I realized the other day that the universe is 13.5 billion years old and I am just 61. I certainly missed a lot of stuff that happened prior to my birth. Who, for example, set the moon just far enough away from the Earth that it would appear to be the same size as the sun, and thereby give us such cool solar eclipses? Who gave early humans, some 80,000 years ago, the idea of leaving Africa? Would I have liked Helen of Troy? Would she have liked me? Who raised their hand when Socrates asked a question? Who ate the first raw oyster? Did a bumpkin from Stratford really write Hamlet? How did Lincoln happen? I’m full of questions, but it appears I got here too late to ask the right people.
Along with these idle musings came the stark realization the other day that human history, which seems venerable enough, only feels as if it’s been going on a long time. If each of our lives is the mere blink of an eye, the collective story hasn’t really amounted to much more than that. Our own years pass, and then all of a sudden we say, Whew, that was fast. It’s the same for the species.
Here’s something that struck me. My mother—still alive and kicking—is 92. She was born in 1919. I know the outline of her life in its entirety, and have a feel for its duration. By which I mean, it’s a comprehensible span of years, a nice standard-issue individual human life—something anybody might realistically hope to reach, one of those blinks of the eye. Call it a BOE.
embedded by Embedded Video
Now let’s just flip-flop that life of hers. A single BOE prior to my mother’s birth, it’s 1827. Beethoven is alive. Abraham Lincoln is in Illinois, age 20. The President of the United States is John Quincy Adams. There is no transcontinental railroad; in fact, there’s hardly a reason to have one: we don’t own California yet. Buffalo in the millions roam the Great Plains and carrier pigeons swarm the skies. The telegraph hasn’t been thought of, so there is no such thing as instantaneous communication over distances. Millions of human beings, right here in the Land of the Free, are born into slavery and die that way.
You get the picture. A single lifetime prior to my mother’s birth, the world is qualitatively different. What seems like long ago is, in fact, a BOE. Two BOEs prior to my mother’s birth it’s 1735. Three and it’s 1643. Four and it’s 1551. Four BOEs, and whoever wrote Hamlet hadn’t yet been born.
I made my appearance in 1950. In 1956 I was six. Above is video of a man on the old game show I’ve Got a Secret. His secret is that he was in the audience at Ford’s Theater when Lincoln was shot. So the fact is that, as a child, I could have been watching a man on TV who, as a child, was in the room with Lincoln. Less than a BOE.
Now I’m all of 61. That’s two-thirds of a BOE. Two-thirds of a BOE prior to my birth it was 1889. Walt Whitman was alive. Herman Melville was alive. To get from here to there you walked, or you took a train or a boat or you were transported by animals. Think of that: how different your world must have felt. The great surge of immigrants through Ellis Island hadn’t begun; the multitudes of Italians and Jews and Greeks and other Eastern European and Mediterranean immigrants who helped define the 20th Century weren’t here yet. (If you think it’s tough today to find a decent pastrami sandwich, think of what it must have been like back then!) Speaking of which, in 1889, Winston Churchill was already 15 and Stalin 11, but Franklin Roosevelt, age 7, was in knickers, and Mrs. Hitler was just giving birth to a baby boy, and tanks, planes, and world wars hadn’t yet been hatched in our rich imaginations. The year 1889 is simply a different world than the one into which I was born, perhaps most profoundly different simply in that they didn’t yet possess the memories they ginned up for us. It took them a mere two-thirds of a BOE to do it.
If this little pastime of mine hasn’t dazzled your imagination, try doing it with your own life. Or, if you’re inclined, ponder this: If you know a baby who was born this morning, and that baby makes it to age 92, he or she will see the year 2103.
2103! Lord have mercy.