In my twenties, when I first began to date my former wife, she took me to visit her grandfather at the elderly care-facility where he was living. Tragically, just a few days before I first met him, he had suffered a fall from which he never recovered, and within two weeks he passed away. He was 105 years old. Right up to that fall he had been active and cognitively lucid; he loved playing chess with his great-grandchildren and watching the Toronto Blue Jays baseball games on television. But his condition was poor when I met him, and our visit wasn’t long nor the conversation very detailed. There are so many things I would have loved to have talked about with him, but sadly, it wasn’t to be.
A few years later, his daughter; my mother-in-law, handed me a small duo-tang folder containing a thirty-page autobiography that her father had written. I read it in amazement. This man, who I had so briefly met, had tried to enlist in WWI but was rejected because he was too old. Born in 1885, he was already five years old when Vincent Van Gogh died. That stunned me. I had met a man who could have actually met Vincent Van Gogh, who could have sat beside him at a café.
The story of this fascinating man came alive for me again a few years ago upon opening a book by Bryan McGee, entitled Ultimate Questions. In the first few pages McGee describes how he, when he was young, had also met a man who was over one hundred-years old. This man, he recalled, had known the composer, Brahms, who was a family friend, and it suddenly struck McGee to realize that history, when measured in individual lifespans, seemed less distant and remote. With indebtedness to McGee, I will expand upon his insight.
Imagine a small theatre that holds 300 people only, and that each of the seats are filled with a very magical group of centenarians. First, we will allow that they all can understand each other’s speech. Each of them has lived to be over 100, each has lived at a different time in history, and each has been brought into the future (our present) to sit in this imaginary theatre for our purposes. Now, centenarians are rare, perhaps never more than a fraction of one percent of any given population, but at all times during human history, we can, without stretching credulity, imagine that there has always been at least one centenarian alive in any given year. Now for our thought experiment, imagine that each of our chosen centenarians, in their hundredth year, was introduced to a 5 year-old child who, themselves, went on to live and become another centenarian, another of our chosen group, and this went on and on, linking each of the people in the theatre.
The first audience member walks to the podium, states their name and says: “I was born in the year 1920. I remember, as five-year old, meeting a woman who was 100 years old at that time. Who was that?” A hand goes up from the crowd and that centenarian stands up and takes the stage as the first person leaves. She then says the same thing, stating her name and asking for the identity of the centenarian in the crowd, who, in their hundredth year, met her when she was only five. Another hand, and another takes the stage, and on it goes – each person living a life of 100+ years, but each overlapping near the end of their long life with the childhood of the next.
And when only the 10th person takes the stage, an amount that could still fit in an elevator, we have an individual who can recall the first Gothic cathedral being built in Europe. By the 15th person, we have someone who witnessed the crowning of Emperor Justinian in the Byzantine kingdom. By only the 25th person, we meet someone who heard the Buddha teach in person. By the 60th individual, we have a person who lived before the invention of the wheel, before the rise of the Sumerian civilization, and before the invention of writing and thus recorded history. The 100th person remembers when no one knew what farming was or how to domesticate animals. By the 150th person, just as we reach the half-way mark of our audience, we meet someone who saw the original cave paintings being done at Lascaux. And every other person in the next half of the audience will recount living in small hunter-gatherer societies, using stone tools as their highest technology. The last of them, the 270th to the 300th will tell stories of when they lived in a world where there were other kinds of humans – Neanderthals and Denisovans, living in the same environment.
And that’s it. 300 people, 300 lives overlapping, reaching as far back as the last Neanderthal.
Yet, something vitally important is overlooked in this view. In looking at history as a linear span of time, and by using a single human life as a ‘unit’ of that timeline, we treat each person in our example with a sort of objective equivalency. Of course we acknowledge that people of other cultures have or had different thoughts in their head; different religions; different languages, cultures, etc. We may also admit that when we are looking at other cultures or periods we are unconsciously applying a judgment of their position in the scale of ‘civilization’ or ‘technological advancement.’ This is reflected in our concepts of ‘first-world’ vs ‘third-world,’ and in our ‘modern’ vs ‘primitive’ division of societies. But what we have great trouble accepting is that the very consciousnesses of these people – the paradigms and cognitive lenses with which they constructed their reality, are different. The world each of them lived in was not the same world as the others except with different names for things. We have a harder time imagining that consciousness itself is not a container in the mind filled with constant objects. It is much, much more than that.