Location: York Minster, northern England
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Over dinner, my uncle asked me how I felt about the future. “Personally optimistic, globally pessimistic,” I replied. Climate change, of course - and more so the political & human horror that will accompany it. If the ice sheets were to melt into the oceans without taking democracy and human rights with them, I might take that deal.
We talked about what it takes to feel invested in the future beyond your lifespan. To my aunt it was inherent, it just made sense. “Children,” said my uncle. He didn’t think he was so invested, if he were honest (we’re all three child-free.) “Money,” I said. Perhaps it’s a luxury to be able to care about the future. Many are one paycheck from disaster and have more pressing concerns.
I talked about how crisis-averting change is possible (ecologically, economically) and impossible (politically, perhaps psychologically). We in the West do not live in a system that can act beyond the financial quarter or the electoral cycle. Time discounting is a cognitive norm.
But, I said. There are also systems that take a longer view. The Native American principle of thinking for seven generations. Japanese thousand-year corporations. And a cathedral a hundred yards away that on just three panels lists its archbishops back to 314.
This deep thread of continuity in place is something close to the heart of my personal sense of Englishness. It’s one of the things that makes Europe (and Japan, and China) different to America.
Continuity does not mean ethno-nationalism, though. Just look at these names. The ruptures within them.
From the Romans Eborius and Paulinus to the Celtic name Chad, to the Angles of the Kingdom of Northumbria: Wilfrid, Egbert, Aethelbert. The capture of York in 867. Wulfstan I, who played off the Vikings vs the Wessex kings. The Danes Oscytel and Oswald. 1066, conquest. 1071, a new Norman dynasty of names: Thomas. Bastard offspring of royalty (Fitzherbert). Kin of kings (Plantagenet). In 1514 the common son of a butcher, Thomas Wolsey.
This list of archbishops ends (for the moment) with John Sentamu, 2005—, who was born in Uganda.
In order to have a future, we need a new conception of time, which has been present all along