When John Adams (portrayed by Paul Giamatti in the HBO mini-series) arrived in Paris to ask the French for naval support of the American cause, he found a culture he’s unfamiliar with – one much slower and engaged in the arts. Over a meal, he is asked about music and his response, as always, is thought-provoking (if you are reading this post via email, you’ll need to click through to the blog to see the video).
“I must study politics and war, you see, so that my sons will have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. [I love the reaction by Benjamin Franklin at this point of the quote – he knows he’s hearing something profound even before Adams finishes.] My sons must study navigation, commerce and agriculture so that their children will have the right to study painting and poetry and music.”
Obviously, Adams has thought this out. His generation is responsible for educating itself in politics and war so the next generation has the liberty to study topics such as mathematics and philosophy to enrich their lives, but he says they also have a duty to study navigation, commerce and agriculture to lay the groundwork for a new society so that the next generation can study the arts.
Adams was forward thinking, and in so being, he was duty-bound to the next generation. Some 230 years have passed since then. Should we still study and master topics knowing they will benefit the next generation while also taking full advantage of what the previous generation studied for us? Or are the collective sacrifices of generations past enough?
It seems to me that when a generation stops thinking about, appreciating and building on the sacrifices of the previous generation, we become self absorbed. But when we build on the sacrifices of previous generations, it gives us a chance to live beyond ourselves.
It’s a little more tricky in our day though. We aren’t starting from ground zero, like Adams. If we were to live according to his philosophy in our modern culture, each family in each generation would need to consider where it has come from and where it is going, and act accordingly.
As I think about my own family, my grandparent’s generation comes to mind. One of my grandfathers was the go-to guy for my family. He worked hard, saved money, educated himself about the basics of survival (he grew up in the Great Depression) and he always had an answer for family members in need, whether it was how to fix a car, how to build a nest egg or how to fix a marriage. Looking back, the way he spent his leisure time had more to do with the helping the next generation than it did with satisfying his own wants.
As I’ve discussed my grandfather’s life (he died in 1985) with my own father (who died in 2000), I’ve learned that, like everyone else, my grandfather had his own dreams. He dreamed of developing the land he lived on into apartments, which, now that I think about it, even that probably had something to do with offering the generations to follow an established business if they so desired it, but the timing was never right, and maybe the finances weren’t either, I don’t know.
But I do know he was a satisfied man.
And I’m challenged by that.