“Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
I don’t know who said this, not by name at least, but the internet suggests it is an ancient Greek proverb.
There’s very little to pull apart, no facts to get into a political debate about. Nothing to misunderstand. It simply means that if you take positive actions in the present, the future can be secure and much more pleasant for those who live in it. It is also, of course, about human acceptance of mortality as we grow older and resisting the temptation to salt the earth or poison the watering hole in personal protest at our own expiry.
Sadly, there is much suggestion in the world this old proverb has been buried and forgotten.
There is much to lament, to criticise, and to rage at. However, no amount of anger or sadness can create change. No guttural emotion or engineered limbic response can lead to growth, rather we will continue to wither and, long after our inevitable departure, leave our future baking in the heat. An arid and defenceless world awaits by virtue of our legacy.
We could philosophise. Apply these words to the broader terrain of connectivity and information, of war and electoral interference. But years of wasted debate in the place of action line this route and, in the end, our arrival will be at the same dead-end in which the human race often finds itself. A pen of its own making.
Cleaner is finding simplicity in complexity. More productive is seeking ease in difficulty. More efficient is slicing through the knot rather than untying it.
We can create a new beginning and take the first step on a much longer road. The opportunity is before us and it lies, for once, in the literal acceptance of proverb rather than its dissection: Society may grow tomorrow if we plant trees for future generations to sit in the shade of. It may even grow great in our wake and this may be possible if we act now to reinvigorate our planet. Replenish what we have taken from it. Allow it to breathe, in order that we can too.
The landscape of the world of the future is not ours, neither to salt nor to poison. The path is not ours to set based on nostalgia for our own youth. The construct of humanity to come not ours to hem into that we find comfortable or familiar. Our job is simply to accept inevitable expiry and leave things a little better than they were upon our arrival.
The Gordian knot we’ve tied leaves us believing legacy is in rules and regulation and structure and belief. Slicing through it, our legacy is nothing more than organic matter. By the literal act of planting trees, we resolve almost all of the emotional and ideological conflicts which bind us to darkness and ensure there is something left we will be remembered for in the right way.
There is value in the past, in the lessons from it. Much as there is value in our ability to translate it in the present in order to secure what exists beyond us. The choices we make now can provide the future with shade and we are empowered to act without casting a long shadow.
We shall plant trees whose shade we know we shall never sit in. That is our gift.