At the New Year, Americans always think about parties and resolutions, and then we forget about them until the next new year. But this New Year, Dr. America is thinking about newness itself, and its impact on American culture (and on the environment). Americans, he thinks, have an overwhelming affiliation with newness, which goes along with our cultural predilection for nowness. Each day, we watch or read “the news,” which is the systematic answer to the question we ask each other all the time: “What’s new?” In itself, our interest in the new and the now is not a new thing. We are, after all, the people of the New World, a New Deal, a New Frontier, and the “new and improved” gadgets advertised incessantly on TV. But in the 21st century, our newdity seems to be affecting both the quality of life (human and otherwise) and the quality of the future.
Human beings, almost alone among the animals, have the capability of thinking in time. We have memory, which allows us to bring the past to mind, and we have language, which allows us to pass on the past in history, literature, and oral traditions. Human beings are also gifted with imagination, which permits us to bring the future to mind. In America in the 21st century, however, we systematically pay more attention to the present than to the past or future. And our failure to think carefully in time is one cause for many of our current crises.
In a beautiful poem “At a Country Funeral,” Wendell Berry reminds us that
. . . . our memory of ourselves, hard earned,
is one of the land’s seeds, as a seed
is the memory of the life of its kind in its place,
to pass on into life the knowledge
of what has died. What we owe the future
is not a new start, for we can only begin
with what has happened. We owe the future
the past, the long knowledge
that is the potency of time to come.
Berry suggests that our “long knowledge” of the past is essential to our long vision of the future. In a similar way, in Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah suggests that the best human communities are communities of memory and communities of hope. Communities of memory remember their past, and celebrate the richness of their tradition. The stories of their past constitute their identity, and offer them a framework for facing the future. Rooted in their pasts, communities of hope know how to live a tradition without becoming traditionalists, adapting the essential character and commitments of the community to new conditions.
Both Berry and Bellah juxtapose the short-term thinking that’s so characteristic of modern America with a more extensive “thinking in time” that was, in fact, a part of American tradition. In the eighteenth century, the Founding Fathers depended on the wisdom of older political theorists like John Locke and Montesquieu, but they used the past to forge a future of promise. They had short-term concerns, but they also had long-term vision—and they had a name for it: posterity. They knew that they would be judged by posterity, so they lived as if the future really mattered. Once, John Adams was asked why he was involved in politics, when he might have been doing more “practical” things. He replied, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”
Adams understood that the fate of future generations depends on the willingness of their ancestors (us) to make sacrifices that will not be reciprocated. Americans today don’t care about the unborn, and so we have bumperstickers that announce proudly that “I’m spending my children’s inheritance” or that ask “What has the future ever done for me?” In an era of immediate gratification and instant everything, our vision is mainly television, with its relentless promise of more consumption. As a result, we’re shaping a future (and a planet) that’s not promising for our progeny.
But we could become visionaries again. In politics, for example, we might force our representatives to represent not just our immediate desires and special interests but the general welfare (as it says in the Constitution) of the people and posterity. In business, we might free corporations from the fetish of quarterly earnings reports and go back to a concern for sustained (and sustainable) growth. In our everyday lives, we might love our children (and their children) by indulging ourselves less. And in our religious communities, we might make more effort to keep the care of Creation (our first responsibility) connected to the “world without end. Amen.”