People generally want their children to have it better than they did. Mine have already had it worse, in some fundamental ways, and there’s considerable danger that it will get worse from here.
But I’m reminded of the family story of how the friends of my parents challenged my mother when she was pregnant with my brother in 1942: “How can you bring a child into such a world?” And indeed things were dark in 1942, as the fascist regimes in Germany and Japan were taking over the world, and the good guys were in retreat.
As it turned out, though the world was compelled to go through a frightening cataclysm to come out on the other side, my brother (born early in the war) and I (born soon after) both grew up being among the most privileged human beings in the history of civilization, free to live our lives according to our own values and decisions, in the richest society the world had yet seen.
And I felt generally proud to be a part of “the American people.” Although, as I grew up, I learned that there were dark threads in our people’s history, my overall impression – not least from all the Americans I encountered – was that we have been mostly a fine people, with virtues recognized by the wider world.
Which is worse, I sometimes wonder:
• to come of age with high expectations, formed when the society was fundamentally more healthy in its politics, and the portion of the people who’d gone off the deep end was minuscule (not nearly half the country); or
• from a young age, to experience the surrounding world as deeply flawed, and to see, from the start, the human potential for ugliness?
Without expectations, at least one can be spared disappointment.
But disappointment is not the only pain. I fear my children and grandchildren may experience a world gone quite dark:
• “the land of the free” no more; and
• a planet whose sufferings we can already glimpse from escalating wildfires and unusually destructive hurricanes (and from temperatures lately exceeding 140 degrees Fahrenheit in India in the spring).
What can I wish them if that’s how it will be? Can they live well despite the state of the world around them?
I wish for my children and grandchildren to be better at accepting suffering than I’ve been. Where I got the impression that life would be fairly painless, I don’t know. But I’ve often had to remind myself of the line from the song and movie from the late 60s: “I never promised you a Rose Garden.”
Acceptance can go a long way toward reducing the suffering.
But I wouldn’t want my children’s “acceptance” to mean escaping suffering by just tuning out the wider world. I have always felt that even if we are small in comparison with the size of the problems, we have an obligation to do our part to help the Good defeat the Evil.
(We celebrate the generation of Americans who defeated fascism in World War II, so many contributing to the effort, so many making sacrifices, because that was their responsibility, and all the infinitesimal contributions added up to victory.)
I wish happiness for my children and grandchildren, and the evidence of history shows that times can be dark enough that “living well” can be a difficult challenge.
“Thou shalt nots” are composed to stop people from doing what they are tempted to do. (There’s no commandment, “Thou shalt not hit thy thumb with a hammer.”) So the fact that a lot that Western religions have forbidden suicide says a lot: we can infer that life was tough enough – in those times and places – that religion felt impelled to throw its weight against the impulse to bring a too-painful life to an end.
And the Buddhists make the fact that life is suffering its historic foundation, as the story of the Buddha starts with his younger, sheltered self venturing out of his protective enclosure and discovering the inevitable suffering of 1) illness, 2) aging, and 3) death. That discovery is what launches him on the road to becoming the Buddha.
The Buddhists seek tranquility and equanimity by the abandonment of desire. I’d be fine if my progeny find that way of living well, as I know that desire brings to life the tensions that come from striving to get one’s desires fulfilled.
But my preference for them is not such abandonment of desire, despite the goodness of tranquility and equanimity. It’s not clear to me that a life of pursuing worthy desires cannot be just as fulfilling as a life of greater tranquility and equanimity.
What I wish for them, which will serve them well whether the times grow darker or get turned around to the better of our possible scenarios, are these:
• being at peace with themselves, and liking who they are;
• doing their best to lovingly make themselves into the person they ideally want to be;
• finding ways to make the most of their gifts;
• having a capacity for simple pleasures, and for joy;
• giving and receiving good love.
And for gratitude for the opportunity to be part of this incredible phenomenon of life, of human life, and of this challenging experiment Life is conducting with Human Civilization.