The urge to write again surged as our nation prepared for the dual milestones of Memorial Day and 100K deaths from COVID-19 simultaneously. I acknowledge the peril of commenting on a crisis while in the middle of it and wish to avoid the temptation of “predicting” outcomes just as they become assured. The latter does seem to be a common political practice these days, showing just how much courage we are lacking in terms of leadership at all levels of society. Lack of effective leadership may, in fact, be the most dangerous and pervasive pandemic of our times.
I am old enough to remember when, as the turn of the century approached, many nonprofit organizations began visioning exercises with the convenient assumption that the year 2020 would represent a chance to achieve a “perfect vision” for the world, or at least for their own domain of influence. We could not have imagined how distant from that ideal we would be at this point in history. Of course, there are good things happening too, but the number of crises we currently face, without clear and actionable solutions, is astounding. It is a common perception that we are adrift in ways we had not anticipated, though any meaningful attempt to correct that status remains elusive.
What would it take for our society to achieve the high expectations of a 2020 vision? I think it may be too shallow or gratuitous to assume that lack of leadership is the whole problem. Leaders do need followers, after all, or at least constituents who are willing to give their leaders the benefit of the doubt until, as a group, convinced otherwise. Much has also been said about American individualism overwhelming our sense of the public good. This is no doubt a factor, but it is not clear to me if this condition is causal or just another symptom of an underlying problem. Something more fundamental seems to have shifted in recent decades, and I may have a sense of what has changed.
When I was in college, more than just a few years ago, there was a weird dialectic beginning to appear that seems only to have grown since. I studied a wide array of subjects then, as I still do, and the teachers I respected most, whether in the arts and humanities or both hard and soft sciences, emphasized one thing in common – everything we think to be true must be examined, leading to the opportunity for learning, discovery and, ultimately, meaning in life. Yeah, this is core message of the liberal arts for sure. I flourished like a good crop of zucchini in that fertile soil. But there was an emerging trend on that small Midwestern campus too, which was a tendency for some to assume just the opposite, that answers are relatively easy to come by and complexity should be avoided as though an instrument of evil. This latter way of thinking, while only a small seed at the time, seemed to grow over the years, affecting not only the social structure on college campuses everywhere, but also political reality and every national election since.
I believe, however, that the dynamics of the situation go deeper than a struggle between simplicity and complexity in the public sphere. After all, even the most complicated truths sometimes seem the simplest to comprehend once you have studied a matter sufficiently. A more important indicator might be the relative time frame of one’s grasp of what is true, and how quickly a reward for perceiving it can be claimed. Reality, after all, can be brutally stubborn when it comes to yielding its just rewards, and my generation grew up at a time when looking for shortcuts to those rewards came newly into style.
It was in those days of somewhat credible innocence that I began to think about the multidimensional nature of life, with human purpose and, not incidentally, authentic connection to one another, residing in the fourth dimension of time. Only as four-dimensional beings, I surmised then, could we perceive a good direction to go in almost any troubling situation. A truncated sense of time was, in my understanding, a sign of dysfunction and moral confusion. Applying that thinking today, I cannot help but wonder if a growing inability for any of us to occupy the perspective of extended time, with the skill to both remember and anticipate events as we consider important matters, might be at the root of our problems with leadership.
Nearly everyone has heard about the inclination for Native American cultures to make decisions based on the effects that will be visited upon seven generations. As my favorite native writer Vine Deloria, Jr. liked to point out, this does not refer to seven generations into the future, as is commonly misperceived, but three generations back, three into the future, and with a firm grasp of the current generation as well. This is significant because most healthy and fortunate people today still can hope to know this many generations personally while living. In other words, this is neither rocket science nor mystical speculation, but a realistic measure of the wisdom that can be attained by the elders of any society.
Think about it. My own great grandparents, three of whom I knew, were born in the 19th Century, while my great grandchildren, if I am blessed to know them, will likely live well into the 22nd. This common potential to span multiple centuries within an individual person’s experience is a true miracle, one never taken lightly in traditional societies. While still at the beginning of a new century, each of us has the ability, and perhaps the urgent responsibility, to directly influence the next one, and all the critical decisions that will be made to get us there safe, healthy and thriving as a species.
The question I have for all of us right now is this. Are we able to individually exercise judgments and collectively makes decisions thinking back at least a century and imagining where we want to be a hundred years into the future? I submit that would be the four-dimensional approach we need right now with respect to the important matters before us. That would be the proper way to realize the promise of a 2020 vision of the future that we all can embrace and respect, until which time our great grandchildren inherit the civilization we are willing to leave them.