For most of human history (or, “civilised” human history, if you like) the most disappointing thing one could do would be to shame one’s ancestors. To break family honour or lose face in society was (and still generally is) a terrible matter. To have a parent or close relative say, “You have shamed us all” could send a person into a downward turn for the rest of his or her life (which may be spent in psychological or physical exile depending on the severity of the transgression).
One’s family has a certain amount of honour built up over generations; to shame it is seen as a theft. An act of shame may draw down heavily on the account and cause it all to collapse. I think, to some extent, the responsibility (or the burden, if one considers the extreme expectations of some families) of holding up the family name has diminished. We are, in “the West” at least, so focused on the individual’s accomplishments and failings that past glories (or downfalls) are of little importance. This is, of course, both liberating and damming. If my forefathers were scoundrels, I’ll probably not be held to attest for their misdeeds; but we also tend to neglect the history of goodwill and actions of many who have passed on (this is particularly emphasised by the loss of extended families and the mobility of society in general; we are no longer of a place—neither bound to its history or its future).
It is the future we have to address. Whereas we once took care not to shame our fathers and grandfathers, we now take even less care to honour our children and grandchildren. Our focus, as a society, seems to be entirely on the present; in this, we shame both past and future generations. This is not a shame belonging to any one family or lineage; my shame spreads to your family and yours to mine. It is like a cancer than begins in one cell and spreads to another till, system by system, it consumes everything.
We are consumers of all (often we are collectively referred to as such as in the somewhat telling economic term consumer confidence). Our idealised frontiersmen forefathers might be forgiven for believing the Earth was an inexhaustible resource—we can have no such delusion. We are now openly stealing the fortunes of all who follow for our own temporary benefit. I’ve never heard someone openly wish a life of deprivation and despair for future generations; yet this is what we curse them with at almost every step. What greater shame or selfishness is there than this to lay upon the human family?
Note that I do not exempt myself; I am as complicit as the mass of others in a thousand little ways. But I do not wish to shame those who came before me—those who, no matter what we may now see as their missteps, believed they were building up a world for the better. I also do not wish to become a source of shame for those who follow. As I write this, I’m looking out my window at a group of children playing. I want none of them, as adults, to look back at me and say, “You knew; why could you not have been a source of change?” And what a radical change that must be.