In exploring the context in which humanity’s generations live out their lives, is our existence more accurately seen as a carousel or a rollercoaster?
A recent article in The New Yorker reviews what it calls the “decline in historical thinking” and makes it clear that what is at risk is less about the names and dates of history and more about the degradation of our capacity to think about the hinterland of, and empathy for, our humanity. How do we understand the context of the lives we are living?
A few minutes spent walking around any ground that is rich in history – and Fleet Street is as good a ground as any, and better than many – and it is easy to sense the colossal difference that a little thinking can make. It is not just a matter of what happens, but what is written about what happens, and the impact of what is written on what is subsequently thought.
Names and dates do matter but not as some memory test of things that happened in the past. In this context I have always been intrigued by one particular quote from Kurt Vonnegut. Indeed, the author of Slaughterhouse 5 might suggest that we have always been intrigued; we continue to be intrigued; and we will always, off into the distant horizons of our future as a species, engage in being intrigued. (Famous also for his antipathy to semi-colons, Vonnegut might also suggest a re-write for this paragraph). Anyway, to his quote:
“All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist . . . It’s just an illusion here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once that moment is gone it is gone forever.”
Our enduring intrigue about the possible circularities of time and life, and the consequent opening up of space into multiple dimensions, make thinking about our experience far richer and more rewarding, especially if we see life’s journey as more of a carousel than a rollercoaster. Momentum matters less than mindfulness: and the reflection that others are sharing the journey with us is taken to another level with the thought that they have always shared the carousel with us, and they always will.
Fleet Street is one of the premier spots on the planet for its concentration, sustained over centuries, of such mindfulness. Over six centuries, think of it: this enduring convocation of the creative, living out their acutely examined lives and, along the way, curating the language with which they expressed themselves . . . with which we now express ourselves.
We walk their streets and talk of their history having seeped into the stones; the tour guides talk of living history, and their spirits walking abroad. In fact, it’s better than that. They wrote it down.
They wrote it down. What they left behind was the language we use – not only in our memorializing their lives, but in ordering up the drinks at the end of the walking tour. They live forward on the circle of our lives, alive in every breath we take, every thought we make.