Born 9-11-1917. Died 12-24-1998. Bookends on a long story, well-written. Carved in granite on a Midwestern hillside. Immutable. One way of answering “When are you?”
As a species, we are obsessed with time. The circle of sarsen stones at Stonehenge records the changing of the seasons; calendars of paper mark the passing of the months; quartz watches mark our time in hours and minutes; and the international network of atomic clocks tracks time to an accuracy of one second every 30 million years. Obsessed as we are with time, we easily lose sight of our place in time.
Do you know the names of your grandparents? Great-grandparents?
Great-great? More importantly, do you know their stories?
If you have children, nephews or nieces, of course you know their names. Grandchildren, most probably. Do you know their dreams? Can you imagine great-grand progeny?
The people of the indigenous Iroquois Nation could and did. One of their guiding principles was the “seventh generation.” In its historical context, it requires us to base all of our decisions on what will be best for the seven generations that will come after us. A revised Native-American interpretation looks at the seven generations as a combination of the three that came before us, ourselves, and the three following us.
“Each generation is responsible to teach, learn from, and protect the three generations that had come before it, its own, and the next three.” [From the birth of a great grandparent to the death of a great grandchild, there will elapse some 260 years, more time than the entire history of the United States.] “In this way, we maintained our communities for millennia.”
Born 6-16-2021: With fingers too small to hold a pencil and a cortex yet to discover its first words, parents write the introduction to this story.
Born 6-7-2002: Starting college, finding the arc for a story yet untold.
Born 12-19-1968: Mid-career adjustments, refining the narrative.
Born 7-8-1944: Tying up loose threads on the way to “the end.”
What do these four people, representing four generations, share? They are all storytellers with only the first bookends in place. They, and we, join with almost 8 billion other storytellers currently living here on earth, all writing autobiographies — all about us — as written by us.
Since the birth of the first hominid 2 million years ago, who was something more than a chimpanzee, some 110 billion human beings have come before us, written their stories, stories now beyond revision, with both bookends firmly in place. These human stories line the endless rows of shelves in a mythical library that hardly anyone ever visits, covered in the ever-accumulating dust of our past. Too busy to visit any stories in the mythical library and too busy to worry about much more than today, we live in the moment, a race of existentialists, obsessed with filling our limited time and oblivious to our place in it.
Why is this? When our grandkids have to show us how to operate the newest electronic device, do we really expect them to seek our life advice? Are we even remotely able to fathom the complexities of their future new world? When we were hunter-gatherers — which means for almost 99% of our entire history as a human race — every generation both learned and taught exactly the same thing. Skills needed to survive were essential, and those skills did not change. Today, the accelerating pace of change has made most of what lies between those permanent bookends irrelevant and what lies in the future imponderable. So we live in and for today, alongside that enormous library hardly anyone ever visits. And thus the truism: What we learn from history is that we do not learn from history.
Born 9-11-1917. Died 12-24-1998.
A few days before my father died, he looked at me and said, “You know, the world is going to end soon.” I looked back and said, “Yes, Dad, for you it is.” When he was only 1 year old, his father died in the Spanish flu epidemic. Raised by a single mom and his uncles, he vowed his children would not be as alone as he was. So he had 12. Mission accomplished. One kind of immortality.
The Iroquois were asked to wear seven skins — one for each generation for which they were responsible. My father wore three — his parents, his own, and his children. How many skins are we willing to wear? How many generations are we willing to protect? How many visits are we willing to make to that mythical library?
Here’s a suggestion: Next week, let’s each find someone older than us and ask them: “If you had one piece of advice to give on how to live a meaningful, memorable life, what would it be?” Then find someone younger and ask them: “What do you see as the greatest challenge you are facing for your future life?” Connections made. Library open for business.
Feel free to share what you hear: fuel for another essay (email@example.com).