Thursday, January 22, 2009

Working for the future

I had a million thoughts and feelings flow through me as I watched and listened to Barack Obama's inauguration but as my daughter is due to wake up from her nap any minute now, I'll try to keep it down to one thought.

While covering the event, CBC Television went to a northern Toronto school of primarily black students to capture some personal reactions. A number of students said that what they learned from that day was that with hard work, they can do anything.

These reactions came from kids so I'll go easy on them but I will say that they completely missed the point. There are times - many many times - when hard work is just not enough. You may be a slave. You may be a lower class of person. Misfortune or ill health may fall upon you. You may be victim of the ill will of others. You may never have a chance to succeed. But, through a combination of sacrifice, cleverness, luck, hard work and opportunity, it is possible that your grandchildren can do anything.

I don't have the time to do justice to this idea but it struck me that it is almost always immigrants who say that they are working for their children. The notion of working for unseen generations isn't something that established middle class folks say out loud. I recently read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success and what I took from it was how much an individuals success was built upon hard work and the hard work of their family, generations back.

Last week on BBC's Start The Week, there was an interesting exchange between an expert on kindness and the author of Q and A (which is the basis of the movie, Slumdog Millionaire). The kindness expert was suggesting that hope, such as for a lottery winfall, can be damaging because it often fails us and may even keep us from concentrating on our present situation. But Vikas Swarup was admament that hope was essential to humankind and said that in India even the poorest in the slums dream of a better life for their children.

Two of my heros, Steward Brand and Jane McGonigal both have been preoccupied with projects that try to encourage future thinking. Its making me think that I should be doing some future thinking myself. Perhaps the profoundly deep troubles that I know in my heart that will not be resolved or abated in my lifetime (global warming, peak oil, ecological devestation, global poverty, etc) need to be re-cast as something on a more historic timescale.

As aptly put by Obama in the last passage of his inagural speech ,

Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

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