I believe the best obituary most of us could hope for is one that cannot be fully written for a thousand years after we’re forgotten. Sadly, countless millions of people give up living long before they’re dead, so that theirs could be written when they’re 20, 30, or 40, even though they’re not buried or their ashes scattered until they’re 80. But that’s a different story for another day...
Why would our obituary best be written a thousand years after we’re forgotten? I suspect that an idea may actually spread more broadly once it’s disconnected from the person who first conceived it, because the idea is then unburdened from that person’s baggage of imperfections.
Who led the ragtag band of Panza Verde to keep Antigua Guatemala alive in defiance of the government order following the devastating earthquake and flood of 1773? They have given us a great city rather than seeing it lost to the jungle by subsisting on avocados for decades. But who convinced them to stay? That name has been lost in time, but maybe that’s OK, because it’s arguably better today to celebrate a great living city rather than names of long-dead people.
But at the beginning, it’s not possible to separate the ideas from the people. How do ideas grow? Insight is the conception of an idea in a person’s mind, based on their life experience to date. The mind, of course, has been seeded with countless ideas from others, and is fertilized by passion and watered with sorrow.
Wisdom of the aged has been revered through most of history because those with longer life experience have had the opportunity to plant more seeds of ideas. But passion wanes for most over time, so this latter harvest of insight often has a sage-like character.
The young, while short on life experience and therefore time for planting, are often bursting with passion and frequently with that youthful sorrow we call “angst.” This early harvest of insight typically has more of a revolutionary flavor.
An insight internalized affects no change. If the insight is powerful enough, and if the person has enough courage, then they may choose to let that insight spawn a cause. A cause is based on a because. Or, “we do this because...” Put another way, the core of a cause is a compelling reason to do something differently. Maybe it’s an injustice to right. Or maybe it’s a better way of building an eave... or anything in between.
But in any case, a cause begins with one person. If that person is persistent enough, rational enough, compelling enough, and inspiring enough, then they may be able to pass the cause on to others, who take it up as their own.
Let’s consider, for contrast, the antithesis of a cause, which is a brand. Countless companies and individuals agonize over their brand. There are workshops and symposia for learning how to brand, and PR people, graphic designers, and the like for helping you develop your brand. And there are legions of lawyers to help you protect your brand.
That’s because brands aren’t meant to spread; they’re meant to be tightly-held and proprietary. It’s what you have that nobody else on earth has, under fear of law. A brand is closed, while a cause is open. I have to pay for a product with your brand, but you’re free to adopt my cause. A brand is propagated by selling; quit selling, and the brand dies. A cause is propagated by telling; you can die, but your cause can live on because of others telling the story.
While brands are always brands, causes can molt into something greater. Causes begin with one person and grow into a group of people who believe in the cause. Once a cause has grown beyond the original hive of like-minded people who nurtured it at the beginning, it may reach a tipping point where broader parts of a culture adopt it, at which point it becomes a movement. At this point, the original insight has the power to affect change on a wide scale... but the molting isn’t finished yet.
If the movement is persistent over a long time, it can become a living tradition, which is the highest standard of ideas that spread. This is because a living tradition’s wide-scale effects are so durable over time. In other words, a living tradition is broad and deep.
An insight turns into a cause when you believe in it. A cause turns into a movement when many believe in it. A movement turns into a living tradition when their children believe in it as well. Only the most compelling ideas of the parents are adopted by the children, as we all know.
Living traditions, as long-time readers of this blog know, are the operating systems of the Original Green, which is the only delivery system of real sustainability that humanity has ever proven over time. Today, many scoff at the idea that traditions could ever live again in architecture and urbanism. To many Modernists, a tradition is a dead thing in a history book that could only serve as handcuffs to creativity. To many traditionalists, those dead traditions in the history books are a grab-bag of prettier styles than what the Modernists are capable of because, after all, architecture is just about style and fashion... or is it?
These two schools each have a point: Dead traditions really are handcuffs, because they can’t change. But those dead historical styles really are more attractive to most people than the soulless architecture most often produced today. But each are missing the bigger point, which is the fact that the real solution is something each of them have never known: a real living tradition.
I said at the beginning that the best most of us can hope for is an obituary that can’t be fully written for a thousand years after we’ve been forgotten. I’d be remiss, however, not to mention the few that deserve better. My work is to help make a better environment. Those that deserve better are the ones whose life’s work is to help people become better. They are the wayfinders, the healers, and the compasses. I wrote about two such people not long ago. While the good that they have done for others has spread so broadly that it likely will never be fully known, it’s also impossible to separate that good from those that have done it, and people like this are much less likely to be quickly forgotten. While I’m trying to do good for the places that surround people, they’re doing good for the people themselves. And for that I am grateful.
PS: You’ll notice that I haven’t actually written my own obituary. Nor do I, to my knowledge, have any terminal disease. Rather, this post is part of the new Twitter #Letsblogoff phenomenon. Today’s topic is “Write your own obituary.” Obviously, I’ve taken the topic in a bit of a different direction, as I usually do. Here are some of the other participating blogs in today’s #Letsblogoff:
I’m @stevemouzon, FWIW.
Tuesday, January 4, 2011 - 12:44 PM
cindy frewen wuellner
Steve, the thousand year view is brilliant. do you know the 10,000 yr clock of the long now? excellent book, also a foundation. Some things are best counted in millennia. Do you know the cemetery of your photo? Mount Auburn is a favorite landscape, reminds me of that. Brand and cause or movement, very different things. Your descriptions are well put. excellent post. cindy @urbanverse
Tuesday, January 4, 2011 - 12:55 PM
Thanks, Cindy! I don't know the 10,000 Year Clock of the Long Now, but will definitely look it up. The cemetery is Maple Hill in my hometown of Huntsville, Alabama.
Tuesday, January 4, 2011 - 02:04 PM
Becky / @ecomod
Nice connection, Cindy, of Steve's post to the 10,000 year clock. I use that clock as an example in a presentation I give about aligning our work with our energy levels. Here's the clock, Steve.
Tuesday, January 4, 2011 - 05:33 PM
Allison A. Bailes III, PhD
Interesting ideas, Steve. I love the discussion of brand vs. cause. Over time, both come and go, like people and ideas, but it comes down to ownership. Brands have held sway for a while now, but I believe peak oil and population growth are causes -- or really, a cause -- with the power to change everything.
Regarding obituaries, if you believe the best ones are written 'a thousand years after we’re forgotten,' you seem to be saying the individual, contrary to Western thinking of the past few centuries, is not so important. That's a bit blasphemous here in the US, but I agree with you. We allow for the individual to be subsumed into a larger body when it comes to war, and it's led to a weird kind of schizophrenia because of our worship of the individual, especially in the marketplace.
Anyway, great article, as usual.
Wednesday, January 5, 2011 - 02:02 PM
Thanks, Becky... appreciate the link! I really need to look into the 10,000 Year Clock.
Wednesday, January 5, 2011 - 02:09 PM
Interesting point, Allison... brands work best in a command-and-control setting, or top-down, whereas causes require a collaborative setting, or bottom-up. Our hundred-year energy glut has allowed first nations, then corporations, to become more powerful than ever before in human history, so it's no surprise that top-down approaches have worked so well during that period. But as petroleum wanes, that could very well change. Thanks... I've never thought of it quite that way before!
As for being forgotten, I'm simply saying that I think this could be better for the idea. As for how one gets to such a conclusion, I'm not so concerned about how an idea fits into some larger framework of commentators, many of whom are long dead. Rather, I'd prefer to come face-to-face with things that are true, and then try to make sense of it myself. In that sense, I guess you could say that's a statement of a rugged individualist, but that's not really the point. The point, to me, is "what's an effective way to get at the truth?"