11 June 2012

Sacred Legacies In A Changing World

One of the time honored tropes in fiction is what I sometimes like to call the "Sacred Legacy." Perhaps it is a favorite for me because I have a probate, trusts and estate practice.

A sacred legacy is something passed from one generation to another, pragmatically, a parent to a child, but sometimes skipping a generation or sometimes passing to a mere member of the next generation mentored by a member of the older one.

A sacred legacy generally includes some kind of duty of responsibility, and often a secret.  It may be a duty to continue to wage war on an ancient evil, to serve a noble family, to care for a shrine or relic, or to perpetuate a secret or a secret society, or simply to carry on a business or take over the task of caring for a dependent of the person making the legacy. 

Is it part of the destiny of the recipient who must decide if they will rise to the occasion and fulfill their destiny, or will abandon it to go their own way.  Usually, the next generation either immediately accepts the sacred legacy and must live up to the expectations that come with it despite their own inadequacies, or try to avoid their destiny for a prolonged period of time only to ultimately cave in to it because the character in the next generation ultimately recognizes that the duty give to them really must be fulfilled by someone in furtherance of the greater good, and finding no other volunteers.

These stories have great moral and community power when one spends one's live in a system were real power vests in people selected on a hereditary principle, like monarchies that are more than symbolic, a few of which still persist today.  A Prince's willingness to accept the duty of managing his fief well has deep consequences for his subjects.

In real life in the modern American world, sacred legacies tend to be rare, although some semblance of them can be found here and there.

Multigenerational family businesses tend to be rare, although they do exist.  Few businesses survive that long, and most that do either go public, or cannot continue to operate when a founder retires, or are sold to an unrelated successor in a private business transaction.  A business that stays in a family for every two generations is uncommon, successful business successions often take place during the life of the parties, and a multigenerational business that persists for even as long as seventy years, even so humble a business as a gas station, like the Wilson Family Conoco at University and Bonnie Brae in Denver is rare.  Intense pressure to take over a family business is the rare exception rather than the rule.  While many Americans are self-employed, few have self-employment in a business that has value over and above "buying yourself a job" that is susceptible to being passed on to the next generation.

Few parents die before their children become adults and many children who need adult guardians pre-decease their parents. 

American religious institutions tend to be operated like large non-profit organizations, often democratically by congregations or delegates selected from congregations.  Perhaps the most notable successions that resemble sacred legacies in the modern American religious scene are the succession of the Papacy, and the Jewish hereditary kohanin priesthood (despite its birthright lifetime transition rather than true legacy status) which survives in part by being relatively undemanding relative to the Bat Mitzvah expectations of all members of the community who become adults in the religious community.

Americans have abrogated not only aristocracy, but almost all legally binding multigenerational debts and punishments, civil and criminal - the property of a decedent may be subject to debts of a decedent, but apart from a residence or vehicle being inherited subject to the loan for which it is collateral, the usual course of affairs is for debts to be settled within a year or two of a death, and for inheritances to be received otherwise free and clear.

Children tend not to feel bound by the parents commitments, political, ideological, religious, professional, or otherwise as adults, although there have been a handful of notable political dynasties in the United States, a handful of instances of widows stepping into their late husbands' political shoes, and many instances of multigenerational military service.  However, the U.S. military isn't, any longer at least, an institution in which nepotism and family ties in and of themselves are commonly viewed as having great weight once one enlists or playing much of a role in meeting the standards for being enlisted.

Legacy admissions to colleges and universities tend to be isolated single events during the lives of the older generation carrying benefits but few obligations that wouldn't accrue at any institution of higher education, and multigenerational legacies like society debutante ball admissions also tend to take place during the lives of the older generation and to be brief and unburdensome obligations.

Ancient evils turn out to be remarkably scarce in daily life, few secrets not carried to the grave have much potency, and secret societies, like civil organizations that require actual participation by members generally, seem to have mostly withered on the vine. 

Increasing scientific recognition of the role played by genetic inheritance in a wide variety of endeavors has provided something of an intellectual counter-revolution to an environmental and personal choice driven view of an individual's prospect just a few decades ago, but increasing research has also diminished the importance of ritual and personal family interactions in that transmission.  While we would all like instruction books for our lives, apart from medical records, we increasingly don't see instruction from one's own parents as indispensable to our ability to realize our genetic legacies, and research has cast increasing doubt on the importance of parenting in shaping a child's personality or intelligence.

Moreover, as we have urbanized, it is increasingly the case that preserving a place, a tradition, a skill, or knowledge, is almost always the responsibility of many people in which no one individual's contribution is absolutely indispensable.  In a community with a hundred blacksmiths, no one of them has to carry on the trade for the trade to survive, in a community with just one blacksmith, the moral weight on the apprentice smith is much greater.

Is it a bad thing that our society is sufficiently transparent that secret societies and family ties on longer seem to be dominant drivers of our economics and politics? Is it a bad thing that little potent information seems to be hidden for long? Does the allure of secret knowledge harken back to pre-literate deep history (really just a few hundred years ago in many societies) when someone had to accept personal responsibility for carrying on all information that would survive to the next generation?  Has job training and education replaced and bureaucratized what would once have been structured as sacred legacies?  Do we need more forces working behind the scenes for good, or merely to make life more interesting?  Are conspiracies dead?

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