My trip through the desert and what I saw there

Jeff Harrell is traveling this week. This column was originally written on November 9, 2005.

So I took some time, you know? I had an illness to deal with, and I needed to focus on that for a while, so I took some time. I wandered in the desert for forty days and forty nights before emerging into … well, not the Promised Land, exactly, but a Land that’s at least Slightly Better than the one I found myself in six weeks ago.

And what did I see while I was out there? Signs and portents. Lights piercing the curtain of night. Visions and omens and auguries. I have seen the future!

Actually what I saw mostly were some doctors and a hell of a lot of pills. And there are a lot more to come. Getting sick is easy and cheap; you just have to be lucky enough to be born with the wrong set of chromosomes. Living with that illness is difficult and expensive. Such is life.

But what I did see during my trip through the desert, or more properly upon my return to the world of men, gave me an entirely different perspective on life. I saw the world from a different viewpoint, from the stance of an outsider approaching from a distance, and it changed me.

Because, you see, what I saw when I came back from my sabbatical was this: nothing had happened while I was away.

Oh, sure. Events transpired. History was made. The Iraqi constitution passed by a landslide. One Supreme Court nominee dropped out and another was named. Bad weather inflicted damage on places prone to being damaged by bad weather. Some people burned some cars and some people far away from them disagreed about why. People lived, people died, time passed as it usually does. But nothing really happened. The world did not change in the six weeks I was gone. The place I returned to was virtually indistinguishable from the place I’d left.

And it occurred to me: the world is a great boulder rolling down a hillside, and we are the moss that covers it. We squabble among ourselves. We bicker and wrestle and strive. And from our perspective — you know, the little bits of moss — it seems like our daily struggles are the most important things in the universe. But from a wider angle, we’re just moss on a rock. We can’t stop the stone from rolling down the hill; we can’t significantly change its course. Oh, sure, if we all work together, we can nudge it a little bit this way or that. From the point of view of a piece of moss, that’s a world-changing event. But from the wider view, we’re all still just stuff on a rock.

Now, surely all this talk of larger perspectives and greater insignificance smacks of nihilism. Nothing matters, life is meaningless, right? Well, no. Things matter very much, and life is nothing if not meaningful. It’s just that we need to be aware, at least on some level, of the relationship between the moss and the boulder. We need to be aware of the relationship between ourselves and history.

Because history marches on, you know? The sun sets and each finished day is borne back ceaselessly into the past. The boulder rolls down the hill leaving its track gouged into the earth. We, the moss on the rock, can look back and see the path we’ve gouged and we can make guesses as to the path we’ll gouge in the years to come, but we can’t stop the boulder from rolling down the hill. History marches on, carrying us with it whether we want to make the trip or not.

Ten thousand years ago, the last of the great glaciers began their long, slow retreat northward. At the height of the last ice age, which the geologists call the Tioga, glaciers covered nearly all of what is now Canada, the Upper Midwest and New England and reached as far south as parts of Washington State and Montana. As these glaciers advanced in the dim, prehistoric past, they scoured the continent. As they retreated, the waters left over from the great melting pooled in vast gouges, forming the Great Lakes.

People lived in North America during that time. Human beings first made their way to this continent about 30,000 years ago, at the height of the Tioga ice age. As their world changed — slowly, slowly; the process took one million days — the people who lived here adapted to the changes, altering their way of life gradually, generation by generation, to accommodate their changing world. The cultures of the people who lived here carried on, essentially unchanged, until the 18th century when they were squeezed out by better, stronger cultures expanding from the east.

Ten thousand years ago, the last of the great glaciers retreated, and humanity survived that. Can any of us honestly argue that the fate of the human race hinges on who sits on the Supreme Court?

There’s a sort of comfort to it. In a weird way, it’s nice to know that I can check out, leave my key at the front desk, and trust that the world will continue to spin on its axis without my constant attention.

But on the other hand, it’s humbling, and a little sad. Did no one mark my absence? Did nothing fall apart without my attention? Was I not missed?

After that, it’s all just about trust. Trust that events will unfold as they should with or without us, trust that we matter to the people around us and the world at large. It’s a good thing we humans have the seemingly instinctive ability to believe two mutually contradictory thoughts at once. Because we have to, every day.

Jeff Harrell blogs at The Shape of Days.

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