When we’ve been there 10,000 years

An intriguing article about long-term thinking. It is obvious to everyone that short-term thinking has led us to most of the financial and environmental disasters we are facing today. It is interesting that we choose to calculate our impact only up to a certain point, and that point is artificial. 3 years? 5 years? 10, 15 years? Why these numbers? One reason is that prediction gets worse as we look out into the future. More variables, more fuzziness, less accuracy. Think: weather forecasting.

But are we really like the weather? Or better, is it important, or even needed, that we predict every rain shower in our lives, individual and collective, with precision, or is it more beneficial, and in a certain way more accurate, to say “monsoon season ahead” and leave it at that. Sometimes vagueness is more accurate, especially when the need of precision leads to paralysis or artificial inflation of some numbers to compensate for the lack of actual, you know, precision!

The part of this essay that has me thinking most, though, is this sentence: “we are part of an enormous flow of life and that we have an obligation to it.”

Now it seems sensible to say I am responsible for the quality of life of my children until they are old enough to work for their own quality of life. But these are partly biological and partly legal constraints. Biology imposes about 12-15 years, maybe 20 with our lazier Western ways, of responsibility on parents for their children. Legal because we decided that 18 is the ideal number of years for a human to reach the age of consent. Why? Not sure, and I am certain there is a nice story behind it. Historically speaking that is pretty late.

But I digress, the challenge for me is the obligation. This leads to all sorts of categorical imperatives which I am very unclear about (if you want to read up on categorical imperatives go here )

But here is the bone I am gnawing on: I concede that I do have an obligation towards my children. I fail to see where that “automagically” translates into an obligation towards other people, for example, let alone other people’s children (I have seen them, and I want no part of them!). I may want to voluntarily accept responsibility for others, and it seems to me this is quite a reasonable morality, but I do not see where I am obligated to do so.

If someone is a great parent, and in all other ways pursues only their own happiness, are they at fault for the sad state of our world?

Then we add another level.  Kant proposes a “Humanity” formulation where he holds that we should never treat “humanity” (in myself as well as in others) as a means to my happiness, but as an end in itself. This means that I cannot use people as an object of my pleasure. It also means I cannot judge another person as more or less worthy of respect. A person, by the fact that they are a person, is worthy of all respect – they are an “end” not a means or a tool.

But still, am I obligated to change my own pursuit of happiness to satisfy the, quite often, conflicting needs of others? Someone’s happiness may be the exact reverse of mine, and the means to achieve it might (frequently does) run counter to, or downright disrupt, my own pursuits. So where I am I left?

This clearly is a little ways away from the idea that we should think ahead 100 or 1000 years. While taking actions with concern for the future seems prudent, I am not sure at all it is wise. Mostly because I have absolutely no idea or capacity to predict all the consequences and unintended consequences of my actions today.

This concern for 1000 years in the future, or Kant’s formulations, are not quite at the same level of commitment to others that Jesus demands. Jesus say we are to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. This would seem to imply that the pursuit of my own happiness must be tied with the happiness of others. In Biblical terms most especially the happiness of the weak (widows, orphans).

But the critical thing here is the word “love.” There can be no obligation to love. Love springs from a grateful heart. A grateful heart comes from true humility. True humility comes from knowing our precise value in the Universe. That value is that of belonging to a group (“the world”) that its Creator so loved (first!) that he gave His only Son so that all members of that group might be free to love.

Love collapses time into eternity. Which leaves us with the much wiser formulation by Augustine: “Love, and do what you will. If you keep silence, do it out of love. If you cry out, do it out of love. If you refrain from punishing, do it out of love.”


About spaceloom

An urban monk, and an experienced spiritual director with a Masters in Psychology. Married with two children. Want to know me better? Read my thoughts.
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