Context, continuity, and generations

long view 2A lot of self-help books and personal development coaches advise taking a break from your area of professional focus every now and then to read things entirely outside your field.  In today’s world of mass media, information overload, and 24-hour-a-day, day jobs, that is increasingly hard to do.  But I have found this to be a valuable piece of advice throughout my career, as was brought home by two separate instances in the past week, neither of which had any connection to the field I represent at my association.

First it was my privilege to be included in a small dinner, hosted by Mark French of Leading Authorities, to hear John Pistole, the former deputy director of the FBI and, until this January, head of the TSA.  He offered up a piece of advice from his long career in intelligence and law enforcement that struck me as equally applicable to associations and other mission-driven organizations:  Text without context is merely pretext.  A piece of data, no matter how intrinsically significant, can be manipulated or inferred to support any conclusion you want it to, until you place it meaningful context.

Twitter feeds remind me of this every day: highly distilled nuggets of what looks like wisdom that only rise above being empty, if clever slogans if I happen to be in-the-know with the community, situation or events that provide a context for understanding it.

Later in the same week, I was reading a literary and theological journal devoted to the thought of writer/philosopher G. K. Chesterton.  One excellent article1 caught my particular attention. Its author, David Fagerberg, a university professor, observed that it was his impression that generational variations (in attitudes, preferences, styles of behavior and communication) occur much faster than do the changes in sociological cohorts (millennials, baby boomers, et. al.), which are measured in decades.  Generational changes manifest themselves closer to every four years than every 40.

He went on to observe that with each new generation, our communities experience a form of amnesia, similar to the short-term memory loss suffered by the protagonist in the film Momento2. We like to talk about changes our organizations are making in society, but every day, a new generation is becoming a part of it, without any memory of the history behind any group, cause, fashion or fad they encounter.

To them, everything is new.  But, in one sense, there is nothing new under the sun. As Fargerberg pointed out and Chesterton wrote nearly a 100 years ago, today’s revolution, is really just a reaction or counter revolution to yesterday’s new perspective, which was in turn a reaction to the day before. Wait long enough, and you see rebellions repeating themselves and matters of fundamental truth, justice, ethics, whatever you want to call it, ultimately prevailing (albeit, often clothed in newer, contemporary costume).

That is why storytelling — creating a context — is so important for any mission-driven enterprise.

Core mission, our purpose and reason for being, if it is authentic, remains unchanged and unchanging. Reminding people of history, of what got us here, is so important to triggering a recognition of why what we are doing today is important and relevant. But understanding how to communicate that core mission in terms that are relevant to today’s frames of reference requires dexterity. Today’s frame of reference will be different tomorrow.

Taking the long view, fads come and fads go.  “[T]he great danger of the moment,” Chesterton wrote, “is that young men will become content with these revolts against revolt, these reactions against reaction; so that we have nothing but an everlasting seesaw of the Old Young and the New Young; the last always content with its fleeting triumph over the last but one. And the only way to avoid that result is to teach men to stretch their minds and inhabit a larger period of time.”  Over time, if the mission remains valid, history will show how it “has one by one outdistanced all the runners who prided themselves on their youth and advanced positions … By that time, it will be more apparent than ever that these jerks of novelty do not create either progress or an equilibrium3.”

That is not an invitation to complacency.  Waiting for each new generation to gain the perspective of the long view is fatal. We might eventually be recognized as having been right, but only posthumously.

Another all too understandable trap is equally fatal.  When enlivening the old mission with new energy seems impossible, it is tempting to focus on form over substance, trying to impose past structures, hierarchies, and processes, in an authoritarian, fundamentalist fashion, as if going through the motions all over again will recreate the sense of purpose that originally sparked them.

Becoming prisoners of our history is another danger: the feeling that we can not make progress today without first going back in time (as if that were possible) to correct the problems and mistakes we made then.

So I hope I am not coming across as a worshiper of a dead past or a cheerleader for the status quo.  Far from it.  Change or die?  True enough.

But as Chesterton reminded me, not all change constitutes progress.  Equilibrium is necessary for progress: the clarity and stability to not become distracted from the core, unchanging thing and seeing how best to serve it in the world today.  Otherwise we will constantly be dashing off in new directions and losing the line.

The challenge lies in simultaneously: 

  • Acting in the present, in a manner that is immediate and responsive to today’s passing perspectives; and
  • Staying connected to the roots and in continuity with the history that got us here, inviting those for whom everything is new to see their place in it.

In short, providing context.


1 “On Generations,” David W. Fagerberg, Gilbert Magazine, Volume 18, No. 2-3, November-December 2014.

2 And how many of us, even with birth dates separated by only a few years, actually remember Momento?

3 The Well and the Shallows, G. K. Chesterton, 1935.

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