Thursday, March 24, 2011

Generations ...

My good friend Mark Stein recently took over his family business, Blaine's Automotive, which this week celebrated 40 years in business. Today Mark was sharing with me how much he appreciates the example his father has set for him - as a businessperson, as a family man and as a human being. This is a sentiment with which I certainly relate. I am eternally grateful for my parents, Susan and Bruce, who are larger-than-life in their contributions to their family and their community.

It's a marvelous stage of life I am at, wherein I really get to live three lives at once. I am Johnny the son, Johnny the man and Johnny the father simultaneously. "The Father, the Son and the Holy #*&%" - haha!

Best of all, I am taking each role less for granted all the time. 

As parenting continually brings fresh challenges, my appreciation for my own immediate ancestors grows exponentially. It is suggested that your whole life flashes before your eyes at the time of death. I got a sneak preview as my daughter was born. The moment Katy emerged I had two emotions collide violently within me - infinite love and immense guilt. As I processed just how perfect this child was and what a miraculous gift she was to Karen and me, I (a first-born myself) flashed back to my parents holding me some quarter century earlier, undoubtedly with the same wondrous awe... then fast-forwarded through 28 years of my suddenly glaring petulance, thoughtlessness and entitlement. Memories of cars rolled, debts forgiven and calls not made cascaded instantaneously. Wow. How had I been blind to the extraordinary sacrifices they had made and the enormous stresses I had caused? And they had raised four of us. Pretty overwhelming stuff.

It is also assumed that bringing new life into being forces us to be better human beings ourselves - because now the world serves a purpose beyond our lifetime. Of course, looking at our present society, it is sometimes hard to see this bearing out, with many people simply replacing "me first" with "me and my kids first" and burning through resources with little regard to inevitably shortchanging their kids' kids. Still, it is a first glimpse into a future to which we have contributed but will not be around to experience.

"One must care about a world one will not see."
Bertrand Russel

There are famous generations. The Baby Boomers. Generation X. The Greatest Generation. "My" Generation. But generations really don't exist. Their creation is arbitrary ... "between this date and this date". We invent them to capture a time in history, or to explain a social trend. But people are constantly being born and constantly dying, and every family tree grows on its own timeline.

Still, what is true is that billions of people have come before us, and contributed to generating the world in which we live. Like the youthful ingrate I now realize myself to have been, we are collectively quick to blame these forerunners for things that are "wrong" with our world. We talk of the problems we have inherited and the mistakes that we have to correct. How often, though, do we stop and truly appreciate all that we have been handed on the proverbial silver platter? Namely everything... Everything... Everything.


Electricity. Language. Sports. Music. Fabric. Mathematics. Ice cream. The computer screen on which you are reading this, and the keyboard on which I am typing it. 

Absolutely every single thing, thought, idea, experience is the product of billions of years of the efforts of other beings (or 10,000 years if you are biblically inclined, and I'm fine with that timeline too). If you want to get a real sense of just how much is being constantly done for your benefit, read this short essay by Rob Brezsny, "Glory In The Highest"

And now you and I are part of this endless web. 

For all the importance we ascribe to our own lives, as separate persons we are each almost unbearably insignificant - one in seven billion on a ball described by Douglas Adams like this... "Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea."

Or as my pal, the less famous but equally brilliant Bill McGill, says, "We are all just ants on an apple."

And yet, our individual lives are immeasurably important. They are all we have, and the only thing in the universe over which we have control. Everything that we do ripples out into the world with last impacts we will never be able to gauge. 

Of course, we all hope to be remembered after we go, because - by any measure - our stay on this plane is astonishingly brief. The reality though, is that we will eventually (even quickly) be forgotten. We will not receive marquee billing for our starring role in the evolution of the universe. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

So what to do then? Live.

"This is the true joy in life: The being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one. The being a force of nature, instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die - for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no “brief candle” to me; it is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations."   George Bernard Shaw

There is that word again - "generations". I grant that it does help to frame time in a human scale. As a jumping off point, it is easier to feel gratitude towards ones own parents and a responsibility towards ones own children. Ideally, we can then allow that energy to expand in both directions - Gratitude towards everyone who has gone before us. Responsibility to all who will come after.  And in the middle of all of that, joy in our own life and love for everyone around us.
Thanks, Mark, for getting me thinking today. Thanks Mom and Dad for bringing me into this wonderful world and giving me a solid start. Thanks Katy and Jack for opening my heart and my mind. And thanks to everyone for the contribution you are to the glorious whole.
Love. Love. Love. 

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