Changes Through Time

During a spoken tribute that I delivered at a recent family gathering to celebrate my brother’s birthday, I expressed the following sentiment:

There are many changes that take place in a lifetime, some are fleeting and some lasting, which can alter us in ways we did not expect or want, but which, nonetheless, result in forward movement toward the person we WILL be.

The intention was to suggest that we cannot always predict the consequences of change, regardless of whether we initiate the change deliberately or it is thrust upon us by circumstance. Ultimately, change will come, one way or another, and the only sensible role we can play in the process, once it takes hold, is in shaping our response to the change. The degree to which it can be said that we might actually be able to participate in directing the course of change when it comes, depends largely on the person we are when it occurs, and our level of experience in dealing with the changes we encountered in the past.

Our current endowment of highly developed cognitive functioning has had the benefit of hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary progress within which to develop and be expressed in numerous creative ways. The very nature of life, as demonstrated over hundreds of millions of years of evolution on our planet, is to adapt to changing circumstances, and to select those behaviors and genetic characteristics which enhance survival.

Once the architecture of the hominid brain became complex enough to support advanced cognitive functions, consciousness began to take hold as a highly adaptive tool that greatly enhanced survival. In combination with other physiological changes in the base of the hominid skull which facilitated the development of spoken language, Homo sapiens took this natural evolutionary endowment and began to utilize the power of the brain in ways that resulted in increased and enhanced human intelligence generally, as well as a variety of both practical and creative or adaptive cognitive capacities developed over the millennia.

We rarely consider this background of change over many epochs of time as relevant to our cosmically brief existence as sentient beings, but it seems clear that our lives today, even down to the changes that occur over a single, human lifetime, are one of the many consequences of the countless changes that have manifested over the millennia, and by that reckoning, we must then suppose that our adaptive responses to the changes occurring in our own lives, in some way, affect the continuum of which we are all an essential component.


Echoes of Humanity

It is human life. We are blown upon the world; we float buoyantly upon the summer air a little while, complacently showing off our grace of form and our dainty iridescent colors; then we vanish with a little puff, leaving nothing behind but a memory–and sometimes not even that. I suppose that at those solemn times when we wake in the deeps of the night and reflect, there is not one of us who is not willing to confess that he is really only a soap-bubble, and as little worth the making.

Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography (North American Review, 3 May 1907)

The recent publication of the first volume of Mark Twain’s autobiography has prompted much attention in the media and precipitated reflection on the author’s work and life. This quote stirred my heart and mind enough to express a response here.

Human life is, in some ways, clearly ephemeral as the quote suggests, and many of our expressions with regard to the passing of time reflect this quality. “There’s never enough time in a day,” we often say, for all the things we hope to accomplish. Whenever we are deeply engrossed in something we love to do, we can’t believe how swiftly the time seems to pass, and for those who are able to live long enough to see their children grow up and produce grandchildren, very often they find it hard to believe that their babies are having babies. I know this feeling well. It wasn’t so long ago that I held my youngest daughter in my arms as a baby. Even though being a grandfather was a delight I had experienced four times already, when my grandson, Johnathan, arrived in the world, it seemed impossible that his mother was my youngest child.

The perspective of years is unobtainable without first experiencing years of living, but as we grow older, the passage of a year seems to take less time. It’s a natural experience. When we were six years old, a year seemed to take forever, since it represented one sixth of our entire life. After age 50, the percentage is one fiftieth of our lives and that naturally diminishes the perception of how long it takes to pass. However, nothing actually changes. The world still takes about twenty-four hours to turn around and some 365 days to circle the sun. The temporal world is fairly predictable, but our experience of that world and our perception as cognitive beings is a lot closer to Twain’s poetical musings than we sometimes care to acknowledge.

The one aspect of the musing that struck me as flawed was Twain’s estimation that our lives, while somewhat like a soap bubble, are “as little worth the making.” It seems that he may have been trying to suggest that no one of us has more “worth” than another, but it would be a huge injustice to the “spirit of life,” to say that the experience of human life didn’t add up to anything more than the creation of a soap bubble. Even considering the innumerable human lives that have come and gone on earth since the dawn of humanity, and the incalculable number of lives that we never hear anything about and no one remembers, the experience of those lives, as perhaps only the one who lived them knew, resulted in echoes that reverberate within humanity to this day.

Each of us, no matter what our station in life, has inherited the life we are presently experiencing as a consequence of the existence of our ancestors, both familial and ancient. Our existence as a species, while only a recent development when viewed from a cosmic perspective, has millions of years of evolutionary history upon which our modern day existence is founded. Within us are the primordial echoes of all life since the first single-celled creatures stirred on our planet, and we are creating and contributing today what will be the echoes of life in the centuries to come. There is no accurate value that we can assign to life, but every life contributes to the history of humanity, and every subjective experience of consciousness, regardless of its perceived “worth,” becomes part or parcel of the “human experience,” and by that reckoning, essential to the future of humanity.