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Crushing Infinity in the Palm of Our Hand

As the number of ways we can express ourselves as individuals increases, our collective sense of history has to be shrinking.

The study of history helps put the groups to which we belong into a sequence and gives them permanence. We identify with our language, our occupation, our country, our race, our neighborhood, our sexual orientation, our interests, our religion, our sports teams, our collectibles, and our family because the stories are familiar, having been with us our whole lives. They are well developed, always colorful, and generally shared by those around us. The stories may take unexpected turns, but they are well underway by the time our character joins the cast.

For some of us, these stories create our sense of culture and belonging. For others, they make clear that we don’t belong, leading some to detach and others to find new stories. Regardless, each story in our life comprises a series of events that combines together to help us identify our place in the world. As technology and travel have reduced the relative size of this world and as exposure to the unknown has broken through closeted communities, the level of historical intertwining has never been so vast.

Yet, the scope of our place in these unprecedented combinations of stories is losing meaning. For one, how can we really understand a tradition that goes back hundreds of generations when a single year now brings more advances than 1,000 years used to? A year is still a year, but the capacity for what can happen in that year is off the chart from a millennium ago.

The speed of our progress is matched only by the speed of information, but equally fast has been the narrowing of our scope. We have more knowledge about our world than ever before, and a greater ability to share that knowledge, yet our sense of all of this is being offset as we dive further into ourselves. Please don’t think I’m chastising you from afar: I spend enough time on Facebook or thinking about my job or writing in this blog to be among of the masses that is part of this myopia. (Sadly, despite my self-serving ways, I’m not even the best known author named Jason Leary, nor I am the most publicly despised Jason Leary. Dante had a place for people that weren’t bad enough to go to hell but weren’t significant enough to make Purgatory: the Ante-Inferno. These dullards spend eternity chasing a big flag back and forth while being stung by bees, an fitting punishment for their ordinariness. How grim.)

I worry about what next. When so much of our lives is so close to ourselves, how can we understand ourselves? How can we appreciate our unique thread of existence when we can’t see down the length our own lines, let alone the other threads around us? William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence, which is the inspiration for the title of this piece, is a view of humanity’s place in the universe. After reading it just now for the first time in a long time, I’m having thoughts of other times. This feels good. Maybe it’s fleeting, but it does not hurt. And maybe it’s stale, with Blake’s view a luxury of a period when thought was slower and time worked within a rate capable of being absorbed. Or maybe we have to stop making excuses for our selfism.

Here’s to not chasing after a useless banner for eternity.

9 responses to “Crushing Infinity in the Palm of Our Hand”

  1. BB222 BB222 says:

    Excellent Jason, my initial thought is death to selfism, self absorption, all our ego coddling exercises, but I would certainly be calling the kettle black.
    Bu then I don't think it takes too much to develop the view your talking about here. Solitude, not forever, or even for a few weeks. it might only take a few days, by yourself and disconnected to paradoxically understand the intertwinnings you paint for us.

    • Jason Jason says:

      Maybe just leaving the iPod and book at home for one part of a commute is a step toward this, BB. We have precious few uninterrupted moments of thoughts. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Avatar tee says:

    I understand your feelings Jason – I live in a busy city, with millions of people, and yet sometimes, and yet sometimes this "place" can be lonely. There are times I long for those moments in history where everyone went to market daily to get what they needed, had tea or wine at 3 pm with friends, and spent evenings by the harth surrounded by family. Simpler? Less Complicated lives? Maybe… more stressful? Goodness knows…as there weren't people tweeting about it yet!

  3. Avatar llxt says:

    i don't know Jason… i've been studying the beginning of America this semester and it doesn't seem their lives were any less hectic than ours. granted, what i've been reading is through the "writer's" eyes, but it's pretty damn exhiliarting, in an egocentric kind of way. are you chastising technology itself (or the advancement thereof), or… something more? maybe something less?

    • Jason Jason says:

      Great point. I'm sure I'm falling into that romantic trap of things being better before our time, despite enjoying the great luxuries of our time. I do believe that the sense of progress was much slower then–it took longer for everything to happen, from preparing food to warming a home to communicating across distances. The speed with which everything happens now has to have had an effect on our ability to focus on slower things. I think.

  4. Will Will says:

    I related to your post in a few different ways. I saw it as you talking about the connection to history makes our lives less complicated because there were more clearly defined roles. If you were the son/daughter of a baker, you were probably going to be a baker. Doesn't necessarily make life easier, but that's one less choice you had to make. You also had a common purpose with everyone in that town: it's defense and well being. It bonded you to the others. I've been living in my new house for 13 months and barely know my neighbors.
    Second, I thought it was a statement about happiness. By being so self-focused, you can be nearly anything you want. And this can lead to confusion and unhappiness. Whereas to revisit my earlier example, if you were the son/daughter of a baker and you were happy with that, then your choice was made. Less worrying about what to do. Our world offers nearly limitless choices, although I understand there are certain influences pushing us in one direction or another.

  5. brian mcgill brian mcgill says:

    When i get done building my Time Machine you will be the first guest.

  6. Avatar WreckedUm says:

    Sometimes history isn't history until it is written. For all we know, 20 years from now, this site could be held up as such a bastion of individual thought and expression that we're all revered as gods. True, people in the past related to history, frequently, through the experiencing of or the persevering through certain events that we, years, decades or centuries later, percieve as "historic". But to them, it was just "shit happening", and they dealt with it the best way they could, by surviving, thriving, and living to tell the tale. Shit happens to all of us, and sometimes it isn't the victors that write history, it's the survivors. Just because you don't feel the connection the our current "history" now doesn't always mean your great grand kids won't be telling tales of the shit you went through. My great-great grand father was a Molly-McGuire, a labor union terrorist by today's standards. I have tried to learn everything about him, whatever I can, to understand what he experienced, and how it can be related to myself, to today. It is fascinating to me. But to him, he was just trying to deal with his life, to handle SHIT HAPPENING, it if needed to be met with mediation or violence, he dealt with it.
    Don't count yourself, or our shrinkingly relatable world, out just yet. The Facebook wars could start tomorrow, and 20 years down the road, we'll be telling tales of surviving the Farmville offensive, or the Mafia Wars Occupation, to our grand kids.

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jasonleary About jasonleary

Jason Leary is liberalish, except regarding the Oxford comma; an occasional runner; and a part-time thinker. A happy family man, Jason also loves William Carlos Williams, liberty, and beer. He pulled this bio from his Twitter profile, @JasonLeary74.

Read more by this author on 30POV .


December 2010
November 2010
On My Honor
October 2010
Witch Hunt
September 2010
If, Then.
May 2010
Small Crimes
April 2010
February 2010
"It's Complicated"
January 2010