We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. – Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America
“I don’t care about my legacy. I’ll be dead.” – Rudolph Giuliani
Next time you google a word, I want you to notice something.
It’s a gadget in the search drop-down called Ngram Viewer.
Essentially, it takes every occasion in a searchable body of literature and reveals how often a word has been used over the ages. For instance, prior to the 70s the words we used most often for preschool were kindergarten or nursery school. But in 1973, the primary description used by Americans became child care. The latter has declined in usage only slightly since the 1990s.
Language is a reflection of our thinking, and the change from kindergarten to child care did not happen in a vacuum. In 1965, only 10% of American children were enrolled in pre-school programs. By 2017, that number had climbed to 30%. More children were not only being schooled by someone else, they were being attended by someone else – and how we thought of it registered in our vernacular.
Of course, like the total IMDb addict that I am, this all led to researching a few other words about which I was curious. Mercy, for example. It was widely used in the early 19th Century, but has been sharply declining almost ever since. On the other hand, usage of the word self has increased almost three-hundredfold since 1800. What might we glean from that?
But the word that lately has had me most interested is posterity.
It’s a word we all know. It’s derived from the original Latin word meaning following, as in, whatever comes after. It’s not only our children and grandchildren, but the sum total of all that which we will leave behind. And judging by our language, it’s something fewer of us think about.
Doesn’t it seem like somehow we may have taken the concept of living for today a bit too far?
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you. But living for today with little apparent thought for tomorrow might just be a big source of many of the problems around us. The above sentiment expressed by Rudolph Giuliani in a 2018 article published in The New Yorker is a direct quote, as is this one – from the current Attorney General of the United States:
“Everyone dies and I am not, you know, I don’t believe in the Homeric idea that you know, immortality comes by, you know, having odes sung about you over the centuries, you know?”
My question is, when did we stop believing in that idea?
Hey, I confess. The erosion of those things upon which civilization rests is not new, and in many cases the damage has been self-inflicted. In the last few years that corrosion has demonstrably accelerated. Name any three institutions of your youth that you implicitly trust today. The police? The church? Colleges and universities? Congress? The presidency? The law? But perhaps it’s the institution of posterity that is most important, and fragile, of them all.
Without concern for how we’ll be remembered or the impact we’ll leave, what might be the difference in how we behave? We’re born, we live, we die, and so what? Today has enough worries of its own. Let tomorrow fend for itself. What matters is now. You deserve a break today. Feed your thirst. Just do it. Greed is good. Build bigger barns. Power is all that matters. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. And it’s only a short walk from fatalism to nihilism. Freed from the constraints of any accountability to tomorrow, anything is possible.
It’s a subtle thing, but deviations from purpose have big effects. A building off an inch at the bottom will be off ten feet at the top. Somewhere there needs to be an acknowledgement that what we do now does echo forever, far beyond our ability to hear those echoes. It’s an obligation to the kind of world we’ll leave for our children and grandkids, regardless of whether one believes in Homeric immortality. We’ll be spoken of, regardless of whether or not we’re there to hear it – and it’s particularly unsettling to hear erstwhile leaders openly not care what’s said.
Then again, our word choices suggest fewer and fewer of the rest of us do.
One need not believe in traditional ideas of an afterlife to believe in immortality. I’m reminded of that every time I hear my Pop, even though he’s been dead now for thirty-two years. Almost always, his words are the same: leave it better than you found it.