You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.
All the hardest, coldest people you meet were once as soft as water. And that’s the tragedy of living.
The other morning, while driving a route I’ve taken so many times over the past two months, between the Garden State and the mountains of upstate New York, I was listening to the radio, as I do, and I heard a song.
It was TLC. Remember TLC? Remember: Ain’t too proud to beg?
If you don’t, that’s okay. It’s just a reminder that you’re newer to this planet. Or maybe you’ve been on this planet a lot longer and bypassed that cultural moment. Or maybe you’re from another part of this planet where TLC means and meant nothing.
For me it was a glimpse on the past.
Everyone dotes on the past. Recalls it. Pines philosophically about the way things change. About how different we are from the people we were, or how we’re essentially the same. And if you’re like me, these windows onto the past make you think about the future.
Take this moment on Earth today. Freeze it. Look at it. As you examine each interaction, each emotion, each death, each birth, each betrayal, each joy, each insecurity, each decision made, each decision in the making, you see the entirety of who and what we are as a whole. In it you can spot the evidence of the trajectory we’ve followed to get to this moment, and when you’re this far out, looking at this planet and all its life together, you can even begin to make out where it is we’re headed.
Jump ahead a hundred years. Or a thousand. Freeze the planet, like you’re doing right now. Take a look. Who are the major players? What are the values that drive decisions? Are humans better off or worse? Animals? The natural environment? What will we know about our place in the universe that we don’t today? It will be a changed world, one that we won’t recognize if we suddenly woke up in it one morning, just as people from a hundred years ago or a thousand wouldn’t recognize our own if they woke up today.
Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can look up at the night sky uninterrupted and begin to feel just how small you are in the grand scale of the universe. We think we’re big because we surround ourselves with a material life that doesn’t make us feel small. We think we’re important because our minds are only filled with our own thoughts and not the thoughts of others. Your happiness is all encompassing when you feel it. Your problems, your anxieties, your stress: they’re bigger than life when they happen to you. It feels like they’re the only things that exist.
But you can remind yourself how small you are. How your thoughts and actions are part of a bigger network of people and other beings you interact with daily that also feel as though their thoughts and actions are the most important. You can remind yourself of this truth even as you take part in the truth of your own subjective experience.
It’s harder to remind yourself that the time you have on this earth is but a blip in the story of the universe. That frozen in each moment on this planet, is a hidden record of how it came to pass and where its headed. That one day someone like you or me will hear a song play from a time long ago or see a video of men wearing lengths of fabric tied around and hanging from their collared necks and wonder at the time that’s passed since those days.
When our descendants look back at the evidence of the world we live in, will they think of us like we remember the greeks or the arabs or the chinese: when civilization experienced the birth of inquiry and art and beauty and the individual? Will they think of us like we remember the age of empires, when states sought to conquer, to grow rich, and exercise power? Our “now”, which seems everything to us, will merely be a speck in the long run-up of history. Today our future is a vast unknown, but one day that story, like all stories, will be written in stone. The question is: do we really have any control over how it’s written?