Asking great things of us

By Nina Beth Cardin

There is story told about Abraham Lincoln, a man with a complicated relationship to religion. It was said that he and an aide visited a church renowned for its speechifying pastor. True to form, the sermon was smart, powerful and, to most listeners, impressive.

Upon leaving the church, the aide turned to the President and asked what he thought about it. It was an acceptable sermon, the President replied. The aide, surprised, asked what was missing. What would the President have wanted?

“He didn’t ask anything great of us,” Lincoln replied.

It is a paradox of life that we are driven by two competing impulses: the indulgent and the ambitious. We want ease of days but a meaningful life; comfort and convenience along with achievement and praise. But we know it doesn’t work that way. A meaningful life, a life worthy of praise, comes not through doing nothing but through doing something, often something that is hard and demanding, calling forth commitment, passion and time.

Which is why, when we are told we can have a buff body in just 15 minutes a day, save the world in 10 easy steps or install a rain barrel and save the Bay, we know something is amiss. These things are not wrong or bad; they are just not enough.

We are perched at the end of humanity’s gilded age. The 20th century experienced an unprecedented (and irreproducible) cluster of blessings. The birth of brute technology allowed us to consume great portions of Earth’s ancient resources and brought a century of unimagined progress. Tragically, it is also brought unprecedented global destruction.

No civilization before ours, and no generation after us, will ever enjoy what we have enjoyed. The innocent pursuit of human ambitions coupled with the easy access to and affordability of Earth’s neatly bundled eons of stored resources; millions of days of sunlight captured in fossil fuels, unspoiled reservoirs of water, rich soil, untainted air all bound together in a human-friendly climate. We are at the end of that era, edging out across the threshold of that remarkable slip of time into a new era.

We are a generation called to make radical changes about how we live on this Earth together so that we and those after us can continue to live well. We didn’t ask to live at this moment of uncertainty and change. We are not eager to uproot our expectations, to create new, uncertain ways of living within the renewing, sustaining, but limited powers of Earth. But that is our lot.

In the end, the Earth will have its way. We must always live within its means, abide by the bounds of nature, or Earth will do it for us. To paraphrase Aldo Leopold, if one means of correction fails, another will take over, and we — and especially our children, — will be much better off if we manage this change, rather than wait for Earth to heave change upon us.

Rising to this occasion is necessary, prudent and just. It is necessary and prudent for it will prevent the harshest disruptions that the anticipated natural catastrophes will cause.

It is just because some of us, more privileged than others, have thrown a grand party, eaten through the pantry stocks, drunk all the wine, smashed the furniture, ruptured the foundation, burned a hole in the ceiling, broke the windows and left the keys under the mat for the children with a note saying, “Had a blast. Hope you don’t mind the mess.”

Millions of people alive today, and those children yet to be born, did nothing to bring about this mess, this dislocation that will disproportionately and radically affect them all.

We cannot hand them a world desperately degraded because we did not have the will to live gently.

It is time, therefore, for us to rise to do great things, for great things are now asked of us.

So what is that Great Thing? It is both incredibly difficult and incredibly simple: It is to live our lives now, in everything we do, so that we may stand in front of our children and grandchildren — 20 years from now, 50 years from now, 100 years from now — and say to them: “This is the world I gifted to you. You inherit this world this way because of me, because of the things I chose to do and the life I chose to lead.”

If you had to do that, if you knew your children would confront you one day, which they will — whether in the flesh or in their memory — what changes would you make today? Then, begin to make them.

Nina Beth Cardin writes from Baltimore. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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