"I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also, much more than that. So are we all."
~ James Baldwin
I grew up reading history. It was something we did in my family. My dad never understood why anyone would ever read a novel. Let alone poetry. He respected Shakespeare though, I think it was old enough material for him to pass muster. My easy readers when I was in the first and second grade were titles like 'Meet Abe Lincoln' (there was a whole series of them: Meet Ben Franklin, Meet Ulysses S. Grant — I collected them all —the first manifestation of a lifelong problem with book hoarding). And for a long time when I pondered history I was impressed with vast expanse of it behind us. Events I was told about happening a hundred years ago or two hundred possessed this awesome majesty and authority over the mere present. So many great ideas had already been recorded in the annals, the most important lessons taught, it was hard not to suspect the future of only unraveling, aging, winding down. I grew up believing the responsible citizen protected the past, honored it, even over his own experience.
Now I find myself in my fifties. I still find history a fascinating subject, but those measures of time that used to connote irrevocable monuments of established truth seem scant. More than half way to a hundred myself I suddenly have this different sense of the human scale of time. Fold my lifetime back twice in the opposite direction and the characters we've built awesome monuments to and enshrined in our sense of history were politicians navigating their own very human existences through bloody warfare or "politics by other means."
Read the histories of other cultures, hear their languages —or check out their wikipedia pages— and you get the same sense, or at least I do. People live with these assumed narratives that they afford great weight —senses of enormity and eternity —and seen just differently they are only the matter of a few lifetimes strung end upon end.
Living in our global village we can start to see these different narratives encounter and inform one another. I watch Swedish language crime dramas on Netflix and notice American idiom in the conversation where I no longer need the subtitles. All are changed and evolve. This is the kind of thing that drives cultural conservatives to climb the wall. Musty old academics rant that we no longer teach the classics and our standards are degrading, our culture becoming lost; angry mullahs countenance murder in defense of their traditions and truths. I wonder if they all aren't acting upon that same awful sense of history —the past with such meaning winding down to a future without. Blindness to the present truth and its future.
I was talking about this with my wife as we drove in the car the other night. We came to this formulation, that the older we get the younger the world seems. This is true of our country, our society, civilization as a whole. Humanity itself might still be in its adolescence. That could be a hopeful thought, but it's also a wistful thought really, knowing we'll only be around so long to watch it all grow and evolve —just possibly improve.
I think about the history our children's children will know and I pray they will love and cherish it —and at the same time not take it too seriously.