When does a situation become so pressing in the public consciousness that we demand action?
The old adage, “it’s too late to lock the barn door after the horse has left the building” seems to be rooted in both history and culture. Nevertheless, we keep rushing to put the lock on the door (fix the lock, find the key, get a new lock, adjust the door…whatever it takes) to assure ourselves and our families, organizations the horse will not be able to bolt “the next time”. Taking the deliberate, conscious, planned and reflective step to make sure the “lock” works and is engaged, PRIOR to the horse’s exit, however, seems like a nuisance, a bore, a distraction from our busy lives, too high a cost, and a target for a compendium of excuses, rationalizations and denials.
We seem either to love “cleaning up our own messes” or to be too disengaged to “prevent” those messes in the first place. We can and do laud the “vision” and the anticipation of a Wayne Gretzky who seemed always to know where the puck was “going to be” before it got there, as exceptional, sensational, visionary, even so extraordinary that only a very few are so “talented.” We all know people whom we describe as “having their head and eyes glued to the rear-view mirror” as the preferred pattern of their lives. History, after all, is the best teacher and, for another of our “cracker-barrel maxims” we shout, “Those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it”. Some towns and cities in Ontario have taken to expressing these thoughts on the signs they erect at their ‘front door’: (Name) “where history and innovation thrive;” “where past present and future live in harmony,” “where history inspires our future,” “touch the past embrace the future,”…..all of these purporting to hold both past and future in equal balance and significance.
The simple fact, however, is that we have some ‘record’ of how things “were” and no authentic and credible picture of how things “might be” tomorrow. Churches, using a potentially powerful influence on our culture (in the past) depend on the words, the injunctions and the warnings from their revered “fathers,” the writers who put those words into sacred texts. It was never that the writers believed or attempted to engrave history into our psyches as if it had more reason to be considered “sacred” than the “now” or all of the tomorrow’s to come. On the other hand, “authority” (Divine Right of Kings, and the prophetic writings of the various teachers and prophets, the omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient God…all symbols of some power and influence we are instructed to value, emulate and obey. And all of them come out of our past. In schools and families, we prosletyze the habits, values, perceptions and expectations we have absorbed from our ancestors. And that includes our embedded bigotries, our food preferences and abhorrences, our at-meal prayers, our vacation patterns and perhaps destinations. There is, we believe and are repeatedly told, high value to our way of living, believing, perceiving and behaving. In many families too, our sons and daughters take on the career patterns of their mothers and fathers, often in the same geographic locations. These might be the “family farm,” the family business, the family law or medical practice, or “following in the footsteps” of the politician father, for example. And, let’s agree, there is a kind of continuity to this pattern of observing and honouring the traditions of our past.
For many in the political or academic arenas, their professional lives rely extremely heavily on the precedents set by their predecessors: academic research, for example, the laws and traditions of the courts, the procedures of the operating room. Even the chosen garb worn by the respective practitioners is a symbol of the past, carried forward, with sometimes minor adjustments. (Wigs no longer worn in Canadian courts, except at the Supreme Court level.) And while we have multiple highly advanced systems to disseminate the details, and the perceptions and the values of our collective past, there are still many “new” developments for which we are alarmingly unprepared.
Global warming and climate change, the rise of terrorism, the plague of starvation, the epidemics that defy our antibiotics, the shift in trade practices from local and national to neighbourly to global, the displacement of millions of workers resulting in both a drain on the health care budgets and an exponential spike in drug and alcohol dependence….these are just a few of the files that often seem either too dire and complex to respond to our normal degree and kind of interventions, or whose implications and warnings can be debated and demonstrated to be too far in the future to worry about today. After all, the argument goes, we simply cannot afford to predict and to solve every crisis before it strikes.
Nevertheless, there is a cultural proclivity that favours looking backward, and includes a dissection of the present variables, while ignoring our responsibilities for the future, to a similar extent. Let’s re-examine the old story of the children falling into the waterfalls, in which people rush to the bottom of the falls to pick them out. Rarely, if ever, are our primary resources directed to the top of the falls to discover why they are falling in in the first place, and to preventing that tragedy. Rushing to “rescue” rather than rushing to “prevent” is a culture norm on which, if we remain permanently impaled, will “hoist us on our own petard”.
Self-sabotage, it seems, is not exclusive to the male demographic, although our (male) championing of its repetition in our individual and our collective lives is a red flag we might want to take more note of. However, when it comes to cultural self-sabotage, we can take pre-emptive and preventive steps as our own best “warriors”.
We do have both the skills and the knowledge necessary to develop a shared perspective that focuses our eyes and our minds and our hearts and our wills on the road ahead. There is nothing that proves beyond a doubt that our “knowledge” of the past is more “credible” or valuable than our anticipation our the future. History is, by its very nature, subject to a variety of widely differing opinions, new evidence examined from new perspectives with new technologies that permit new conclusions and therefore just as subject to change as our “view” of the future. It is our fixed attitude that renders the future much more frightening and therefore worthy of both avoidance and of denial than our attitude to our past.
There are so many layers to this observation Let’s start with the most obvious, our avoidance and in many cases our denial of death. So taboo is the subject that it is, in many quarters, equated with or even identified with EVIL. In the Manichean dichotomy that declares LIFE sacred and thereby good, then its opposite has to be evil.
I have always found it difficult, if not impossible, to square this notion with the concept of “natural law” on which much of Christian church theology is based. Is death not just as much an integral component of natural law as birth? Are we not cognizant of and in agreement with the paradoxical concept that every “dying” opens a door to a “new life” in some manner, just as the inverse is also true, that every birth involves some “dying”. Living and breathing not only implies but actually declares that death will ensue, just as naturally and predictably as a morning sunrise after a dark dawn.
Our footprints in the sands of time in our families, our towns, cities, schools and universities (as well as our churches for the dwindling few) are moments to celebrate with celebrations, congratulations, anniversaries, baptisms, and even (dare I say it?) funerals. And yet our future prospects, visions, hopes dreams and even bucket lists are considered somewhat frivolous, unworthy of too much concentration, planning and concentration. After all, what value do they have, unless and until they have been fulfilled? (At least that’s the conventional “wisdom”!)
And yet, those things, pictures we envision , especially in our darkest moments, may be the single rung of hope on which we can hang our determination to carry on. They are not yet written in our diaries, nor are they documented in our family histories, nor are they recorded in the daily newspaper or the history archives. Yet, do those omissions qualify them as unworthy, irrelevant and readily dismissed?
Literature uses two traditional literary forms to speak about the future: utopia and dystopia, a future to be yearned for and one to be desperately avoided. And yet, there are so many less dramatic portraits of the future that are completely passed over in such works of art. Often, too, such works of literature are considered apocalyptic, given that our “imagination” permits their inclusion only in an “end of time disaster” or “an end of time rapture.”
We miss so much potential to put “paint on the canvas” of our lives by rendering the past as sacred, important and valid, empirical and measureable, and dismiss our future, unless and until we design and apply the latest digital technology that renders us capable of “predicting” the future.
Jurgen Moltmann, a German theologian contends that the future is what theology is all focused on. Hope, resurrection, re-birth, transformation and transcendence…these are just some of the words and concepts that purportedly represent the Christian faith. And yet, in the secular world, especially as the lawyers and the accountants assume pre-eminence, demonstrating the highest valuation for dollars, deals, profits, investments and all of the cultural attributes of the corporation, including the limits of all expectations except those that measure record highs for the Dow and the Nasdaq, these “etherals” are regarded as unsubstantiated, unreal and unworthy.
And it is not only in the abstract that the past limits our potential for a renewed future, individually and societally. If and when revert to our memory of what happened in our past, as prologue and predictor of the future, especially in the specific arena in which those memories originated (I had a bad experience as a child, so I refuse to have children because I do not want another child to go through what I went through” is just one example of the limiting of our future.)…then we have parked in an experience that was “then” while “this is now” and there may well be no reason to imprint the present and future with the experience of the past.
However, we seem categorically unwilling and/or unable to shed that trap.
“I had asparagus when I was young; it was horrible and I have refused to eat it every since.”
“I failed math in grade seven, and have had terrible experiences in math in every class since that time.”
“I won a talent contest in grade school so I expect to win this competition in university or in the workplace.”
This is not another “either-or” argument either. It is not that the past is sacred and the future dangerous. There is really no complete separation or segregation of past from present and future. Rather it is how we integrate our past experiences into our current perceptions and our future aspirations, not as limiting and precluding energies, but rather as gateways to our potential to do things differently now and in the future, based on our real learnings from our past.
And there is where the rubber meets the road.
How often, in our personal conversations or in our professional meetings do we ask questions like:
· What lessons have we learned from our experiences that shed light on how we might do things differently in the future?
· How can we move past our negative experiences into a perception that builds from that experience and provides even more possibilities than we would perceive without reflecting on that experience?
· What “comfort” did we really experience from letting our negative history colour our present and future? (if we are honest, it was a false sense of security, rather than “comfort”)
· What is the pathway to finding the gifts from our dark times that can free us from the limits to our expectations that we and others have placed upon them?
· How can we support each other in a tectonic shift of personal and public attitudes that anticipates not merely negatives from the future but a full range of possibilities and probabilities, all of which will require monitoring, adjustment and careful planning?
· The notion of risk, while real and significant, is not a determinant, except if we let it, of our shared future. How can we bring this observation to reality?
· What new models of visioning, human, digital, weather and climate forecasting, new treatments of lethal disease, new ways of conceptualizing power and success are there right in our own circle of influence from whom and from which we can draw support for a transformative view of what might be possible in our shared future?
· What new “ethical values” have already been accepted universally, demonstrating not only a change from historic values, but also a heightened ethical plane of potential?
· How can we re-shape and re-structure our conversations to look more sensitively at our capacity to self-sabotage our individual lives and our shared future, to accept how we are capable of better?
There are those already raising their eyes in dismay, disdain and even contempt for what they are reading. They are already seeing another Don Quixote tilting at windmills pecking at the keys on his keypad. They almost shout out at their computer screen, “This is BS and I will read no more!”
Why such a strong push-back?
It is because we have too many examples of promises made and unkept; of dreams articulated without being incarnated; of aspirations cut short by the army of interferrents like illness, accidents, poverty, falling in love, the death of a family member, the injunction to forego a dream “in order to make a real living”….the prophetic warning from too many “responsible” parents.
Hawthorne and Thoreau, American writers, were advocates for and espousers of something they called Transcendalism, the notion that people are inherently “good” and become corrupted through their association with various organizations in the public square. How different such a perspective would impact our current fixation on both history and a potentially tragic future!
It is within each of us to move beyond all of the strictures and the injunctions of our parents, our teachers, definitely our clergy, and our professional colleagues, to embrace a new view of the future, one shaped by our best hopes and dreams, not one we permit to be victimized by our limited permission on the definition of what is possible.
How do we really know what is possible unless and until AFTER we have tried to bring about something different and new? Like the artist who puts paint on the canvas, s/he cannot know if the work is “good’ until after the painting is complete. Similarly, we cannot know what the future holds, unless and until we have put all of our best efforts, based on our highest ideals and visionings, into bring that future into being.
And yet, we, both individually and collectively, risk failing ourselves and the richness of our shared future by foreclosing on it and on ourselves through our perspective based on the past, and limiting our picture of the future.
And, we can do things differently, if we only choose.
Do we choose?
It may not be that global warming and climate change, or a nuclear arms race, or poverty and income disparity, or disease and terrorism are our greatest enemies; it may well be our ingrained attitudes, perceptions, beliefs and "positions" that require dramatic shifts in order to put us in "sync" with the energies of bounty, plenty and the miraculous that are all around us!