Monday, December 20, 2010

Star of Wonder, Star of Night

When we see a star, we’re looking back in time. That coruscating speckle in the far sky that we think we’re seeing in the present is really a package of photons that left another galaxy millions and millions of years ago and is just now arriving on the doorstep of our visibility. Indeed, much of what we apprehend as being in the present is really the past arriving into our view. When we look at the seemingly endless diversity of human, animal and plant life, we’re really seeing eons of genetic history, of innumerable adaptations and mutations, displaying themselves to us. When we look at art that we think is modern and daring, we’re really seeing thoughts and feelings that have been expressed and re-expressed over the millennia using essentially the same visual vocabulary. And, as we enjoy another season of giving, and reflect on all that has been given to society through philanthropy, we’re really seeing the latest manifestation of a timeless ideal, one that we have come to characterize as the Golden Rule.

The Golden Rule is a cornerstone of every great faith, every enduring civilization and all people of principle. If you Google “the universality of the Golden Rule,” you will see the many ways that simple but deeply resonant creed has echoed across cultures and throughout time. It is, it seems, the one thing that virtually all of us, past and present, can agree to, at least in principle. Philanthropy is a way of doing for others as we hope they would do for us had our fates and fortunes been reversed. It is a way of doing for future generations what past generations did for us. Since we cannot pay back the past, we give in the present, but never more generously than when we give to the future. No philanthropist leaves an estate saying, “Use this up as fast as you can.” They try to extend the meaning of their lives, and the good fortune they enjoyed, by giving to institutions that will preserve that meaning over a long, long time. That is the purpose of institutions, to preserve and transfer values from one generation to the next so that meaning, learning and value will not be lost in space and time. Philanthropy is not simply believing in the Golden Rule but enacting it in selfless ways for timeless impact.

The star of philanthropy guides humanity toward its perfect light and offers a shining, steady hope for the betterment of the human condition. That light arrives to us from far away and long ago. And what we do today, in its name, will send light to future generations. Time will erode our vanities and follies but preserve our goodness well after our inconsequential names and personal histories have been forgotten and deliver it through many a night in the form of warming, illuminating, loving light.