This week has seen my life upended in a variety of ways—some profound, some simple. Yet, despite changes in my schedule and behavior prompted by these interruptions, the world seems to just keep on spinning, indifferent to my personal history. Experiencing interruptions in my normal patterns, navigating unexpected events and appointments, finding a new balance when events upend carefully laid plans can be both annoying and exasperating as attention to personal commotion crowds out more altruistic inclinations.
So, the question that emerged these past days was: how do I maintain my attention to the needs of the world during times of personal distraction? How do I focus on ongoing—even accumulating—injustice when my attention is drawn to more trivial pursuits? What are some practical techniques I can use that allow me to be neither overwhelmed nor dispirited by the headlines that confront me while remaining attentive to temporary matters that distract me?
Amid these musings, I read an article by Oxford University’s William MacAskill entitled “The Case for Longtermism.” In the article, MacAskill prompts us to ponder how actions we undertake in our lifetimes impact not just our children and our children’s children, but all of humanity that is to come—for perhaps the next million years. It is not an easy article to read; it is an even more difficult concept to grasp. (It is also controversial; see: “Against Longtermism” by Phil Torres)
As I consider my relationship to the wider world, I am acutely aware that history is at a pivotal point. Decisions I make advocating for or against use of fossil fuels or nuclear non-proliferation can impact humanity’s future—perhaps even its very survival. Will we use artificial intelligence for good, or will despots control advances in science and technology to seize and maintain power?
At Intersections International, we worked extensively with descendants of the Lenape people who inhabited the greater New York metropolitan region before Henry Hudson landed in New Amsterdam in 1609. A foundational principles of Lenape ethics is to consider how an action impacts the community for seven generations. Intersections’ mandate was to build bridges across lines of difference, and I remember one “power and values” discussion attended by both CEOs from Fortune 500 companies—whose focus was on improving quarterly profits—and members of the Lenape whose decision-making took into account generations-long implications. MacAskill takes this “obligation” further still, to unknown generations thousands of years from now.
This all makes my disrupted schedule this past week seem rather irrelevant. Or does it? My vocational training leads me, when confronted by the “big questions” in life, to turn to Scripture for answers. In Luke 16:10, we read, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.”
The lesson here for me (and for us all?) is that in the midst of tiny distractions—whatever they may be—it is important to remain faithful, true to the causes of justice, compassion and care for the earth that underpin our daily decision-making. If we can maintain the commitment to be responsive to the needs of the world, in the midst of trivial disruptions, then the patterns we set today can serve us well when troubles seem to overwhelm; and the actions we take in the moment can impact lives and communities in generations yet imagined who will benefit from the day-to-day choices we make in the present.