The Long View

By Jeff Mallinson

Urgency leads us to wake up and get busy. That’s not a bad thing. Ours is an era of urgency, because of the increasingly rapid speed of change in technology, the economy, politics, and international strife. Nonetheless, urgency can distract us from threats that, while far ahead on the horizon, may be more important than the things that are right in front of us. If urgent, relentless issues continue to press upon us, when can we start to take the long view? I believe the answer is that we must force ourselves to balance our need to triage immediate crises with our attention to long range concerns.

On this week’s Virtue in the Wasteland podcast, Dr. van Voorhis and I reflect on the year that was and suggest what may be in 2016. This is a start, but the next twelve months are only a sliver of the human timeline, and we need to consider what lies beyond. We should do this in light of the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12). Who is the neighbor I ought to treat virtuously? My family only? My nation only? My co-religionists only? My generation only? No. We are ethically obliged to concern ourselves with the wellbeing of generations to come. Nonetheless, there are very few incentives to act in such a way. After all, if I am kind to a foreigner, I may receive a bit of international good will. If I help a destitute child, I am able to enjoy the good feeling of having been helpful. But when I help my great, great grandchildren and their peers, I have nothing but an abstract sense of duty to motivate me. Nonetheless, if we dwell on the future generations for a moment, I believe we will be sobered by the trajectories we are allowing to continue, or are fueling.

If we step back to our own time management, we might find this concept less overwhelming. If, for instance, I am worried about getting tasks done at work, I know that I need to get materials ready for the next work day. But I also need to schedule time to research for the future, do work that will help me get an advancement, and prepare for retirement. In my family life, I need to do shopping for the evening’s dinner, but I also need to ensure that I have the means to afford the next decade’s meals. How do we do this, by forcing ourselves to ignore the urgent—habitually—for a portion of our lives. I think the proportion should be: 75% attention to immediate concerns and 25% for the future. Most of us (unless we are students) tend to give only a percent or two to the future. This is a bad move. For 2016, instead of the standard new year resolutions, consider developing a schedule in which you take care of health, family, spirituality, and finance with a quarter of your time spent investing in the long range future. I’ve got my own development to do in this regard, but permit me to suggest five cultural concerns that we all should consider, even as we worry about this election cycle and that global conflict.

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  1. Habituation of virtue. Aristotle taught (and I believe he is spot on) that virtue is something that requires habituation. That means we must practice, over a long period of time, being good. This helps us to do the right thing spontaneously, and when it really counts. This happens in the family and in our local communities. Many think they have done their jobs when they give a few bucks to the local high school orchestra or take their kids to Little League practice. These are great acts, but they aren’t enough. Instead, we need to be attentive to the habits of our young people. We can’t do that without being present. Moreover, Aristotle believed that we can’t cultivate virtue without healthy families or a cultural ethos that values virtue. Therefore, while it may seem too academic—it isn’t—cultivating virtue in the lives of young people is the most important investment in the future we can make.
  2. Ecological care. This one is controversial for some. Why on earth would it be? This isn’t just a concern for Mother Goddess devotees. It is for all people who care about justice in the left hand kingdom. It is about the Golden Rule. When we trash our environment, we harm ourselves in terms of health, but we devastate the poorest and most vulnerable among us. If you don’t believe me, volunteer to travel overseas with your church or local fraternal service organization. You may find that what the affluent are doing with industry threatens more people than we can count. Whether you are on the left, right, or somewhere else politically, this is a matter of common decency. The problem is, who is focused on this these days? Very few, precisely because of the urgent crises of the economy and terrorism. Forget, if you must, the question regarding whether humans can cause climate change. Instead, ask yourself whether, if you had a pool, you’d like your neighbor’s sewage to drain into it. If the answer is no, then feel free to advocate for ecological sanity.
  3. Spiritual formation. Whatever your theological position, or even your receptivity to organized religion in general, ask yourself whether you are content to spin your wheels worrying about things that will all go to dust. As Jesus reminds us: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” How silly it is that we spend so much time investing in temporary things and yet ignore investment in the eternal. If you have kids, get them solid catechetical training. Even if you are not religious, spend time talking about the good, the true, and the beautiful, in addition to where your kids or grandkids will be going to college. While you are at it, cultivate healthy spirituality in yourself. This isn’t an extravagance; it is at the heart of your total wellbeing.
  4. Peak phosphorus. This sounds boring, I admit. But global starvation is no trivial matter. Global hunger, caused by a depletion of fertilizer, might get us before long-range climate change does. We get much of our phosphorous, tragically, from the same impoverished nations that will be the first to starve once it runs out. Since it isn’t a sexy topic, I worry that too many people will ignore it until it is too late.
  5. The education bubble. Too few people have a sense of vocation. Fewer still realize that their chosen vocation (in terms of actual career tracks) may not exist in a couple decades. I believe there are two important things to remember here. First, not everyone needs to go to college. At least, not everyone needs to go into deep debt for college. Some folks struggle for several years with material they don’t understand or don’t care about, not realizing that it is perfectly acceptable to get into a trade that has long term viability. In the last 75 years, many assume that college is the right choice for all. The result is too many people in tears because they’re not doing what they love or take to naturally. Too many young people are living with their parents, unable to find solid careers, and carrying too much undergraduate debt. Meanwhile, too many folks are diverting their attention from something important but undervalued: the liberal arts. A broad liberal arts education, that deals with the great questions of life remains as important for some folks as apprenticeship in a trade is for others. Liberal arts education is not designed primarily for getting people into specific jobs. It is for training people to respond creatively and critically—as leaders—when our paradigms collapse. It is for training leaders to address (hopefully with virtue, #1) the crises we haven’t yet imagined.

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The good news is that everything is going to be alright, ultimately. In the meantime, we must remain vigilant, and take time out of each week to attend to investment in the long range future. We do this by carrying out our vocations with excellence, which is the heart of virtue. It also leads to enduring happiness. So what do we have to lose? Happy New Year, dear reader. I look forward to the journey ahead, wherever it takes us.

—The Wayfaring Stranger

Composed while sipping my favorite soft drink, Orangina, between chapters of James Daley, ed. The World’s Greatest Short Stories.

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2 thoughts on “The Long View

  1. I loved the article. I am undecided about human-caused global warming, but I know for a fact that 95% of the air between San Diego and Fresno is brown. We (all of us) need to clean up the environment.

    I mostly agree with your comments about education. However, many of the blue-collar trades available to our parents have been out-sourced or have experienced stagnated wages. Most of these jobs are being replaced by IT jobs of some sort. If a person hopes to earn >50,000/year, they have a better chance with some sort of degree.

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