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No Time But the Present

12/28/01 12:00AM By Willem Lange

The human race has arrived at the end of the first year of the third millennium of the Common Era. And as usual on anniversaries, we're spending a lot of time, effort, and paper assessing the significance of that fact. We're balancing our books, reviewing the archives, turning our calendars, looking forward and backward. Is this, as many claim, the beginning of the end, or is it the end of another beginning? It's neither.

We're the only species that keeps time and observes anniversaries. No others of our fellow occupants of the galaxy have any concept of time or could care less about it; and to the planets themselves, who birth was in fire and whose deaths will be the same way, only these two events are significant. And even though all the species and planets are subjects and products of a natural evolution, we're the only phenomenon with a concept of progress.

Progress requires a system of linear time. It used to be, people rose when the sun came up or the rooster crowed; they worked as long as they could; and they went to bed when they couldn't see to do anything else. But the human race has been endowed by its creator -- if I may paraphrase the Declaration of Independence -- with not only certain presumably unalienable rights, but an innate desire to see what lies on the other side of the hill and pass the knowledge on to the next generation. To do that, we needed to be able to measure things accurately: to tell how long it took to get there; to determine longitude; to describe how fast falling objects fall. Later, after the railroads made it dangerous not to know what time the train was coming, we needed standard time. Now we divide it into millionths of seconds. In the future, we'll no doubt have a way to predict the warping of time as we reach ever greater speeds.

We split the atom more than half a century ago; we've split DNA into its components and have begun to fiddle with them in pursuit of therapy for various diseases; we communicate at speeds undreamed of even ten years ago; we write on word processors that permit us to edit, move, or erase with an ease that would astound, say, Charles Dickens. I look at one of his manuscripts -- blotted and scratched, with circles and arrows showing where to move wandering phrases to -- and I'm amazed that any typesetters could transform it into print. But they did.

You can probably see where this is leading: to a definition of progress. For just as we -- unique among species as far as we know -- possess abstract consciousness and a yearning for ultimate answers, we also possess the savage personal instincts of our earliest ancestors. We have in our hands the resources to tackle and eventually overcome any problems we can perceive -- starvation, disease, homelessness, ethnic hatred -- name them, and corporately we can solve them. That we haven't solved them reveals a great deal about what we call the human condition.

Our third millennium has not begun auspiciously, and I don't think I'm being pessimistic when I say it won't an improvement over the past two. We have enhanced our ability to turn dreams to reality, but most of our dreams are still selfish. We've got time measured with the accuracy of cesium clocks, but many of us still waste it. We've eliminated plague and pestilence, but we still wrestle with ourselves. We have met the enemy and, as Pogo says, he is us. Until we overcome him or her, there will never be any human progress.

If any other conscious species follows us on this earth, it will probably not judge humanity by how accurately we measured, how fast we communicated, or how far we ventured into space. I suspect we'll be remembered for how well we took care of each other before our time ran out.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, wishing you a happy millennium.

--Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire.


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