Letter To New Grandchild

Crying newborn baby
A New Life

It’s early morning on May 16, 2017. About two hours ago my wife and I picked up our four-year old granddaughter who is now safely with us. The occasion is the imminent birth of our new granddaughter, who should be born in the next few hours.

It is hard to know what say about a new birth. There are about 353,000 births each day worldwide, about 255 each minute and 4 each second. That places what seems so special to you in a larger context. Still, if the birth directly affects you as a parent, grandparent, or sibling, the event is momentous.

What Kind of World Will There Be?

What I think about most is what kind of world awaits my new granddaughter. Will the world improve, will we we progress, we will overcome the legacy of our Pleistocene brains? Or will we remain ape-like, driven by out-group hostility and destroy ourselves?

Cosmic Evolution

I know one thing—the Gods will not save us. They either don’t exist, don’t care, or are impotent. (They almost certainly don’t exist.) Thus only we can save ourselves, for we are now the protagonists of the evolutionary epic. To save both ourselves and our planet, we must enhance our current moral sensibilities and intellectual capabilities. There is no other way. If we are important at all, it is as links in a chain leading onward toward higher levels of being and consciousness. If we succeed, the universe will become increasingly self-consciousness. This is the story of cosmic evolution—the universe becoming self-conscious through the creation of conscious beings. Our obligation is to aid this upward march.

Now I don’t know if we can make it, if we can create heaven on earth, but we can try. Perhaps the chance to try is our greatest gift. Here is a favorite poem to express these sentiments:

I turn the handle and the story starts:
Reel after reel is all astronomy,
Till life, enkindled in a niche of sky,
Leaps on the stage to play a million parts.

Life leaves the slime and through the oceans darts;
She conquers earth, and raises wings to fly;
Then spirit blooms, and learns how not to die,
Nesting beyond the grave in others’ hearts.

I turn the handle; other men like me
Have made the film; and now I sit and look
In quiet, privileged like Divinity
To read the roaring world as in a book.
If this thy past, where shall thy future climb,
O Spirit, built of Elements and Time!

Keep Striving

And when you get down, my little grandchildren, take comfort in these words:

Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
… for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Life Is Good

Remember too that the world is full of beauty and truth and goodness. There is love, friendship, honor, knowledge, play, beauty, pleasure, creative work, and many other things that make life blissful. There are parents caring for their children, people building homes, artists creating beauty, musicians making music, scientists accumulating knowledge, philosophers seeking meaning, and children playing games. There are mountains, oceans, trees, sky and flowers; there is art, science, literature, and music; there is Rembrandt, Darwin, Shakespeare, and Beethoven.

Hope

I’ll conclude by giving my best advice. We should adopt a hopeful attitude—expressed as caring and striving—because it is part of our nature, spurs action, and makes our lives better. We should also adopt a wishful hopefulness—wishing without expectations—for the same reasons.

Still, we don’t know if life is meaningful; if truth, beauty, goodness and justice matter; if there is any recompense for our efforts; if suffering can be ameliorated; or if anything matters at all. We don’t know if our wishes will be fulfilled, or our hopeful attitude can be sustained. But I see no value in giving into despair, at least not yet. For now I still have hope.

All of my advice best comes together in a famous passage about from William James’ essay, “The Will To Believe.” I first encountered it more than 40 years ago, and it still moves me. I hope it provides comfort on life’s often rocky road:

We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. … If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.

With love, your grandpa

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