I was at the doctor’s office for my annual physical exam, the first time I had actually used my Medicare card to secure health care. As usual, nurse Nadine took me to the exam room to run an EKG. She’s a couple years younger than me but we’re of a generation. Our conversation quickly drifted into how bad the economy was and we ended up trading stories about how different things were when we were young. The country was still on the come in those days and America was richer than it had ever been. Neither Nadine nor I thought it would ever again be what it once was. Fat City was in America’s rear view mirror, forever.
“I feel bad for the kids,” she offered. “We knew we were going to do better than our parents. But our kids aren’t. There’s no way they can do anything but make do with less. They’ll never have quite as much. That feels strange and makes me sad.”
I recognized the point she was making—and the festering sense of incompletion driving it. I could only nod my head yes.
I left the office that morning thinking about the notion of Legacy. Human society is a perpetual hand-me-down, moving through generations, always building on a foundation inherited from the now dead and passed on to the still living. Legacy is a primal topic, particularly among those of us with Medicare cards. In it, our life as members of a single species shows through our cloak of individualism. Like it or not, we are hard wired with a sense of continuity, a kind of genetic compass for travel through time. Our instinctive anticipation of such layering makes examining our own contribution virtually unavoidable, though we rarely give the progression of the species much shrift in our daily political and social behavior. Humanity’s chain of custody is participatory reality at its most basic.
So I developed an accounting of our transmission of humanhood to the next in line after I got back from the doctor—taking into account not so much dollars and cents, as Nadine had done, as the intangibles of consciousness and identity. My effort was preposterously incomplete given the enormous weave of threads generating human society, but I came up with five particularly worrisome social traits we are passing on:
1. The assumption of Growth. We have calibrated our communal institutions and personal behaviors on the premise that the human enterprise will always get larger. The foolishness of that commitment to Growth will be visited upon our legatees. The human species and its civilizations will not be able to sustain endless enlargement. There aren’t the resources necessary to maintain it, nor the social institutions to manage it, and the damage such Growth will do to our biological support system could very well be the end of us. We seem to have lost sight of the pervasive physical fact of limits. Those who carry our legacy forward will have to find their way to a steady state they can master without our logic of escalation.
2. The isolation of Identity. We have become adept at distinguishing our individual selves, but that focus on the personal aura has contributed to our separation from each other as well. Those who succeed us will need to think of themselves as a species, where we have operated with a far narrower inclusion, rarely getting past tribe or nation or family. The future humans will need to connect, not differentiate. Where we have devoted much of our psychological and spiritual energy to setting ourselves off from others, our legatees will need to engage, include, bond, and commune—all in the interest of forming a solid human front as the biosphere degrades. We have built a culture that appreciates our selves and those coming after us will need desperately to appreciate each other.
3. The constriction of our Time Frame. The drift of human society through my lifetime has been towards the immediate. Trying to escape the tyranny of waiting, we have evolved a worship of the present tense and an attention span that includes only moments, never years or epochs. That in turn has alienated us from Legacy itself. We by and large refuse to calculate or identify life on the other side of any particular moment, denying the layering of human time, or even that we exist outside of any particular instant. In the disturbances to come, that miniscule attention span will be fatal. The only kind of thinking sufficient to rescue the future is rooted in long term, biological time.
4. The dominance of Materialism. We have made the acquisitive process the spine of social and personal identity. This worship of the material has served us well on some fronts, but it has also made us selfish, squandered our resources, and nurtured the assumption of Growth. Our Legacy amounts to an insistent demand for More, made to a human future in which the only sure thing is that there will be Less. That future needs to shift its focus from the accumulation of quantities to the appreciation of qualities—developing the human capacity to be satisfied with the intangible, a skill many current humans have long since abandoned in the rush to wealth and extravagance.
5. The neglect of Compassion. This human trait remains stunted from ill or non use, headed for a future in which suffering will be manifold and humans will need their Compassion to be abundant and vital. In large part, however, Compassion has not yet been developed in other than a superficial ways. Religions glorify it, but its practice is sporadic, episodic, limited, and in short supply. Placing universal value on human life is essential to creating a common human front in the face of common danger. Currently, humanity is valued largely in the breech. Those who come next will have to empower their Compassion rather than shunting it off to the corner to be brought out on holidays.