Museums these days are interactive, full of surprising bits of knowledge and mind-expanding challenges. On a springtime visit to the Wildling Museum’s Fire and Ice exhibit, I faced an unexpected invitation to write a note to a stranger living a hundred years from now. A clutch of blank index cards, pens and pencils accompanied the exhibit.
The challenge caught me by surprise. My left brained protested immediately: “They didn’t even give us lined notecards! How can I organize my thoughts without straight lines?” From there I progressed directly to panic: Should I be hopeful? Fearful? Proud or apologetic?
The Wildling’s mission is to inspire visitors to enjoy, value, and conserve wildlife and natural areas through art. Given this, I first considered the natural legacy today’s generations may provide Earth’s future residents.
We’re on a better trajectory lately, with initiatives such as reserving 30% of land for nature by 2030. But I’m concerned that Earth will be a harsher place for humans, climate-wise, in a century. Regardless of what we humans do, though, the Earth will surely be around then.
Humanity has a shorter time scale than Earth. American history is a dust particle on that timeline. As a die-hard believer in the American experiment of democracy, I wonder whether our experiment will be ongoing in 2122. French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 Democracy in America described his amazement that citizens were willing to actively wrangle together to resolve issues.
At this critical inflection point in the 2020s, we need to reclaim our powers of working together across divisions to achieve equality and justice for ourselves and the future.
Years ago, Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy inspired me to organize a group at my church that practiced mindful engagement on sensitive issues. We used Palmer’s five “habits of the heart” to discern with one another:
* Understand that we are all in this together
* Appreciate the value of “otherness”
* Hold tension in life-giving ways
* Sense your personal voice and agency
* Learn to create community
More recently I attended a webinar presented by Stanford’s HAAS Center for Public Service. The featured speaker, Harvard professor Marshall Ganz, emphasized the creative, adaptive work that democracy requires. “Democracy is verb. We are creating or uncreating it all the time,” he declared.
Like Palmer, Ganz emphasized committing ourselves to the core value of a democratic society. This allows us to maintain a vision that cuts across narrower issues and values respect and equality. Though not easy to contend with, our rich diversity on all levels is a strength in democracy.
Ganz quoted first century BCE Rabbi Hillel, who developed the case for collective action toward shared goals:
1. If I’m not for myself, who is for me?
2. If I’m for myself alone, what am I?
3. If not now, when?
With these thoughts in mind, My notecard to 2122:
Dear Future One,
I’m guessing it’s hot; I’m sorry.
We’ve left you some great tools: computers, cell phones, the Internet. All those were invented in my short time. Our soft tools are coming along too. We’re improving at recognizing people’s gifts. Race, gender, and all differences are moving from being tolerated to celebrated. We’re not there yet.
Our trouble was overcoming inertia. Those of us embracing the power that comes with privilege enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle. We sacrificed natural space for plastics and ease, too many to categorize. We traveled on flumes and fumes of fossil fuels.
Nevertheless, we’re learning. We’re learning to act because we know that understanding flows from action. We are hopeful out of necessity, because hope mobilizes better than fear.
I’d like to know about you. Do you have fewer things? Are you happier? Do you and your co-Earthlings enjoy liberty and justice? Are you voting?
Please write back! I’ve never had a future pen pal.
— Karen Telleen-Lawton serves seniors and pre-seniors as the principal of Decisive Path Fee-Only Financial Advisory in Santa Barbara. You can reach her with your financial planning questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.