The other day I got an unexpected phone call from someone I hadn’t seen in a long time. She and her husband are expecting their first baby in a few weeks, and the recent social protests had them thinking about how they should raise their child.
“Should we be held responsible by future generations for the beliefs we hold today?” she asked.
Her opinion was that we should be held responsible, that essential questions of right and wrong do not change, and we should be able to know what is right and structure our lives upon that knowledge.
Her spouse was not so sure. He thought standards would change over time and that we could not anticipate what future generations might regard as fundamentally right and wrong.
The question is a deep one, and I’m not sure I had anything useful to say at the time. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
It is easy to say that basic ethical principles are timeless, like equality of all people, the necessity of telling the truth and the prohibition against murder.
But how these principles should be implemented is much harder to determine, and it is mainly in the implementation that societies and people within societies differ.
Children often judge their parents harshly. That is partly the effect of reaching maturity, the necessity of forming one’s own opinions about what to value and how to live. But it is also because gaining perspective on life requires experience.
It is easy to take achievements for granted and to think faults can be erased without changing everything else. But as we mature we begin to see in our own lives how achievements and faults are often inextricably joined, that one arises out of the other, and though they can be distinguished in thought they cannot easily be separated in life.
I judged my father especially harshly during my teenage years. I resented his brooding silences, the arbitrary punishments that issued during his darker moods, his failure to make more of his life, to be a better provider, to be a more loving parent.
As I got older and learned more about his life, I began to wonder how he functioned at all.
I learned about a sudden illness that kept him bedridden for an entire year right after high school, about how he had to abandon his own plans for a future and return home to provide for his younger siblings after his father’s business had failed, about how he learned to keep silent as a way of separating himself emotionally from his father’s drunken rages and his mother’s smothering manipulations.
Parker Palmer observed that “the more we know about another’s story, the harder it is to hate or harm that person.”
I reflected on how I might have responded to a life that put me in such circumstances, and I began to appreciate the gift of his emotional distance.
Although I did not experience the overt love and encouragement I desired, I had to acknowledge that he never discouraged me in any pursuit. He never tried to manipulate my feelings or shape my opinions.
Although he was frequently angry, he turned it inward upon himself, not outward toward me. Maybe he was giving me all he could.
Hannah Arendt claimed two things are necessary to maintain any kind of group, whether that is a family, business, a volunteer organization or a nation: promising and forgiving.
We must engage in promising because that is how we come to an understanding about living and working together. We make agreements: I will do this if you will do that.
We must forgive because we inevitably break our promises. We never manage to live up to the expectations we set for ourselves or others. The only way forward is to make new promises, to recommit ourselves to living and working together, to starting over again.
Of course, the question at the back of the question has to do with race. How should we judge our ancestors who signed the Declaration of Independence while owning slaves?
How should our children judge us when we taught them to respect all people while tolerating the inequalities issuing from generations of racism?
I hope our descendants keep in mind the complexity of the moral demands with which human beings are always confronted, and remember that the tendencies to be short-sighted, selfish and vindictive are not characteristics of just a few but are universally distributed, as are the tendencies to be generous, courageous and merciful. Most importantly, I hope they keep in mind that these contrary tendencies are often embodied in the very same people.
Every generation is tempted to find comfort in a kind of blissful self-righteousness, a satisfaction in the belief that they are correcting the sins of their predecessors.
But while we divert ourselves with entertaining arguments about whether the statue of some general or other should be torn down or whether yesterday’s celebrity tweet was an innocent remark or a hateful insult, let us keep in mind that right now 40 million real people are living in slavery, victims of human trafficking, forced labor and debt bondage. Most of them are children. And we are not talking about them at all.
If we expect future generations to be understanding of our sins and omissions, we need to be more forgiving toward one another right now.
Because the only way we move forward into a better tomorrow is by making new promises, even though we know we won’t get it entirely right.
Nobody ever has.
Richard Kyte is director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University. He also is a community member of the La Crosse Tribune editorial board.
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