I believe in the power of knowing my place in time—where I am now, where I have been, and what opportunities might await me. This approach to life has made my hardships more bearable, temporary situations more enjoyable, and has allowed me to be more forgiving of historical indiscretions.
I was first aware of my place in time when I was 18; I watched a mother and her young daughter in a grocery store parking lot develop plans to bake cookies. The joy expressed by this girl at the prospect of baking cookies with her mother was contagious and for a brief moment, I too was a young girl, eager to bake with my mother. But I was quickly brought up short when the reality of my place in life hit me. I was now a young adult and I would bake alone in the boarding house where I lived.
This event was a turning point for me and I began to see my life through the eyes of history, evaluating what was to be cherished and realizing what agonies would pass “like a shadowy train.”
This perspective has been especially important in helping me to identify and cherish times that are enjoyable, but that will quickly pass. In early adulthood I started graduate school and one year later my sister enrolled in the exact same school and program. Even though we shared different life styles, for a brief period, the most important aspects of our lives were the same. We took the same shuttle to school, had the same classes, struggled with the same assignments, and were lectured to by the same faculty. It was as if the closeness experienced in childhood had been extended by a year or two—right into adulthood. In part, what made this closeness so meaningful was understanding that it would not last forever.
I use this perspective of knowing my place in time to constantly search for the “truth,” my truth, about what is meaningful, what truly matters to me, and the history of my life. Daily, I ask myself, “Will this matter when I am 80?” When I am caught in rush-hour traffic, when a neighbor scolds my beloved dog, and when I am caught “on hold” for 30 minutes with the credit card company, I ask myself, “Will this matter when I am 80?” I even push “the envelop” and ask, “Will this matter next week, let alone when I am 80?” Almost always, the answer is no. Last week when my 17 year-old step daughter was past her curfew and then days later when she forgot to call to confirm her safe arrival at her boyfriend’s house, seething, I not only found myself asking, “Will this matter when I am 80?” I also found myself asking, “Will this matter when she is 80?”
I have used this same perspective to judge the indiscretions of America’s founding fathers. When my graduate school classmates were readily criticizing the hypocrisy of Thomas Jefferson for simultaneously helping to lay the foundation of “liberty and freedom for all” while also enslaving African Americans, I said that it was important to understand Jefferson through the lens of history. My philosophy professor called me “forgiving.” I disagree. Instead, I was relying on the principle that most people are a reflection of their times and that years from now, people will judge us. They will shake their heads and question the sanity of our actions. I believe that we, too, will be criticized for being harsh, cold, critical, immoral, and ignorant just as we have judged the generations before us. And so, when I read about Jefferson and when I am ready to criticize, I feel the weight of future generations on me, bearing down, ready to judge aspects of my life that seem normal and well supported to me, my friends, family, and colleagues.
This perspective, this way of understanding and filtering my life and the lives of others, is especially effective for me. It allows me to be a bit more patient, appreciative, and forgiving of those around me, and of those who have come before me.
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