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.