NSFM Director, Steve Viederman on: 'My Vocation'

Until March 2000 while I was gainfully employed I easily, if retrospectively wrongly, answered the question “what do you do?”

I was the president of a philanthropic foundation supporting work on economic and environmental justice, and reproductive rights, with a particular focus on communities of color, and sustainable agriculture, and investing its assets to harmonize its creed and deed. That was easy, if long winded. My vocation was institutionally based.

In “retirement” I found myself fumbling to answer the question. I am writing, consulting, and lecturing on philanthropy and democracy; fiduciary duty; sustainability; environmentally sound and just community economic and social development; environmental justice; science and public policy; climate risk… I also serve on a number of boards committed to action in these fields. But without an institutional base telling people ‘what I did’ was equally long-winded and without focus. And to say I was ‘retired’ was vague (as I am really trying to define what that means for me) and ambiguous, conjuring up images that were unrelated to my day-to-day activities, my goals, and my vision. I do not now nor ever have played golf, nor do I fish.

During the 2006 Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays spent with my kids and grandkids I finally figured out what I do, and what, in fact, I have been doing for most of my career.

My vocation: I am a Grandparent. [1]

Let me explain since to me Grandparenting means more to me than what usually comes to mind.

First there is the physical proximity and interaction, listening, learning, helping them to learn, I hope without pedantry, and most of all loving. The fact that my grandchildren live in Amherst, Massachusetts and London, England while I live in New York, means also longing and periods of intense gratification when we come together, which is as often as possible.

But as a vocation Grandparenting is much more.

It means doing what I can do to secure a decent future for them. Yes, personal inheritance is a part of this, but not the essence of what I mean, especially in my case given the relatively meager amount of dollars that I might be able to leave to them. Rather it relates to the inheritance that all Grandparents through their actions as individuals and through their institutional settings can leave to their Grandchildren, and, the ultimate hubris, to all grandchildren around the world. A global view of Grandparenting is a necessity because my grandchildren’s’ futures cannot be secure unless all grandchildren’s futures are secure. There is no moat that can separate my grandchildren from the world.

Whatever any of us do, at any age, and regardless of our family situation, we are all grandparents bearing responsibility for the next generation. By this I mean more than a simple act of chance family circumstance. We all have responsibilities to future generations. This is a moral and ethical burden that we carry as humans. We can (must) accept that role consciously because the intended and unintended consequences of our actions, for better or worse, cannot be denied. Whatever other vocations we have, we always in everything we do, in small ways and large, affect the concentric circles of the world around us. And the cumulative impact of all our actions is the determining factor in what we leave for our grandchildren.

Accepting the vocation of Grandparenting has been enormously helpful to me. It helps to integrate the various activities I engage in and the substantive areas that are the focus of my attention. It helps to identify and force me to systematize the gaps that were seemingly random in my thinking, and has served the always useful function of identifying where I am ignorant. It helps me to identify the questions that need to be asked that will bring others and me to action. It helps me to clarify what are my commitments as differentiated from interests.

Grandfathering is thus at the core of what follows: Thoughts on sustainability.

The mid-19th century American essayist and practical philosopher Henry David Thoreau observed that “The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.”

To expand on Thoreau, from the perspective of my vocation as a man well into his eighth decade, I conclude that the role of the older person (me) is to work to ensure that the materials the young need are available for them to build the bridges or palaces or temples, the woodsheds, or whatever else they feel is necessary for them to fulfill their dreams and visions. And since we at the beginning of the 21st century are obviously facing qualitatively and quantitatively different issues than Thoreau’s time the “materials” needed must be more broadly defined. When Thoreau was writing access to sufficient supplies of clean air and clean water were assumed.  Climate change, gross inequities in the distribution of in the distribution of wealth and justice accompanied by extreme poverty, were not matters of high priority, but are now just a few of the interconnected issues that the vocation of Grandparent requires attention to now. So too must we relate to the broader global context as the materials are no longer locally sourced.

It is not for me the older person to tell the young—my, our, grandchildren-- what to build or how to build or to live but rather to keep their options open to fulfill their dreams and visions. An essential part of this is to share whatever wisdom I may have gleaned over the decades of what I have learned for better or worse, but not shackle them with history.

This is the essence of sustainability: our generation’s obligation to keep open options for future generations.

I have written much on sustainability over the years, starting in the early 1990s. These talks and publications have been academic if not scholarly. Although almost all of the included some call to action, I do not recall using the first person in any of them. “We should do …” was common.

The thoughts here are more personal. They are the thoughts of an older person who has just discovered what his vocation has been and is now well into the 8th decade of his life. E.L. Doctorow towards the beginning of his novel Ragtime, wrote about the murder of the architect Sanford White by his mistress. “ The tabloids called it the crime of the century, but it was only 1906. And how were they to know what was to come?”

[This is very much a work in process and comments are very welcome. My email is s.viederman[at]gmail.com]


[1] My friend and colleague Donna House, a distinguished Navajo conservation biologist among other things, suggests that in her culture the term would be Elder. Elder however suggests to me superiority of wisdom, which I do not profess, and conflicts with the thought that we are all ‘grandparents’ in terms of ‘responsibility.