“In our way of life, in our government, with every decision we make, we always keep in mind the Seventh Generation to come. It’s our job to see that the people coming ahead, the generations still unborn, have a world no worse than ours and hopefully better.”
This quote from Chief Lyons (Onondaga), derived from the Great Law of Peace of the Iroquois Nation, has always struck me as an elegant and powerful statement of how we should judge the impact of our public policies and personal choices.
But I’ve also always had trouble putting the idea into concrete practice. I mean we’re talking about the impact on my great, great, great, great, great-grandchildren!
My help came from Chris Peters (Pohlik-lah/Karuk), president of the Seventh Generation Fund.
Chris and I were sitting together at a coffee break of an economic development conference many years ago when I brought up my personal difficulty in thinking seven generations out. He began describing the many different techniques that various tribal councils and leaders have used. I was fascinated, but was still have trouble actually doing it myself.
Chris must have noticed my periodic blank gazes. He paused, then said,
“Joel, maybe we need to start at a more basic level… Did you know your grandparents?”
“Yes. My mother’s parents both died when I was quite young, but my dad’s parent both lived until my early adulthood,” I answered.
“Great,” Chris said. “Can you imagine their parents?”
“Sure,” I responded. “We always had lots of pictures around the house that included them. With a little effort, I think I can even remember their faces right now.”
“Good. Now, I know you’ve got kids,” he continued, “and I assume that you can imagine being a grandfather some day. Right?”
“Can you imagine their children, your great-grandchildren?” Chris asked.
“Well, I guess so,” I said hesitantly. “And I hope that I’m still alive to see them. My parents and grandparents both have had the chance to see some of their great-grandchildren.”
“Then you can imagine a span of seven generations! From your great grandparents to your great-grandchildren,” Chris said encouragingly. Then he added,
“Now imagine your great grandparents taking into consideration the well-being of your great grandchildren, and all the generations in between.”
It was my turn to pause. I could imagine the people in those seven generations pretty concretely. And although it was hard to imagine all the people who are descendants of my great grandparents to the seventh generation, I had a glimmer of understanding. But as we discussed things further, things started becoming cloudy again. Again, Chris noticed my expression, and offered,
“Joel, if it’s easier for you to think concretely about things, then perhaps it’s best to start with a more direct approach.
“Take personal responsibility for the actions of your great grandparents and their generation. And remember that your great grandkids are going to need to take personal responsibility for your actions and those of your generation,” he finished.
This was a seven generation construct that I could take to heart and put into practice.