These are uncertain times. The COVID pandemic and the climate crisis are dismantling the life we’ve known and the bridge back to normality is on fire. I wonder if November’s autumnal mood of remembering those who have gone before us might give us courage to walk into the darkness that lies ahead. Can our ancestors help us, in our turn today, to be good ancestors?
November gives us All Saints Day, then All Souls Day. Then there’s Remembrance Sunday. “We will remember them,” we intone, as we honour our war dead. Then, at the end of the month, some of us mark the Remembrance Day for Lost Species. We mourn the animals and plants that have been lost to the earth – to us – in this present mass extinction.
Meanwhile, all around us (at this northern latitude, anyway), the leaves are falling from the trees, the daylight is retreating, and there’s a melancholic mood in the damp air.
Today, England has gone into a second lock-down in response to a sharp rise in COVID cases. In the summer we thought we were coming out of it, but here we go again. How many more of these will we have? Will I ever get my old life back?
The answer is increasingly looking like, “No.” It looks, increasingly, as if we’re going to have to learn to live with this virus – and perhaps others that will cross to humans from the beleaguered and diminished wild.
The leaves fall on the graves of the dead. Earth to earth. Death to death. Autumn’s melancholy is ripe for nostalgic remembrance.
In church we marked All Saints Day. We looked at that passage in Hebrews chapter 11, of the ‘hall of fame’ of heroes of faith. The book of Hebrews draws on earlier biblical traditions of remembering inspirational people from the past, with that idea that God helped them so God will help us.
But Hebrews twists the tradition. The emphasis is not so much on God-given gains but on loss. The writer tells of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, making the point that they didn’t see the fulfilment of what God had promised them. The same goes for Moses. Then the writer moves on, almost seamlessly, from famous biblical characters to un-named martyrs, possibly martyrs known to that particular church community.
The point is not to look back but to look forward. That’s what the ancestors teach us, says the writer of the book. Their faith was not primarily for themselves but for those who would follow after. “They would not, without us, be made perfect.” (Hebrews 11.40).
The saints in glory are not demanding our attention – if anything, they are giving us theirs. They know that their sacrifices are only meaningful if those coming after them build on their foundation so that the better world for which they longed becomes reality.
A good ancestor is one who looked ahead so that those who followed after could have a better future.
Can I be a good ancestor?
This is the subject of Roman Krznaric’s latest book (you can see his 7-minute TED talk here: https://www.ted.com/talks/roman_krznaric_how_to_be_a_good_ancestor#t-1482). I think it’s a fascinating idea. He says that industrialised societies have colonised the future. Our extractive and wasteful way of life is devastating future generations in a similar way that European empires devastated their colonies in other continents. Those future generations, though, are powerless to rebel or resist because they don’t yet exist.
Krznaric contrasts a growing movement to decolonise the future. He relates the way that seven-generation decision-making practices of indigenous Americans are influencing Future Design workshops in Japan. What if every decision – whether in business, government, or whatever – had to consider the impact on the seventh generation to come?
Become a time rebel! Learn to think long-term and be a good ancestor.
Since 2015, the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act has put good ancestry into law. The well-being of the unborn is embedded into the Welsh government’s decision-making, with a ‘future generations commissioner’ to hold the government to account.
Holding the future in open arms
Going back to the bible, I think of a story in chapter 2 of Luke’s gospel. Simeon and Anna are elderly and devout, spending much of their time in the temple in Jerusalem. Simeon believes that he will not die until he sees the Messiah. In come Mary and Joseph to dedicate their 40-day-old baby to God. Simeon takes baby Jesus in his ancient arms and Anna joins him in praising God.
Simeon and Anna didn’t see that baby grow up. They didn’t hear the parables or see the miracles. They didn’t see him fulfil his destiny. Their faith in a baby held a door open for him into a future they could not and did not themselves enter.
I want to learn to be more mindful of the impact of my life on the well-being of future generations, including generations of my direct descendants. Perhaps if I could hold that future in open arms, the love that acts for good but lets the beloved be free might replace my fear with hope and courage.
As I hold in my ageing arms a future I cannot determine, I myself am held in arms immeasurably ancient. And so I go out into the darkness. “Put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” (Minnie Louise Haskins)