How Will Your Descendants Look Back At You?
Futurist Ari Wallach’s new book, Longpath, starts with a provocative premise: We’re stuck in the present. We have so much coming at us, so quickly, that we find it difficult to do much more than deal with what’s in front of us right now. We’re aware that something is deeply problematic about this state of the affairs. We know that a constant focus on the short-term will create longer-term problems. However, we struggle to get out of the vortex of the immediate transactional moment. As a result, we struggle to have empathy for others. And we struggle to see potential futures except for those that society is prescribing for us.
With that premise teed up, it would be easy for Wallach to take a finger-wagging, admonishing, self-righteous tone. Thankfully, and refreshingly, he never gets on his high horse. In fact, he goes one step further and admits his own difficulty getting stuck in the present even though he knows better, which is a big reason why the book works. In one instance he catches himself right before laying into his daughter about a missed homework assignment. In another he fails to stop himself before criticizing his wife for her packing job at the grocery store (for which she snaps back at him.) He uses these examples to drive home the idea that it’s so easy to lose sight of what matters. An accumulation of knee-jerk reactions such as these leaves a significant long-term negative imprint on us, those around us, and future generations.
The way out? Wallach invites the reader to consider two broad concepts. The first is transgenerational empathy. It entails broadening our perspective of our place in time and reflecting on the experiences of our ancestors and future descendants. By doing so we put the current moment into a bigger context. We develop a deeper appreciation of how today’s reality is a result of what our ancestors did or didn’t do. But we’re also laying the groundwork for what our descendants will or won’t experience in the future. Wallach acknowledges that this latter form of reflection (or “pre-flection” as I came to think of it) is tough to do, but important because it brings the future into the present. By doing so we get a visceral understanding of the long-term impact of today’s actions. A simple example is standing in front of the refrigerator in January looking longingly at a pint of ice cream. Envisioning ourselves in the summer standing on the beach with an extra 15 pounds bulging out of our bathing suit, we can interrupt the calculus of the current moment. It still might not change our decision, but at least it gives our current short-term thinking some longer-term competition. He offers several strategies for exercising this muscle.
The second concept Wallach invites the reader to consider is futures thinking and telos. This means expanding our capacity to see many different futures within which we can begin to imagine ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren living our lives. He makes the point that as humans we’re all at risk of getting sucked into an Official Future. This is the future that seems prescribed to us by our histories and the contexts that surround us. It has a strong gravitational pull towards clarity, comfort, and certainty (even if it’s bad for us and others for whatever reason.) Wallach offers a variety of exercises to loosen the grip of this gravity on our lives to free us up to begin to see a more empowering future. Again, he’s refreshingly not Pollyannish about any of these suggestions, acknowledging they can be done in small steps over time.
This last idea is a thread that runs throughout the book. “I’m not advocating a loud movement,” he writes in the final chapter, “but a subtle shift, a quiet sharing of a new mindset.” This new mindset is one that has us pause and relax a bit. It has us reflect on the world we’re creating with our day-to-day craziness of never-ending to dos that rob us of the opportunity to envision something better, for us, but also for future generations.
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Longpath is an enjoyable, easy-to-read provocation. It prods but isn’t annoying. It’s a practical invitation and high-level guide to walking a new path that will help us live better lives and become better ancestors.