About Time

I was struck by this line from a recent reflection written by Roger Angell for The New Yorker:

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who had served on the bench into the nineteen-thirties, had in his long lifetime shaken hands with [both] John Quincy Adams […] and John F. Kennedy.

Every so often I find myself a bit awed at how much the world has changed in my relatively short lifetime. As a kid in the 60’s and 70’s the Amazon rain forest was an endless expanse of utter mystery; the Arctic an impossibly remote place; urban sprawl was just beginning its creep; malls were barely known. In 40 or so short years, places that seemed protected by their sheer vastness and distance are under threat, and even my home town appears about to be over run by growth.

The note about Justice Holmes above led me to realize that I’m about 1/5th the age of the United States—a rather significant percentage (and which only continues to grow.) Only 4 other of my lifetimes connects back to the age of George Washington. When looked at from this perspective, the sense of accelerating change is really one of unwarranted expectations of stability.

For entirely different purposes, Richard Dawkins, in his article Gaps in the Mind, envisions a sense of connection to the even more distant past:

Molecular evidence suggests that our common ancestor with chimpanzees lived, in Africa, between five and seven million years ago, say half a million generations ago. This is not long by evolutionary standards … in your left hand you hold the right hand of your mother. In turn she holds the hand of her mother, your grandmother. Your grandmother holds her mother’s hand, and so on … How far do we have to go until we reach our common ancestor with the chimpanzees? It is a surprisingly short way. Allowing one yard per person, we arrive at the ancestor we share with chimpanzees in under 300 miles.

More poetically and perhaps darkly, Nabokov’s famous first line from Speak, Memory asserts that all sense of time pales when confronted by the infinite:

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.

» Posted: Thursday, September 14, 2006 | Permanent Link