My sons brought home an expression when they were high school wrestlers that nicely summarized how each generation feels about those that precede it. Anytime someone would talk about how hard things were in the “old days,” the caustic reply from my sons would be, “Yeah, rocks were heavier then.”
As I took my garbage cart out to the curb this morning, I remembered again the debt I owe to all those who created the infrastructure that allows me to dispose of waste materials so easily and efficiently. I know what a difficult problem solid waste disposal is in many parts of the world, and it’s something I rarely have to worry about here. The same debt applies to so many of the things we take for granted every day. Reliable electricity, emergency services, water, sewage disposal, roads, health care, and entertainment, to name a few, are accessible to most of us, even though we often complain about the costs. Our enjoyment of this legacy is not the fruit of accident or coincidence. The infrastructure of modern life is a remarkable tribute to everyone who contributed to it.
While we should admire and be grateful for the pioneers who created what we now enjoy, we should also recognize the debt we inherited. I don’t mean a financial debt that can be measured in economic terms, although we certainly have a large one and are busily increasing it every day. Rather, the debt that concerns me is the innovation treadmill that, if stopped, forces us to confront the painful reality of loss. We can’t simply maintain what we have to sustain what we consider to be the good life. Continuing prosperity will require, in my opinion, higher levels of education, creativity, and hard work than the effort that went into our inherited infrastructure.
We can choose to view this obligation as a burden, or we can view it as a powerful and positive incentive that enriches our lives. The great Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., captured this point of view when he observed:
“Until lately the best thing that I was able to think of in favor of civilization apart from blind acceptance of the order of the universe, was that it made possible the artist, the poet, the philosopher, and the man of science. But I think that is not the greatest thing. Now I believe that the greatest thing is a matter that comes directly home to us all. When it said that we are too much occupied with the means of living to live, I answer that the chief worth of civilization is just that it makes the means of living more complex; that it calls for great and combined intellectual efforts instead of simple, uncoordinated ones, in order that the crowd may be fed and clothed and housed and moved from place to place. Because more complex and intense intellectual efforts mean a fuller and richer life, they mean more life. Life is an end in itself, and the only question as to whether it is worth living is whether you have enough of it. I will add but a word. We are all very near despair. The sheathing that floats us over its waves is compounded of hope, faith in the unexplainable worth and sure issue of effort, and the deep, sub-conscious content which comes from the exercise of our powers.”
My sons picked up things good and bad in their wrestling days, and I think they were misled by the idea that rocks were heavier in the old days. Future generations will face different challenges than those we face; but if they are to experience an appropriate measure of satisfaction and happiness, they will be carrying some very heavy rocks.