Do you recall the story that circulated on the Internet a while back about a mother who lifted a car off her teenage son and saved his life? Even if this was just an urban myth, the idea that I might possess adrenaline-powered strength to save a life resonates for me. I wonder if I could I do that. If I was there, I would want to save that child. Wouldn’t you?
As you consider our moment in history, with our democracy and planet in peril, do you struggle, like me, to find the strength to do the heavy lifting? When I hear young adults say they don’t plan to have children because they fear the future, the weight in my heart feels nearly insurmountable.
Many of us are scared. We don’t sleep well at night. We’re exhausted. We find ourselves avoiding the news. Yet, we face difficult and crucial questions. What do we owe the future? What will be the legacy of our lives?
While I don’t have all the answers, I would like to share a strategy grounded in insights from Joanna Macy, a dear friend and teacher that builds my inner strength and resilience. From her, I learned we do not live only in this present moment, but that we live in the “ongoingness of time.” Our existence is tied to those who came before us and the choices they made just as our lives are the foundation for future generations. My ancestors made decisions that led to my current life and circumstances. In turn, I imagine the voices of my great, great, grandchildren—the “future ones”—in my ear and in my heart, urging me to consider their needs as I make choices today.
Tap Into Your Ally Superpower
When you struggle with the sometimes overwhelming yet essential task of advocating for a better future, your ancestors, future generations, and the natural world are your hidden allies. To access their strength, use this 5-minute exercise. Graba pen, paper, or perhaps your journal. Give yourself 10 to 15 seconds to jot down what comes to your mind for each item on the list below. Don’t overthink the categories. Allow names and images to easily arise. When you’re ready, take a deep, cleansing breath and write:
The names of three ancestors, related or not, who have impacted your life.
Three people—alive now—who are important in your life.
A place in the natural world that has brought you joy, serenity, or awe.
Another place in the natural world that is important, that you treasure. It could be your backyard, a neighborhood park, or the Grand Canyon.
An animal, domestic or wild, that you find amazing, interesting.
A child whom you love.
Look at your list. These are your allies! They live within you and you can call upon them when you feel stuck. Don’t forget them or take them for granted for they can be a source of strength, passion, and purpose.
During those dark nights of the soul, access this hidden strength from your ancestors and descendants, this deep time that goes beyond your personal experience. Read memoirs of people who have lived through wars, oppressions, or other difficult moments in history. Even if you are not a descendant, their experience can add to your own resilience. I sometimes restore my energy with memories of how my grandparents coped with hardships. My mother’s family came from what is now Ukraine. When they left their home in the late 1800s, they left behind their family and lives, knowing they would likely never return. Their courage made it possible for me to live where I do, in a home that is safe and secure. I keep pictures of them, and other allies around my home, that remind me that my life is much bigger than just myself.
Best of all, summoning your allies can be magical and a lot of fun. You can have conversations with your descendants. Even give them names if you choose. Call upon them to be with you as you walk into an important city council meeting and know that you are speaking for their lives, as well as your own. They have no faces, no names. Yet, the decisions we all make will affect their lives—whether they will be able to breathe clean air, drink fresh water, and enjoy the fruits of the land in that unknowable future.
Our allies are not just other human beings, but as we’ve noted in our journaling exercise, they can be a special place in the natural world that provide awe, inspiration, or comfort. Or animals with whom we feel a special connection that open us to the non-human experience. Or, we can embrace our “ecological self,” recognizing we are a part of the living body of Earth. This ecological self opens us to an enduring, energetic life force that is available and can power our human selves. I sometimes take a moment when outdoors to imagine myself breathing with the trees. As I breathe in, they breathe out. Together we are life, breathing itself.
To my great, great grandchildren, I offer my hopes and my dreams, and send them my love in the form of activism on behalf of their lives. While I know that none of us are equipped to solve the world’s problems, I trust that if we join forces to advocate for the well-being of future generations, that’s the least we could and should do.
You may ask yourself, “Who am I to think that I can take on the problems of the world? I am only one, small person.” As Martin Luther King once wrote, “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.”
Lynne Iser is President of Elders Action Network. Her passion is to engage elders in addressing the critical issues that keep us up at night and threaten our precious world. She previously co-founded the Spiritual Eldering Institute (sage-ing.org), with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Currently, she facilitates the work of Joanna Macy’s and teaches workshops for Yerusha Sage-ing® Legacy Program