In a nearby apartment a small child is happily babbling; the first phase of learning to talk. The babble is full of intonation, intervals, and rhythm. The only thing missing is words, and they will come soon enough. I smile when I hear the sounds because they bring back memories of my own son at a similar age, and I recall how precious that time was.
Yesterday evening, while walking along the promenade that runs along the edge of Lac Leman, I saw a father propelling his daughter on his skateboard. Skateboards, especially the electrically-assisted kind, are very popular here. The daughter had a small scooter but clearly her legs had grown tired and so she was hitching a ride on the front of the larger skateboard while her father literally did the legwork. Seeing her glide past, cross-legged and with a huge smile on her face, filled me with happiness.
On the same walk I saw an older couple sharing a bottle of wine, cheese, and a baguette as they sat on the concrete wall looking out over the lake in the direction of Evian. It was clear this couple were still enjoying one another’s company.
A toddler ran past, his ice-cream cone raised to the sky as he tried to persuade a fleeing sheldruck that the cold treat in his hand would be a welcome change from the bird’s normal diet of sedge.
As I write this, the sun is setting in the direction of France and the Alps are illuminated by the last golden pink-hued rays shining off jagged limestone and dolomite peaks. Children are playing in the garden down below and on various apartment balconies adults are easing themselves through the second course of dinner.
Yesterday, after a strenuous workout at the grungy but well-equipped gym I use right at the top of the city, I went for a long run in the nearby forest. The trees are in full leaf, the sky was clear and the air was warm with a gentle breeze. My favorite kind of running is on trails like this: plenty of hills to train the quads, glutes, and calves; scents rich in the air; and a marvelous sense of solitude despite people being no more than a few hundred meters away.
As the world willfully destroys so much of what I care about, all thanks to regular human ignorance, folly, and gullibility, I find myself savoring the small things in which at least an illusion of hope still remains.
Perhaps we would have been happier if the tiny percentage of clever people throughout the millennia had never lived. Perhaps flints and stone tools were as far as our species should have stumbled, so that even now we would be sitting around fires, a few tens of thousands of us at best, clinging onto existence on the margins and thanks to our small numbers unable to do much harm to the world we so briefly inhabit.
It’s difficult to believe that most people would feel any dismay living such a life. We are, after all, hardwired to behave in ways that suit that style of living whereas our modern world leaves us disoriented and often quite unable to cope. For the average person, everything around is a kind of magic, albeit a magic that is taken for granted, because taking things for granted is what we do. Our brains are too small and too limited for a more expansive perception of the real wonder of existence.
I have been lucky. I was born after the worst excesses of the twentieth century were behind us and the post-war prosperity years gave rise to opportunities previously unimaginable. When I was eight years old, none of my peers had ever flown on an airplane; now it’s unusual to find anyone who hasn’t flown at least once. When I was eight years old the flight from London to Cape Town took longer than it takes now to fly from London to Sydney, thanks to refueling stops along the way and the fact that old-style turboprop aircraft were far slower than today’s commercial jet airliners.
And so, thanks to the miracle of modern technologies, in my lifetime I’ve lived, worked, and traveled all around the world. I’ve made friends and learned important lessons across several continents. This is astonishing. Yet so easy is travel these days that it’s become banal, little different from hopping on a bus, and about as pleasant now that we’re all crammed into tiny seats in order to maximize revenue per mile. Today no one notices how remarkable it is that a person can wake up in Paris to fresh coffee and croissant and end their day in San Francisco watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean while sipping a rather good Pinot bottled just a little further north in the Napa Valley. We humans are such tedious creatures that we quickly lose any sense of wonder, regardless of how truly wonderful something may be.
We take things for granted.
We took the achievements of civilization for granted. In the West, the period between 1945 and 2015 was the longest period of uninterrupted peace since the collapse of the Roman Empire some fifteen hundred years earlier. Europe semi-united within the European Union and even the USA, perpetually backward, racist, and exploitative, managed a few reforms here and there. Literacy and numeracy rates rose consistently (except, alas, across the USA) and access to state-provided healthcare improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people across the nations of Europe. Superstitious beliefs in invisible magical creatures waned across Europe as better education meant fewer and fewer people were credulous and ignorant enough to believe in gods, ghouls, and goblins. Slowly but surely the doctrine of equal rights for all gained ground, albeit in the USA mostly in lip-service and less often in reality.
And then, because we take things for granted and because we’re too lazy to read history and because we’re too complacent to do more than gawp at predictable entertainments, we decided without even thinking to throw everything away. A tsunami of mindless populism flooded across the world and since then we’ve watched millions of dull-eyed know-nothings tear apart everything any sane and thoughtful person should value. We’ve elected infantile morons because they were entertaining, and we’ve stood back to let them wreak havoc unchecked while their supporters drool and howl in atavistic approval.
We comfort ourselves with fantasies that the next election will make everything right again, as if re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic would have made everything right again, or if wearing a different color toga would have saved the Roman Empire. We look away, preferring to know far more about our favorite TV shows than about where we’ve come from and where we’re heading. And we blindly let a totally irresponsible sensation-driven media stampede us into mass hysteria over totally insignificant problems while ignoring the massive problems we’ve created everywhere on this beautiful but delicate planet.
There are times in history when nothing can be done, when the tide of affairs is so strong that all one can do is weep with the pointlessness of it all and watch as ordinary people smash everything to pieces while not even noticing.
At such times, the babbling of a small child or the smile of a girl cross-legged on her father’s skateboard may be the only consolations possible.