I’ve been traveling in my way-back machine lately, visiting various eras and speaking to the locals. I needed a vacation from our crazy times, and wanted to meet people with different points of view.
Unfortunately, where and when ever I went I heard the same sad story.
In Renaissance Italy Leonardo told the tale, in revolutionary France Marat shrugged it wistfully, Nigel in Victorian England and Fred in Ike’s 50’s America sighed the same sour song. “We live in complicated times, my friend. You should have been here yesterday; things were so much simpler.”
This turned out to be a universal expression of the human condition. Yesterday was always simpler, sunshine, roses and lollipops. Before the internet, before jammed airports, before reckless driving kids in their horseless carriages, before science challenged the received word, the world was simple, uncomplicated and pure.
But only in hindsight. In all my time travels I couldn’t find a single soul who thought his or her times were simple, stable or grand. Those emotions were reserved for yesterday. If a complicated present is universal, so is a nostalgic past.
Waking up again in Trump-disrupted America, I’ve been assured that these are the most complicated times, ever, ever, ever. Had I not just been surfing the ages I’d probably agree.
But now I think we’ve been looking at it the wrong way. If all times seem complicated to those doomed to live in them, I think life is trying to tell us something.
All times are complicated, and all yesterdays are simpler, because the past knows something the present never can. How it all turns out.
The most convoluted, twisted mystery novel ever written is boringly simple if you flip to the last page. When the present becomes the past.
Chaos is always now. We’re always confused, blinded by the light of the present. We recognize this in our everyday speech. When will we know what happened? At the end of the day. When all is said and done. When the dust settles. When the fog of war clears. When we cash in our chips and see where we stand.
I think the problem isn’t complexity, I think it’s suspense. Suspense can be unbearable in a two-hour movie or a four-hour baseball game. But at least you know, barring power failures or rain outs, that you’ll know how it all turned out that day.
Now imagine suspense that plays out at the speed of life. Agony, right? Too much to bear, no?
Well, actually, we deal with it pretty well. We’re human, we cope. Which basically means we rationalize, construct a narrative, and stop worrying about it.
The story we tell ourselves, at all times, is that these are complicated times, and yesterday was simple, but gone forever.
But it’s only a story. I hate to bust your bubble, especially if it keeps you afloat over the stinking swamp of the present, but it’s just an illusion. These times are no more or less complicated than any others. The only difference is we’re living this one and we have no idea how it turns out.
Which is why the past is so much simpler and sweeter. The past has no secrets that amount to much. Oh, the historians will argue about this point or that, but we all pretty much know who won the 2014 World Series.
Yesterday is never dire. It was, but that’s when yesterday was today. Once it’s past, it’s in the books. Some of those books were tragedies. Wars, plagues, floods and pestilence. They were very bad times and complicated beyond imagining to those who lived through them, or didn’t.
But to us? Nothing we can’t comprehend, nothing that can’t fit between commercials in a two-hour History channel doc.
Perhaps that’s the lesson here. Our terribly twisted, complicated times will be tomorrow’s entertainment.
It’s been complicated since Homo Erectus struggled to flake that damned rock the right way to make a hand axe.
Life is complicated; death is simple. When you’re gone, all your complexity goes away. It collapses down to your name and a pair of dates, maybe a nice slogan and RIP. Do not crave simplicity.
May you live in complicated times for a long, long time. And may your chosen afterlife be blissful. The best thing about heaven is that you get to see how it all turned out. And laugh indulgently at the foolish mortals, living their little lives in what they think are complicated times.