
    Bruce Chatwin, "The Songlines."
    John E. Wills, "1688:  A Global History."
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Until next time:  many thanks, and warm regards,