These recent posts have been about how we define and protect our collective identity – in our communities, country and the world. But what about in centuries to come? It’s an intriguing question. If in our efforts we fail to embed our narrative in history, what’s to become of our story, our exploits in improving our lives? Will we be viewed as the generation that ultimately lost control of the delicate eco-balance of our planet? Will future historians write about how we defeated the tentacles of poverty through the revitalization of our communities? The answer to those questions will determine how the future identifies us and whether we were the people who overcame tremendous challenges or, instead, just floated with the current into historical oblivion?
Immediately when considering this we think about monuments, institutions, masterpieces in art and music, but that’s not what really captures our imagination. What if history recorded, not the things we left that endured, but the things that were used up as we dedicated ourselves to a better age? While things that endure might inform the future that we lived, the most important trait we can pass on to coming generations is how we lived and what we did to ensure that there would be a better and more sustainable future.
I received an object lesson in this on my last visit to Washington, D.C. I was able to look over a five-volume set of The Life of George Washington (1805). The books were beautiful, inlaid with gold lettering, and written by Chief Justice John Marshall. There was only one problem: they bombed as a publication. Few bought them and they became a publishing disaster. Ironically, because they didn’t sell, there are still sets of the biography in circulation today.
But you couldn’t say that for the Farmer’s Almanac, published in the same year. The Almanac contained vital weather forecasts for farmers, recipes for homemakers, instructions on how to shoe horses, Sunday school lessons for kids, tips on hygiene – everything required by the average American. However, although tens of thousands were produced on cheap paper, it’s almost impossible to come across one today from that year. The reason? People used them up, tearing out pages and taking them to chores for directions, as insulation between drafty walls, even toilet paper.
Two publications released in the same year and yet look at the difference. This is one of the reasons why historians experience such difficulty in discovering the truth of how people lived in bygone days. Sometimes the things that survive – buildings, monuments, books, and mausoleums – do so because they were rarely used. History is most often written by the wealthy and the victors, or as Winston Churchill once put it, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” But those things used everyday by average people and which have huge significance often never make it into the next century – a loving note to a child, a blog posting, a random act of kindness, a quiet moment of nobility that altered the direction of a life.
Once, during a delightful lunch with Michael Ignatieff and his wife Zsuzsanna at their condo in Toronto, Michael showed me his dining room table strewn with material he was researching for his book True Patriot Love. On the surface were piled letters from his grandfather to his grandmother, but nothing from his grandmother. The reason became clear: women keep such things, while men often don’t. Yet such a simple reality of human nature was presenting a huge challenge to a writer seeking the truth of an earlier time.
The important thing for any generation is not just to leave behind permanent reminders that they once existed, but to use up the moments of time granted them in this life to establish a new and better way of living, and availing themselves of the tools to make that happen. And, unlike other historic eras, we need to leave a trace of our efforts as average people. Aldous Huxley used to say that, “Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.” Well, let’s not be guilty of that. Let’s express our love for our children and spouse by leaving videos and words that let future generations know that deeper affection that counted for something was alive in our time. Why let the politicians and the professionals determine the fate of democracy for us? Let’s save our best, our highest and noblest efforts, for our respective communities in ways that debated, discussed and ultimately decided to put our fellow citizens ahead of partisan interest.
For just one generation, let’s permit the future to know that we were a people alive to our possibilities and capable of meeting our challenges. History will automatically leave the legacies of rock stars, sports figures, elite politicians, and billionaires, but it will never tell our story – a narrative whereby most people lived for the betterment of their world. History is always selective; let’s just make sure that what we believed in and fought for is in the mix, so that future generations might acquire hope that citizens can indeed remake their world in the image of cooperation and sustainability. Let’s be an enduring collective voice, not a fading individual echo.