I have reached the age where it requires a longer gaze to look back than to look ahead – the years are passing more rapidly. Belief in living one’s life for the broader world has providing for rich experience and times of failure because it has involved the stretching of the human heart and mind. Yet even from an early age I sensed that the world would go on following my own passing and that the responsibility to give it a fighting chance for growth and depth would, to a small degree, depend on my ability to throw my shoulder into making it a better place. Posterity mattered – not for me so much, but for my children, my community, my world.
I received a moving image of that future last week, cradling my newborn grandson Jonah in my arms. Embracing a new life is a rite of passage for anyone, but in those three days of being with him, I realized I was looking at my own resurrection. It wasn’t a particularly religious moment, but more of an awareness that I still had a future. Thomas Paine, said prophetically, “We ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary.” Indeed it isn’t; it must be taught, exampled, and given the chance of experience and growth.
It is a noble aim, much better than living out our days, checking out, with little thought of what we leave the world. We most regularly forget that some of greatest blessings in life came from those who instinctively understood that their life would lose meaning if the next life weren’t equipped. The result has been new charities, museums, inventions, research, remarkable works of literature and song. Many of these would not exist if the next life hadn’t reached into the present. Yes, we take such things for granted, but they are posterity’s gift to us.
Yet it’s a two-edged sword. There are those who believe that fighting for posterity means invading other lands, years of devastation prompted by guerilla fighters, and mindless barons of capitalism and politics who rob the future of its wealth and resources to enjoy the controls and toys of the present. They destroy when they should have built.
We have to stop thinking of posterity as something only those who are wealthy, powerful or famous can do anything about. Much of that activity from the world’s elite is junk, piled in our generation, and reminders of ambition gone wrong.
But not Jonah – not my grandson, nor the rest of my family. I would have moved heaven and earth to will that little life into being noble. Alas, such things aren’t passed from generation to generation that way. There must be moments of intimacy, trust, honesty, love, sacrifice, and time if we wish to leave a legacy for them. In those wonderful moments looking into his widening gaze I realized I was looking at what will be left of me. I believe in an afterlife, confidently, but this is about life on this planet after I have been finally laid to rest. Perhaps, in some tiny and meaningful fashion, my effect on Jonah’s life will move the needle of refinement just enough to make him better equipped to help others as they face the challenges of tomorrow.
There are those moments when a grandfather holds new life in his arms and whispers in the child’s ear about goodness, of how the universe has a purpose, of how virtue, honour and dedication matter, even though the baby can’t possibly comprehend. I know because I whispered those things into Jonah’s ear. What a grandfather says in such moments is not heard in the world, but can be heard in posterity.
But I did more than that. I loved him. I held his tiny head in the crook of my arm and prayed for all the wonderful things he will learn. I placed my finger of the carotid pulse in his chest and wished I could live to see his great heart take on the world. As his finger wrapped around my thumb, I thought of how he will build and reach out to others. I loved him and inwardly thanked God for my daughter Kathy and her husband Jeff for the honour. In those moments I chose posterity.
Author Robert Bringhurst, in his The Tree of Meaning, beautifully concludes that, “When you die, your culture takes you in, and then, if you’ve given enough, your place is near the centre.” I desire that because I desire a life that matters. We all should.
I love Jonah for who he is, but in my selfishness I also loved him because in that tiny frame I will live on. He is my resurrection. May the world yet know that I have lived. And may the future matter because right now it belongs to him … and to me.