Something else I think about from time to time… What would it be like to live in a time in the past. I don’t mean time travel or anything like that, but to have been born in the 19th century, or say the 10th century. When this subject comes up, I sometimes have a hard time convincing friends of something: People really were different then. The way their minds worked was different. Perceptions of time were different. One’s general sense of the world was different.
I kinda remembered this notion in that rant I had, where I mumbled something about people in the Dark Ages really believing that the Pope could send them to hell. Well, the thing is, that’s true according to most historical accounts. And people in Ireland really did believe in the Good Neighbors, left milk outside for them, and skirted around mushroom in the woods. Today, we see things like that as a quaint superstition, and can only really imagine these things in a kind of abstract imagination.
But think for a moment what your life would be like if you never had a clock or watch, and neither did anyone else. Maybe only the sun and shadows it casts. No calendars, unless it was someone’s job to keep track. Imagine that you never learned to associate right now with “8:00 PM”, or that in 4 hours you’d better be in bed. Imagine that right now is simply right now, the sun is somewhere in the sky, and sometime after it is gone you will be tired and will lie down to sleep. Imagine that your logical brain has no numerical handle on the passage of seconds, that it’s all an intuitive brain gestalt or fuzzy sense. You would know where you are in the day, but there would be no precise word for it.
This is not to say that people in past periods of history were completely different than we are now, but I’d say the further you look back in time, the more different thought and behavior were. And I mean really different. People weren’t “exactly like us, only without television”. Think what life was like before the Renaissance, and before science stormed the world. You look at a flame, and you probably know enough high school physics to think about temperatures and states of matter and the particulate nature of smoke. Someone from the past looks at a mystery, a spirit, a god.
Imagine no books or writing. Or, at least, you don’t know how to read or write. Memory is very different without permanent literate forms to fall back on. News flows by word of mouth, follows the rules of the telephone game, and mutates into myth and legend within a few villiages’ distance. Today, the written word prevents many of the progressive errors introduced by word of mouth, and you can personally travel in the span of hours where events would have been unknown to you.
I’m not trying to glorify the present day though. Modern civilization’s benefits are innumerable, lives are longer, healthier, and more enjoyable, and I wouldn’t want to live in the past. But my neo-pagan leanings leave me needing perspective, to remember what it’s taken to get this far. We need some re-linking (religion?) with rhythms and patterns that we used to know first-hand, and keep ourselves in check. And that’s what I realize when I think about how different life and thought was in the past– think about how different life and thought is now and think about how it will change. Will we stumble into disasters because we’ve lost the ability to think in a way that we did before? Will we become something more, or something less?
I Am A Member of a Civilization, and proud of it. But I don’t want to lose track of the lessons that made it possible for me to be one.