The 200-Year Present: A Way to Lengthen Your Days
Last week I spoke at a gathering of educators at Berry College. The subject was “Called to Tell Our Stories.”
As I prepared my speech, reviewing my own life for stories that might connect with the audience, I remembered the visit of Elise Boulding to Goshen College in the 1980s. Boulding had a great impact on me as a young professor. She took the long view of her career, which she planted inside her vocation to motherhood and family life, showing that you can “have it all,” even if you don’t get it all at once.
This week my mother celebrated her 91st birthday. The events this year were quieter than last year’s but still joyful.
And, because I had just been re-reading Elise Boulding for my speech, I experienced an “aha moment” while thinking about the two of them. Mother’s long life (and baby Lydia’s short one) helps me understand one of Boulding’s most important insights. She called it the “200-year present.”
Boulding used this idea based on how generations work in families, to gain perspective on social change.
We often think of ourselves as living either at the beginning or the end of an era. Boulding’s 200-year present places us squarely in the middle of time.
Boulding would explain the concept this way: today is March 1; one boundary of the 200-year present is March 1, 1918. That is the day of the birth of the people who are celebrating their 100th birthday today. The other side of that 200-year present is March 1, 2118, which will be the 100th birthday of the babies born today.
“Within your extended family and among those close to your family, someone will have been born somewhere close to 100 years ago, and some child you know will be alive 100 years from now.
By thinking about that span of time as encompassing the living present reality of people you know and care about, that span of time becomes accessible. It becomes our time in a very profound sense. This 200-year span belongs to us: it’s our life space. It’s the space in which we should be thinking, planning and making judgments, evaluating, hoping and dreaming. This opening up of what we normally think of as our future and our past and making it a part of our present experience, makes changes more comprehensible . . . .
an enormous strengthening force in a period of very rapid change.”
Within the span of 200 years empires can rise and fall, courageous leaders can challenge despots, inventors can improve the living conditions of millions. If bad things are happening, the good can still triumph. If good things are happening, we should not be complacent.
This year of being granny nanny while also reading, writing, speaking, marching, listening, and mentoring feels even richer within the large idea of the 200-year present.
Once again, Elise Boulding has shifted the frame of my reality. I am deeply grateful to her.
And since, as Anne Morrow Lindbergh observed, in her own version of the 200 year present, “the pattern of our lives is essentially circular,” I will leave you with my memory from the 1950s of singing a song in Lititz Mennonite Church and hearing the story of the hymn text below. I’ve sung the hymn in church all my life. I’ve used it as a prayer in a secular setting. I have sung it while strolling babies on the streets of Brooklyn and Pittsburgh.
Today the phrase that jumped out at me was preacher Amos Herr’s gratitude for “lengthening out my days.” I also love the idea what what we owe to God is a morning song. The hymn is a Mennonite version of Alice Walker’s insistence that we praise God for the color purple.
I think it would make a good funeral hymn. But until that day comes, I offer these voices, these words, to you in the form of a morning meditation. May it strengthen and inspire you on your own journey, however long it is. Today that journey reaches back a century and forward another — into the lives of all the children born today around the world.
Does the idea of the 200-year present make sense to you? What difference does it make to a culture if we think of ourselves as embedded in time rather than at the beginning or the end?
The “200-hundred year” present relates to what I was reading just this morning, a chapter in the book, Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America by John Lewis. The chapter title was “Patience.” Lewis details the length of time that different civil rights struggles and legislation took, waiting years, and many decades in come cases. The opening of the African American Museum happened 100 years after it was first conceived. While the focus is different than in your essay, the encouragement to take the long view is the similar. Lewis writes, “Patience is a guiding light in all the work of change.”
I love that quote, Erma. And John Lewis’ wisdom, both patient and persistent, is what we need in our troubled time.
What a great illustration of the 200-year present. I’m sure Elise Boulding would energetically nod her white head in agreement if she were to read your words.
Love this post! Love this song! I learned this by heart (all verses) way back at LMS in the ’60’s as we sang it so many mornings in chapel.
It is still a favorite! And I love the 4-generation picture! How beautiful an example to the “200 year” present!
I’m so glad this post brought back your own memories, Elaine. Thanks for taking time to comment here. It’s always good to know that someone else was inspired by ideas that have helped me on my journey.
Your mother is so beautiful and does not look her age! I saw and spoke with her and Henry at Lititz Family Cupboard several weeks ago. I hadn’t seen him in maybe 50 years! Brings back a lot of childhood neighbor memories!
I’m so glad you met them both recently. I’ll make sure Mother sees your comment. Like all of us past a certain age, she enjoys compliments on looking young!
Your post today reminded me that family histories, though linear, also cycle and circle around as the generations touch and go.
Thank you for introducing me to Elise Boulding, whose work I hadn’t heard of before. And for reminding me of Amos Herr’s great song. I remember singing it around the table during family week at Laurelville Camp, and also you and I blending on Janet Given’s sun porch in Chincoteague.
Your post reminded me too of the value of preserving family stories. And thank you for once again delivering a post that appeals to both mind and heart.
Thank you, Marian, especially for reminding me of that beautiful morning in Chincoteague. We have not spent a lot of time with each other, but when we do, we go deep into shared memory. You named the theme that I spoke about at Berry College: “Called to Tell Our Stories.” The work in vocation that the Lilly Endowment has sponsored and that hundreds of colleges and universities have implemented, is such good work.
Shirley — What a wonderful, THOUGHT-PROVOKING post. I especially resonate with the idea of being “embedded” in time.
So glad you got to put on your thinking cap while visiting here today, Laurie. It’s a good hat on a good head. 🙂
Treasure your mom as long as you have her, Shirley. She looks so beautiful and vibrant. And I love the four generation picture. I didn’t see the text for the hymn you mention.
Thanks for the compliments, Elfrieda. I do hope you’ll hit the video button on the Youtube above. It will not only give you the text but also some great a capella singing.
Got it, thanks, Shirley!
Thanks for this comment too, Elfrieda.
I too have been much inspired by books I have read, especially as a child: Anne of Green Gables, Girl of the Limberlost, Freckles, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and so many more. Before the age of nine I had gone through the Martyrs Mirror and the hymnal (In Paraguay they were the only two books we had besides our Bible). Inspiring mentors were my Sunday School teacher and my father who was also our pastor.
How wonderful to still have your mom. Now that I’ve read my mother’s diaries from the age of 10 forward, I want to ask her so many questions. I never knew these diaries were stored in the attic. A lot of her entries make be furious; others make me very sad. She had no self-awareness and suffered more than she had to because of that. Her entries as a young woman, her honesty to her diary, falling in love with Dad -those I find delightful, but it makes me sadder, actually, because I see how happy and confident and positive she was. She always stayed confident, but neither happy nor positive later in life. Hope that’s not a spoiler for the book – but you’ll have to find out just how that all happened. 😉 Your posts are always thoughtful and inspiring.
Linda, thanks for your comment and for the reminder that your long-awaited book Redlining is coming out on April 3. I have just pre-ordered a copy. If others want to do the same, here is the link: https://www.amazon.com/Redlined-Memoir-Fractured-Community-Chicago-ebook/dp/B074CW6Q8W/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
Best wishes with the launch. I wonder how the era you are writing about looks through the lens of the 200-year present.
Your mom is beautiful.
I find the concept of being embedded in a 200-year present, rather than beginning or ending an era as I have always thought before, very meaningful. Thank you.
Thank you, Lucinda. I’m glad you got an idea to ponder here. Good to hear from you.
I’ll accept that you’re citing facts when you state your mother is 91. She certainly looks younger, and she is a beautiful woman.
Thanks for a thought-provoking post today. My brain is growing stronger with the rest of my body as I continue my charge forward during recovery. Of course, there was nothing wrong with my brain except that when we don’t use it regularly, it shows its ability to shift with the times. I like the idea of the 200-year cycle. No one in either of our families is near 100 today and no births are happening either. However, we have many family memories to draw from of the various circles and cycles within the Adams and Meyer families.
Sherrey, Mother herself is amazed by her age. She shakes her head and says, “Can you believe I’m 91?”
I am glad you are recovering and sorry that both brain and body have had to work so hard. May you continue to get a little better every day.
Yes, you have the 200 years in your family even if no one living is close to 100 or a baby. Just look at the birthdates of your grandparents and youngest grandchild. Good to see you here again. I’m off to check out your latest.
I have never heard of the 200 year concept. But I think I can make sense of it. I am in the middle with my parents behind me, and my children in front of me, and my great grandchild. I too will leave my footprint from my own life, whether that be in the faces of our children. Here is a link to to The Rankin Family song, Rise again. https://youtu.be/hffAItzLj2A
June, you have the image just right for the 200-year present.
Thank you so for introducing me to the song “Rise Again.” I love it, and now I know who the Rankin Family is. Such sadness and such lovely music. I will be listening to more of their songs.
Shirley, I echo others’ comments about your mother. She is a beautiful, young 91. She reminds me of my mother who aged much the same way. Part of the answer is in that smile. I’ll be you seldom see her without.
The 200 year concept takes a lot of pressure off. I’ve been thinking a good deal about end of life as I age. What I’ve done or not done. What I’m leaving. What will happen later. If I think about myself as simply in the middle of the 200 years, then I can relax a bit. I can do things even now that have the potential to spin out for another hundred years. What a comforting thought.
I feel as though I met your mother by reading the book Growing Up Country, Carol. And yes, I did see similarities too.
You describe the psychological benefits of the 200-year present beautifully. I know you are doing many things that will last beyond your lifetime.
This is thought-provoking as I continue caregiving my mother-in-law who is a hospice patient on the mend. She’s also in a nursing home now, but I often feel the generation that comes before me will outlive me. It’s interesting to think of this 200 year period from my perspective as a woman with two sons in their 40s, neither with children, one brother who died, and his two children who also don’t have kids. There’s an awkwardness in my role as the elder when there are no young children around to play, share stories, and appreciate me despite my quirks and complexes. It’s especially noticeable at holidays. So, I ask myself, where do I find that long view and sense of history and continuity. I live in a home that’s 200 years old and care for fields and a forest that are much older than the house. With a conservation easement on the land, we never cut an ancient giant unless it has a communicable disease that will harm the whole. So, we protect and preserve and honor the grandmother trees. Meanwhile, I tend and and plant new trees with the help of a man who has worked for me on this land for a dozen years. Many of the saplings such as 12 blight-resistant American Chestnuts planted last spring must be protected from devouring deer, so it’s not possible to plant and walk away. As with family, the nurturing goes on. It’s nice to read your words, Shirley. Thank you.
The weight of your life has tilted toward age, Elaine, a calling you have accepted with grace but not without difficulty. Where do you find that long view and sense of history and continuity? You nurture and protect new trees.
You also fight for conservation of the land itself. You help grieving partners recover their sense of purpose, which helps their children and grandchildren gain strength.
You are the very rock of support for new life. I admire you and tip my hat to you this day, as will future generations neither of us can see.
Hello Shirley, I have begun singing “I Owe the Lord a morning song” each morning again, thanks to you. It is an important hymn in my childhood family.
Also, I found what you are saying here echoed in my reading from “The Taste of Being Present,” a book of meditations from the Breema center (breema.com):
“Giving and receiving need to be understood from a higher dimension. When you really give, you give to the Totality. When you really receive, you receive from the Totality. If you give to someone you relate to only in separation, you are giving only to the temporary part of them, which will only be here for seventy or eighty years or so. What kind of giving is that? But when you are connected to the bigger picture, your giving is something precious. When you smile genuinely at someone in the street, that’s true giving. When the way your waiter serves you isn’t quite perfect, but instead of expressing criticism, you remember how much life energy has been invested in the food that’s brought to you, that’s real giving. What this means is don’t forget your True nature. Don’t forget about the essential interconnectedness of all that exists. Don’t forget you are part of the Totality. When you remember this, giving and receiving have authentic meaning.”
I experience “the Totality” as another one of G-D’s many names.
Dolores. I am so glad you have found this simple, profound, and beautiful hymn again. Thanks for sharing the meditation from the Breema center. You remind us of the connection between our true nature and the nature of wholeness itself. I will remember the quote and you when I stroll Lydia on the street next time. There are always ways to connect on those trips.
Quote By Howard Thurman
“Look well to the growing edge! All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit. Such is the growing edge! It is the extra breath from the exhausted lung, the one more thing to try when all else has failed, the upward reach of life when weariness closes in upon all endeavor. This is the basis of hope in moments of despair, the incentive to carry on when times are out of joint and men have lost their reason, the source of confidence when worlds crash and dreams whiten into ash. The birth of the child — life’s most dramatic answer to death — this is the growing edge incarnate. Look well to the growing edge!”