Late last year, a man named Ken Watson died at age 87, but before he did, he made sure to gift wrap fourteen presents for his two year old neighbor. He’d always told her that he’d live to be 100, and when that looked like it wasn’t going to happen, he decided he’d need to plan ahead. Which is why, after his death, his own daughter came around with a large bag of presents—enough to provide one per year until the little girl turned sixteen years old.
It’s a beautiful little story that warms the soul. But today, let’s make sure it does more than that. Let’s actually learn from it.
Today’s politics have become sadly lopsided, wherein the elderly now make up one of the largest, most intractable, and most self-interested voting blocs. Despite mounting problems on multiple fronts—from the climate to Social Security to immigration to income inequality—we’re unable to come up with common sense solutions, in part because this group is more concerned with protecting their own short-term interests rather than their grandchildren’s long-term ones. It’s shameful and it’s a betrayal of the goodness that someone like Ken Watson so touchingly illustrated.
There is an old Greek proverb that reads, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” It’s one the Stoics would have agreed with. While Marcus Aurelius and Seneca took pains to discourage chasing legacy or posthumous fame, they did believe it was the philosopher’s duty to serve the common good—to contribute to the Roman Empire in a way that would allow it to stand for future generations. That’s what this notion of sympatheia is partly about as well: we are all connected and related to each other. The idea that life is a zero-sum game, that the ticker starts at zero when you’re born and resets when you die, is ridiculous and pathetic.
While we don’t control what other intransigent people decide to do with their votes, their money, and their influence, we can at least commit to being a little bit more like Ken Watson in our own lives. How can we make sure that we’re investing in and protecting the interests of the people that come after us? How can we pay forward the bounty (and privileges) that our ancestors bequeathed to us? What trees are we planting that others will one day sit beneath?
That’s our job—as citizens and as Stoics. Yes, we have to live here in the present moment and that should be our primary concern. But that cannot come at the expense of the many moments that our children and their children and their children are entitled to experience as well.
Be good to each other. Plant trees.