a meditation on insignificance

insignificanceWe live in such a small time. Who is to say what parts of our current history will look like a flash in the pan? A two hundred year power is the kind of thing they hardly bother teaching to you. A century ago we were only just awaking to news of the Great War. The wars we are witness to now were born from that legacy of state-building in 1919. In another two hundred years, schoolchildren might think of this century of war and turmoil and economic whirlwinds as a single unit. What we see the World War I, World War II, the Great Depression, the Jazz Age, the Cold War, Desert Storm, Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria and ISIS and Ukraine and Bosnia and Chechnya and Cambodia and Rwanda and cartels and the rest of the stories we like to pretend are all over, they aren’t different. A century of wildness. Of barreling toward The Future, whatever that means. The news barreling at our hearts daily, hardening us to the intrusions but making every event seem unconnected to all the rest.

We live in the compression of an instant. The gratification is expected to come fast and hard because these are fast and hard times. I think about what we call the Hundred Years’ War — a long slogging idea to summarize a whole series of conflict. Or say “Crusades” as if the terror happened once and then ended. Or “Colonial Era” like we aren’t living in it. Or dynasties that ruled for hundreds of years, building cities and civilizations — forgotten. We are so nearsighted. I recently heard someone say “the Civil Rights Movement failed.” It made my head spin. A path toward justice has hardly started. Slavery is only a generation removed from living memory. We don’t get to snap our fingers and have change. We are on the long walk. We are flashes of insignificance in the sweep of time and eternity.

I remember in high school being asked “Will this matter in a year or five years?” over some stupid thing I definitely do not remember now. Of course it will, I thought. It doesn’t. Or if it does, I couldn’t tell you how it has changed me. I wonder if we are a teenaged society, building a world of significance on sand and water.

I read a self help book a while ago called The Compound Effect, which asserted that the path to real transformation is incremental change over time. I tend to agree. For all the grand ideas and enterprise efforts and massive implementations around the world, what is the small compound change I am passing on? Will it make our children more human, more humane? What am I doing with my smallness?

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