Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Inheritance and Stewardship

One of the first committees I was asked to be on at Twin Cities Friends Meeting, was to address concerns about care of the meetinghouse. The problem was that the meeting couldn't get enough people to serve on the committees responsible for the physical plant, and the long-serving members who had led those committees were aging out of their ability to handle everything themselves. One of the questions we asked early on was how we could bring a sense of spiritual life to the mundane issues of physical plant maintenance.

There are plenty of traditions in which spiritual practice is bound up with work. In some traditions, prayers are counted out along with repetitious labor. In others, focused concentration on a task is used as a way to remove distraction from worldly concerns. Christian monastic traditions engage their followers in work—hard work—as part of their humble duties to God.

We aren't monks, and the work in question was not made of boring, iterative tasks like planting or wall-building. It was things like fixing the toilet and maintaining the furnace, making sure the building was vacuumed and the walks shoveled and the grass mowed.

Where we ended up, was that we wanted to emphasize a sense of "stewardship," that this was not just one more job in our daily lives, but care for a space that was built collectively for the benefit of a greater whole. This was in contrast to emphasizing "property," the value of which is worldly wealth. Stewardship suggests that we are caretakers rather than owners—a steward is not the owner of an estate, but the manager on behalf of the owner, whose job is to make the property do what the owner wants. If we regard the assets of the Meeting as in our care rather than in our keeping, the sense was, it will give that care a greater sense of spirit-led purpose.

There has been a lot of talk about wealth recently in the public sphere. The Occupy movement uses the "99%" and the "1%" as rallying points, noting an increasing concentration of wealth over the past few decades. Conservative commentators, in turn, argue that we ought to be able to enjoy what we earn—that communist redistribution ends up sapping the initiative out of an economy.

The piece I keep thinking is being left out is the matter of inheritance. Not in the broad collective sense liberals like to trot out ("what kind of a world are we leaving our children"), although that is of course important. What I keep wondering about is specifically what parents leave to their children.

Now, I have been the beneficiary of lots of generous inheritance. My mother's parents effectively paid my way through high school and college, and the inheritances from my grandmother and my wife's grandmother made the bulk of the down-payment on our house. When I've gotten myself into sticky financial spots over the years, especially in my first ten years out of college, my parents bailed me out… nothing mind-boggling, but help that got me more quickly over bad decisions. I'm very grateful for these inheritances, and even more so as I now find myself in the position of parent.

As a father, I so want to "be there" for my son. I want to give him all I can. At the same time, I don't want to spoil him, or have him never learn form not getting what he wants. And he doesn't always get what he wants, as he will be happy to tell you.

I think the question of how to bequeath to my child goes back to the question we were asking in the Meetinghouse Care committee. Is what I am giving my child his property for him to work his will upon, or is it something he needs to take care of? To invoke stewardship doesn't necessarily affect inequality of inheritance—the sense of stewardship is a long-running theme among large land-owners in England, for instance. But when it's brought together with questions of collective versus individual ownership, it affects how we go about transferring wealth to the next generation. Is that transfer for the benefit of our child or for the continued health of the stewarded property?

A lot of our fears for our children come about because we don't trust the collective community to care for individuals. We have to care for them ourselves while we can, and train them up to take care of themselves. We wish we could do otherwise, that we could let them rest in the arms of the whole, but we don't. Some of us live in smaller communities that have some of that trust—religious communities especially, in this country, but also communities like those that came together out of the gay community in the AIDS horrors of the 1980's and 1990's.

If it came down to it, in a collapse of civilization, we'd find and make communities. Mad Max aside, we have the basis for real support and care in times of need already. In my own life, the morris dancing community, meeting, my work community, my family, and my neighbors (well, some of my neighbors) would form webs of care. We'd do what we could for each other.

But we as a nation do not trust the nation, or even our individual states, to provide that network. We depend on that national framework to hold up our economy: we have a common, nationally determined currency and laws that form the basis for most of our work outside the home. But it's clear from the way politics are headed that we simply don't want to trust our lives to this nation. There is something in that collective we do not want to give to our children.

Is it racism? Classism? Culturalism? Some unholy mixture of all our group-identity-based biases? A lot of my friends would tell you yes, that is the fundamental problem. And I agree they are problems. But they all run up against the question of personal inheritance: when we give our child this package, it includes everything, warts and all.

When we look at what we give our children in terms of fungible value—give them liquid assets so they have the freedom to do what they can with it—without also looking at the thing we are giving into their care as a thing that needs care in and of itself, we are also giving them the idea that fungible value is what is important in a thing. In short: when we give our children freedom, we also give them the false idea that they are free from responsibility.

On the other hand, too many wealthy parents give their children specific, non-liquid inheritances that those children simply aren't fitted to: children who drive their parents' company into the ground, who don't care about the old house and let it rot, who don't want to take care of that stupid artwork... Or who understand the value in these things but don't really carry it in their hearts, and so lose their souls in what their parents or grandparents acquired. They own but they do not love.

I don't see an instant way out of this knot, except that we need to rethink what it means to leave things to our children.


James Riemermann said...

A second thought occurred to me after posting my earlier comment. I know are society isn't at this point, but basically, I think the initial financial investment it takes to give our children the tools for living a happy, productive life, and ongoing support if they can't get there, ought to come primarily from government through tax revenues, rather than directly from parents. The other approach guarantees massive inequality and a permanent underclass.

Tom Hedberg said...

Interesting words to mull over. Lately my parents have been thinking a lot about this. Enough so that my father sends out weekly emails to his children and grandchildren with thoughts about this world. Plus, he's met individually with his each of his children to discuss the family cabin. This is a tricky and complex issue - what happens? Just who is interested in caring for a place that was intended for family times together. Anyone? All of us? Just how do we share - but, more importantly, how do we use stewardship? Will we use stewardship?