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Exercising the Moral Imagination: A Letter from 30 Years Hence
It’s as if they rearrange the boundaries of their personalities in the process, possibly even change circuits in their brain and nervous system. They see themselves as part of a greater whole, part of the web of life; they see their lives in the context of Deep Time, rooted in the past and continuing on into the future. They may assume a sacred, moral responsibility (without necessarily using those words) to carry on the life bequeathed to us by our ancestors and to create the conditions for future generations to live in health and beauty. (Molly Brown)*
One of the rituals offered in the Work That Reconnects** is called “The Seventh Generation.” It involves an imaginary communication with someone who lives 200 years in a future that relies on us now making some of our better decisions. Such an exercise strengthens and extends the moral imagination, which is indispensable for any positive change. We first must imagine whatever it is we decide to do. When I was guiding this exercise in an online Active Hope group recently, I imagined the little girl Willow, who is our “Buddha-daughter" (as opposed to goddaughter), growing up and making the decision to have a baby, who grows up to have a baby, and so on. I asked myself: What does the world that she wants to bring a child into look like?”
Following this contemplation, I decided to write a letter from her to me, dated 14 May 2050:
Dear Buddha-mum Ratnadevi
Happy 93rd Birthday! We have spent so many happy birthdays together, my birthday being one day after yours, but as I am out of the country, in England, for my own 35th birthday I thought I’d send you a letter instead. I am thinking with much fondness of you and wish you a lovely day with your friends and family. I hope your joint pains aren’t too bad and that you can read this ok—I am writing this EXTRA LARGE!
Here is my big piece of news for you: I am pregnant! After all these years of uncertainty we decided to have to a child. As you know from our many conversations about this, I always thought that I wouldn’t want to bring another human being into this straining, ailing world. But I now see some signs that things are changing and that gives me confidence that our child will be alright.
It looks like the work of the ICAG (intergovernmental climate action group)—which was set up 25 years ago to facilitate collaboration between all governments to rapidly phase out fossil fuels and replace them with renewable energy—is starting to show results and we will be able to avert the worst. It’s heartbreaking, of course, to witness the rapidly expanding spread of desertification and flooded coastal areas and resulting human hardship. So many formerly beautiful parts of the world are becoming uninhabitable. Like you, I often grieve for the loss of all those amazing creatures we can only admire in those old-fashioned 2D BBC films narrated by David Attenborough. Coral reefs . . . how sad that they have disappeared.
But at last it seems that politicians everywhere are now working together on this, as they started to in 2020, the time of the COVID-19 crisis. 2020 has become such a catch phrase, like 9/11, hasn’t it? I remember not being able to hug you that summer on my fifth birthday, your 63rd. How disconcerting that was. So glad we have made up for it since; 2020 showed everyone that drastic and fast change across the globe is possible. After the lockdown, “back to normal” was widely questioned. It really started to sink in that true happiness can’t be measured in economic growth figures as more and more people began to value quality time and relationships more than money. They just didn’t want to go back to the old patterns of working and were starting to realize that they didn’t need all the unsustainable luxury they had gotten used to, including frequent overseas holidays. There were those big protests against the post-lockdown government subsidies for high C02-emitting, oil-dependent industries. And do you remember when BP said in 2020 that they were forced, by market forces, to leave remaining coal and oil reserves in the ground and were committed to zero Co2 emissions by 2050? Well, that milestone was actually celebrated five years ago, and not a year too early!
You have always told me stories about interconnectedness and contentment, and you know what? These truths have become mainstream. For example, at my recent job interview for a post as consultant for a wildlife organization, they asked me what I was prepared to sacrifice. I said that I would only travel abroad once every five years. This of course means saving up for it, as air travel, and even travel by ship, now has a price tag that reflects its true cost. I know that you and my parents were hardly flying even in those days when air travel was so cheap and widely available. I want to thank you for that—for thinking of the effects of your actions on us. I am relieved that people think differently now in so many areas of life. Old-style plastics were phased out 20 years ago—but oh how I wish people had changed their minds earlier! Those micro-plastics in the ocean and in the food-chain are a real nightmare to deal with.
Another question they asked me at that interview was: “What sustains your well-being?” Well, you can easily guess my answer to that . . . I still enjoy my daily meditation and movement practice very much. And I have a beautiful shrine with semi-precious gems and exquisite bones reminding me of the transience of life. I remember the shrine on your windowsill in Garrioch Drive—your amazing bird skull. Do you still have that? I loved bringing little gifts for Tara and taking some away when it was time to leave. I really think that reverence for life and being open to dimensions of life larger than our small, survival-driven selves is so crucial. We need to be able to extend our imagination and put ourselves into the shoes of others, through present, past, and future centuries, as a matter of course and act with kindness. I was amazed that the panel seemed satisfied with my answers. I look forward to my new job very much and I’m particularly pleased that my PhD research on “the affects on children of the collection and study of bones" will be useful.
I am part of an Active Hope group, by the way. I know you were running some of those in the ‘20s. I find it helpful to regularly process my feelings of sadness and grief about the devastation to the ecosphere over the last centuries. It won’t be easy for our child and future generations to deal with the aftermath of the industrial age. But things clearly are turning around—that’s what you used to call it, didn’t you: "The Great Turning.”
So I’ve started to make some maternity and baby clothes out of pieces of fabric salvaged over the years. I love patching, altering, and creatively re-using old clothes—it’s actually quite cool. My friends and I tell each other stories of where the material comes from. Do you remember that purple and pink gauzy top of yours that you let me have during your last big clear-out? That will be part of a dress, layered over old cotton dress materials from my mum and my best friend, Grace. You know the old Indian style of stitching layers of old saris together, kantha? That’s my inspiration.
Please do take good care of yourself, my dear Buddha-mum. On our next birthdays, hopefully I will be able to put our child into your arms and ask for your blessings.
With all my love,
Willow, your Buddha-child
Image courtesy of the author
* Deep Time and the Moral Imagination (Deep Times)
** Developed over several decades by Joanna Macy, John Seed, and Molly Young Brown, among others, the Work That Reconnects is an empowerment process drawing on the Dharma and comprising tools and practices offering insights into working together to support a sustainable shift in hearts and minds, lives, and society.
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