The lead sentence to Peggy Noonan’s Wall Street Journal column (subscriber content) this week (Oct. 7, 2011) is all you need to know about whether or not she is worth reading:
Look, we are in a remarkable moment and I’m not sure we’re noticing it in the day-to-day of politics and media.
Doesn’t everyone wish to think that the moments of their lives are remarkable? Isn’t Noonan just pandering to our natural proclivities to think, no matter the mountains of evidence to the contrary, that this time and this place in which we exist is different from all the times and places that have gone before? Of course in a sense, all moments are remarkable, if by remarkable we mean unique. No matter how badly physicists might like to claim otherwise (if only theoretically), time is uni-directional. In the moment required to read this sentence, galaxies will accelerate their movement away from us, the earth will spin a bit on its axis and travel a bit further in its orbit, continents will shift ever so slightly, trees and grass and birds and humans will grow or die a bit; in the symphony of the universe, the note just struck during the moment it took to read that sentence will never be played again. Every succeeding space-time moment is unique, but not remarkable. Time relentlessly marches on in an analog succession of continuously unique changes in matter and energy relationships, yet each moment is connected to the other through universal fealty to the same code of physical conduct. Gravity and electromagnetism and nuclear forces don’t just skip a moment here and there, to later carry on. Past is prologue because the rules governing relationships remain the same.
There are as well laws governing human behavior. This time may be different, but humans haven’t changed; they are subject to the same needs and desires that their own code of physical conduct (i.e., their genetic code) demands, part of which apparently compels them to think of their individual slice of space and time as remarkable. Believing that one’s life and times are remarkable must have been something naturally selected as favorable to survival and propagation, else the energy required to conjure the lies necessary to believe such a thing would have impaired survivability prospects for those that so expended it.
These times seem hardly remarkable to me. In fact, they seem extraordinarily ordinary. The US, the latest of the world empires, has expanded its reach and breadth almost as far as it is able, and sits precariously perched atop all of its competitors. Meanwhile, its people suffer the existential angst that comes at the end of growth; a time in which survival seems assured becomes a time of nagging doubts and fears that seem unshakeable(compliments of the same hard-wiring that produced the need for a feeling of remark-ability in their life and times); a time when it is instinctively clear that the only way forward from the exalted height to which they’ve climbed is down, to decline and decay. So the people listen to charlatans telling them what they want to hear, telling them these times are remarkable and that the people in it are special. But thinking that their times are remarkable and their lives special does little to relieve the people’s existential angst. Remarkable times and special people can’t be found living meaningless lives, so they satiate their angst by seeking purpose and meaning in materialism and status striving. They try to sanctify their lives through ownership, of everything from iPads to McMansions. In their desperate leisure, bereft of the struggle for which they were hard-wired to engage, their lives become unhinged. They forget that whatever other purpose there may be to life, meeting life’s necessities is first, last and always the most important.
Believing that one’s life and times are remarkable would mostly be harmless, except for the utterly stupid things people do in order to express their beliefs. Every grandiose scheme of every two-bit dictator turned on convincing the people that they lived in remarkable times requiring extraordinary means to meet its challenges. The Final Solution to Germany’s Jewish problem could only have been attempted by a people that believed the challenges of their times were remarkable.
During remarkable times, the past can provide no guideposts for the future. When “this time is different” resonates with enough people, simple lessons learned through eons of human development can be ignored, and impulses whose expression always before yielded disaster can be happily engaged. It is only in remarkable times that people would greedily abandon reason to leverage their lives on the premise that housing prices never decline. It is only in remarkable times that the most powerful nation in the world would answer a single, niggling attack by embarking on a perpetual war girdling the globe, leaving it weaker and more vulnerable than before. It is only in remarkable times that a nation would pile trillions and trillions of debt on its future generations for no real purpose except perhaps ameliorating the economic pain of a select few of its political and economic oligarchy, and keeping alive its dying past.
I am quite content to live with the ambiguity in meaning and purpose that comes with understanding there is nothing remarkable about one’s life and times. I rather prefer to accentuate the similarities, not the differences, among time’s moments of which I am aware. The sameness of each unique moment provides a comfortable connectedness to all that has come before and all that will follow. If ever there were a truly remarkable time, I think it would seem lonely and isolated, as if the fabric of the universe had been ripped asunder, allowing the remarkable period of time to float away into the dark void.
I don’t claim to know what meaning and purpose there might be to life. But I know that it won’t be reached through proclaiming how remarkable are the days in which one lives. Neither will it be discovered through rapacious acquisition. These are temporal things, vain attempts to provide meaning and purpose to life, to rescue man from the shackles of eternity by providing him a teleological foundation.
I think Voltaire offered the best strategy for living in these times. Times that are no more remarkable than any other:
“All that is very well,” answered Candide; “but let us cultivate our garden.”