I have a new favorite icebreaker question:
Would you rather meet your descendants or your ancestors?
It’s sort of the perfect question— no bad answer, really— a question that begs you to answer with a story. I’ve asked this question a number of times over the last month; unsurprisingly, the new school year brings with it lots of opportunities for icebreakers.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time considering my own answer.
Knowing what I know, and maybe more importantly, knowing what I do not know, maybe I would choose to meet my ancestors. I’d start with my eponymous grandmother– Judith, whom I never met. I’d have a few questions for my great-grandfather, AB Jonas. I’d climb around that family tree and see if I could make my way to Jascha Heifetz, a distant cousin who I”m sure would be delighted to know that I play the violin.
But then what? Looking backward would satisfy some curiosities to be sure.
But the past is the past— static, and unchanging.
Perhaps instead, I’d like to meet my descendants. Travel forward in time and meet my great-great-great-great grandchildren.
When I imagine answering the question in this way— suddenly, today— this moment gains urgency. For me, imagining the future makes the here-and-now feel even more important. Meeting my descendants means finding out what kind of ancestor I’ve become.
The aspiration to be a good ancestor may be one of the best distillations of what it means to take an optimistic long view of the future. This is an idea as ancient as the moment that God promises Abraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the heavens. It’s also an idea that has garnered contemporary attention. 2022 saw the publication of titles such as “What We Owe the Future” by philosopher William MacAskill, “The Good Ancestor” by Roman Krznaric, and “Longpath: Becoming the Great Ancestors Our Future Needs: an Antidote for Short-Termism” by Ari Wallach. Clearly, there is something in this moment that is calling to us to look ahead.
Imagining ourselves as great ancestors is ultimately about understanding our place in the universe: seeing our role in history for what it is: crucial and miniscule, of ultimate importance and relative smallness all at the same time.
Becoming great ancestors does not require us to have our own children and grandchildren. But it does require us to understand where we are right now and to count ourselves in as responsible for what comes next.
Today, I want to suggest that the greatest tools we have for ensuring the future is our human capacity for empathy, gratitude and awe.
Empathy, Gratitude and Awe. Hold onto those. We’ll need them later.
Before we can imagine where we want to go, we need a shared language for where we’ve been, and how we got here.
To use the predominant metaphor offered by Ari Wallach in his book “Longpath”, we are in the intertidal zone. Wallach writes:
…sometimes there seems to be a burst of radical transformation that happens all at once and on many different fronts. On a grand, historic scale, there have been a handful of periods of dramatic transition that not only mark changes in our behaviors and environments, but also reset the defaults on how we think and operate as human beings– windows like the Agricultural Revolution, the Middle Ages, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Age. Oh– and now.
Wallach refers to these periods of flux as intertidals. An intertidal zone is a term usually used to talk about the ocean— a liminal, in-between place where the ocean meets the land that is sometimes under water and sometimes exposed to air between tides. It’s a place of both extreme creativity and extreme danger. “Barnacles survive by anchoring themselves to rocks for stability, mussels by holding seawater in their shells to keep from drying out during the low tides. Not every organism can adapt, [and so] an intertidal is considered an extreme ecosystem.”
You don’t need me to describe for you the extreme ecosystem we find ourselves in. The ravages of a global pandemic, the degradation of our democracy, the weakening of our institutions, the peril which faces our planet.
But this morning, in a sanctuary filled with individuals who by and large remember the Great Before, I want to think a little differently about our responsibilities and opportunities to meet this moment for the benefit of our descendants in the Great Beyond.
This is not new. Jonas Salk, famous for developing the vaccine for polio understood the implicit task at hand in a scholarly article he wrote in 1982 entitled “Are We Being Good Ancestors?” In it he asks:
“Will future generations speak of the wisdom of their ancestors as we are inclined to speak of ours? If we are to be good ancestors, we should show future generations how we coped with an age of great change and great crises.”
How will future generations speak of the wisdom with which we moved through these last few years? This question deserves reflection.
Throughout the last two years, a common refrain I heard was “well, kids are resilient”.
Sure– they are, sometimes.
But also— sometimes they’re not.
I believe that this phrase is offered with the best intentions: a way to comfort adult anxieties around the real impact of trauma and suffering. However, I can’t help but hear in that phrase an abdication of responsibility— a verbal shoulder shrug at the real impact of trauma on young people.
We can’t possibly work toward becoming the great ancestors our future needs, without attending to the very real needs of the young people who are here in front of us right now.
To put it succinctly: the kids are not alright.
To be sure, we are in a better place than we were in two years ago. But I have a fear.
My fear is NOT that we don’t recognize the impact of these last few years on young people.
I think we do— we know from our own anecdotal experience: the kids we know and love. We’re seeing it in school, at camp, in youth programs: many kids are anxious, and depressed. They’re unpracticed in navigating social and emotional situations. This year’s college freshmen were high school sophomores when the pandemic began– much of the social experience of their teenage years simply evaporated. For many of this year’s Kindergarteners, it’s the first time they’ve been in a program with other children, away from their parents. We know that much of what feels not-quite-right for our young people is subtle, or even hidden: but ask any parent who is paying attention to the world that is unfolding on their 13 year olds’ iphone, and they will tell you: it’s not ok.
My friend and colleague, Debby Shriber, Executive Director of the URJ NE Camps offered me some insight based on what she saw in the kids at camp this past summer. She shared with me her sense that everyone had been changed by the experiences of the last three years: “ Every single one of them (and us) has experienced loss, even if we are lucky enough not to have lost someone we love. They lost years of typical social emotional development, milestones and things they have looked forward to for years. And they lost just being kids without the worries that come along with a global pandemic”
My fear is NOT that we don’t know, but that we are all too tired, too burnt out, too jaded to do anything meaningful about it.
We’re living in an intertidal zone, and the tide is coming in— and it’s time for us to figure out how to adapt.
There are plenty of challenges in front of us: the burnout and the exhaustion is real. These challenges are not incidental; it would be unfair and irresponsible of me to suggest that we all just put on our grown up pants and figure it out.
We are living through what author Anne Helen Petersen calls an American Parenting Crisis. This past week, she published a new book called: The Moms Are Not Alright, based on her interviews with more than 1000 parents and caregivers. She tells their stories of what it was like to parent through the tedium, the despair and the fear of the pandemic- through Black Lives Matters and January 6th and Uvalde. The stories of brokenness are unmistakable; our communities, our bodies, our families, our hearts are not ok. Some are starting to heal, but others are very much not.
[t]his isn’t just a matter of restoration or recognition — it’s about memory. Memory as the drumbeat of caregivers’ experiences, memory as the motivation for the sort of structural change that will ensure that it never happens, not like it did, not in the way that it did, again.
The last two years pressed on the bruise of our country’s failure to support families. It highlighted how alone many families are. In addition to the structural inequities that leave most American families without access to childcare and without a safety net, the reality of intergenerational family life has shifted. Our villages are scattered.
The challenges facing us as we try to move on are great: and we are tired. We have run out of tricks up our sleeves, we have run out of patience— and still, we can’t afford to be complacent.
We’re living in an intertidal zone, and the tide is coming in— and it’s time for us to figure out how to adapt.
For too long, we have been in fight or flight mode: throwing sandbags at the flood and putting bandaids on the problem.
To aspire to be better ancestors requires us to not only look behind us, but to look ahead: with empathy and with vision.
This should sound familiar to us.
It’s about remembering that shalshelet ha’kabbalah- that ancient chain of transmission. It’s knowing the value of the Torah and the menschlichkeit that we have to pass down to future generations.
It’s about remembering the call of l’dor vador— of seeing ourselves as a crucial link between our generations and the ones that come after us.
But what does that actually mean? What can we actually do?
I believe the answer is one that is much simpler than we might expect— one that is embedded in our Jewish tradition, even as it is a universal human principle:
We need to build back our village.
No one is going to do it for us.
We need more empathy, gratitude and awe.
We need to be willing to get our hands dirty with the work of raising up the next generation; to stand in places that are uncomfortable and difficult, and be willing to say “no— not this way”.
This moment requires all of us to think about how we can step up into the lives of young people.
For those who are parents: we might need to be more hands on than we have the energy for. It will require us to be present, to have our eyes wide open, and to make sure our kids know that we are seeing them. We need to model the kind of presence that we want them to have in the world. More to the point; the bandaids and sandbags of pandemic living may need to be put away, daunting as that sounds.
And, for those parents of young people who count themselves as fortunate because your kids are doing ok, this is a moment for becoming part of someone else’s village— of extending your reserves of care and presence to other young people in your life, and to their caregivers.
For those loving grown-ups: aunts/uncles/grandparents— the kids you love need you. They need adults to notice them, and when they see behaviors that feel not right, to be willing to say “Hey- I wonder if that’s really how you want to show up in the world right now. What’s going on?”
For those of us who are in community without young people of their own to care for: I am reminded of the words of Mother Theresa who said “the problem with the world is that we draw the circle of our family too small.” We need more folks willing to teach. To mentor. To tutor, to buddy up to, and be present in the lives of young people. To show up in spaces where there are families with children, and be visible and vocal. We need to build on the work of intergenerational connections right here in our own community.
If we are committed to being those great ancestors our descendants so desperately need- the work begins now, and like our Torah portion this morning reminds us, lo bashayim hi: it’s not too hard; the work and the words are not remote, far off in heaven; they’re right here, in our mouths. They sound like saying “I’m sorry- I wasn’t the best parent/teacher/grown-up I could have been earlier, I want to do better”. We know the words— כִּֽי־קָר֥וֹב אֵלֶ֛יךָ הַדָּבָ֖ר מְאֹ֑ד בְּפִ֥יךָ וּבִֽלְבָבְךָ֖ לַעֲשֹׂתֽוֹ׃ because the things we need to do and to say are very close to us: in our mouths, and in our hearts to do them.
The nechemta— the note of comfort for me in all of this is that Hevreh— all of us, are uniquely positioned to do this, Synagogues are distinctive. There aren’t so many natural intergenerational community spaces left in the world. This sacred space is sacred because it isn’t static: it is sacred because just as today it is filled with rows of chairs, throughout the year there be times when it will be filled with Shabbat dinner tables, with chairs for all of us, of all ages to gather around, and break bread and be together. It is sacred because in this room children crawl and run and laugh, and when they do so in beloved community with people of other generations, it makes an impression on them.. It is sacred because it is our gathering place. It is sacred because the tenets of transgenerational empathy and dreaming of a better future is built into our lives as a Jewish community.
To be clear, this is not just bailing out the boat with our own kids and grandkids in it, but about recalibrating the path to healthy adulthoods and pursuing justice for all kids. It’s about dreaming of a collective flourishing for all people, and starting right here— in our homes and in our communities. It’s about seeing ourselves as a crucial link in that chain of tradition, and remembering our secret weapon: hope. Encoded into the DNA of our people is the capacity to imagine Bayom Hahu—- the days that are still yet to be.
The truth is, kids are resilient. And, we can work for the day when they don’t have to be quite as able to absorb the types of trauma they have experienced over the past three years. When Lola was first born, I was sure I was going to break her— all those tiny fingers and little feet; I was convinced that in my novice as a parent, I’d hurt her. Which is when a wise person reminded me— babies were built to survive new parents. Human evolution depended on their resilience in the face of clumsy, sleep deprived newbie parents.
I have to believe that this holds true still, even as they grow. There’s still time. The tide is coming in, and we can adapt.
That’s why we’re here today, after all: because ultimately, we have hope. And we can build on that hope despite the challenges: we can believe that if young people can adapt to the loneliness and fear of the pandemic, they can also adapt to joy: to being part of a larger whole; to feeling seen as an important link in the chain of a community. They can learn by example that their words and their actions matter.
When I think about the young people in our community— my children, and yours– I have great hope. I don’t need to go forward hundreds of years to meet my great-great-great-great grandkids; I’d settle for a peak into the future 25 years from now, just to see that they’re all doing ok: that the anxieties and sadness and fear of these last years weren’t the final judgment call. To hear how they would answer the question posed by Dr. Jonas Salk: Will future generations speak of the wisdom of their ancestors as we are inclined to speak of ours?
If we show up, we stand a chance that those 25 years from now, they will be able to tell a story of awe, empathy, and gratitude.