A story from ancient Jewish wisdom tells of a traveller who came across an elderly man planting a carob tree. Since carob trees can take more than twenty years to bear fruit, the passer-by suggested that the man’s work was pointless; he would no longer be there to enjoy the tree’s fruit. The older man responded that he was not planting for himself but for his descendants. Though he might not be a direct beneficiary, generations to come would appreciate his work.
I rarely hear concerns anymore about saddling our children with gargantuan national debt. Not only is the number incomprehensibly enormous, but our universe as it relates to time has shrunk. Through ways both overt and subtle, our culture encourages us to live in the moment, and to elevate the fleeting over the long-lasting.
Two newspaper reports I read this week were not meant to be commentaries on each other, yet it is worthwhile to juxtapose them. One described how, as the baby-boomer generation ages, its members are more likely to be alone than the generations before them. Freedom not to marry, to divorce, to have few or no children seems far less promising to a lonely seventy-year-old than it did to a self-centered thirty-something.
A second article spoke of companies needing to train young employees on basic social skills such as looking customers and co-workers in the eye and interacting with others. Is an advanced degree necessary to extrapolate that people who can’t form even the most basic connections at twenty are going to be in trouble as they age?
We may not want to return to a time when marriages were forced on unwilling children in order to cement family dynasties and fortunes, yet we don’t seem to be facing improved happiness levels in a culture that promotes thinking only of oneself and even that only in the present. When our children were young, my husband and I frequently received comments as we were out and about. In Southern California the comments were usually negative and focused on our lack of responsibility in bringing more than “our share” of children into the world. In contrast, when we camped in Utah one summer, numerous people stopped to tell us how much joy we would have in the future, even if we would often be overwhelmed in the present.
The time of year between Thanksgiving and Christmas tends to shine a light on family relationships, both positive or negative. Beloved traditions as well as long-standing problem areas surface. While the latter may demand finesse and delicate handling, perhaps we should encourage younger family members to take some time and project twenty, thirty and fifty years down the road. Let’s encourage them to ask the following questions: If I cherish family relationships, warts and all, what steps do I need to take today so that I will have family and friends in the future? Just as others took the time and accepted the responsibility to marry and have children, providing me with life and family, what is my obligation to future generations?