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?