I went on a long walk after work yesterday—about 40 New York City blocks. Some of that time I spent in the thick of a massive, traffic-snarling street march; the rest of the time I walked parallel to it instead. We’d been blanketed in grey clouds all day, and it was finally drizzling.
Just when I’d decided it was time for me to find the nearest subway station and head home to a salted bath, a young woman came up to me.
“What are they chanting?” She gestured to the marchers, some of whom carried signs and shouted call and response slogans.
I recited some of the chants I’d heard, and told her they were a mixed multitude of people distressed about their new president-elect. She took in the sight of hundreds of youth pounding the pavement, and she burst into tears.
“We’ll survive four years,” I said to her. “Even eight—we’ll survive it. We’ve done it before.”
About 14 months ago, I met with Penobscot tribal historian James Neptune, and asked him, among other things, how long his people had lived on the land around central Maine.
“Oh, 12,000 years,” he said.
That’s longer than my 12 years in the US; much, much more than the United States’ 238 years of nationhood; and a respectable chunk of human history on Earth.
The scale of time is something that can easily recede from awareness during a crisis. The overview effect transforms the astronauts who get to see Earth as it hangs in space, and a sense of geological and anthropological time can serve a similar function. Perhaps it’s even more accessible than the overview effect: you don’t have to be an elite scientist or technologist to perceive it yourself.
At a recent conference on the Black radical tradition, Angela Davis reviewed the years she’s personally committed to theorizing and dismantling the US incarceration system:
When an audience member asked Davis what can we do to bring about real change now, she warned against believing there is some magical solution, some secret formula that might bring us to some utopia. She pointed out that her work around prisons began in the 1960s, over forty years ago, and we are only now beginning to see results. She pointed out that Ida B. Wells’ anti-lynching campaign would only bear fruit after she was no longer alive to see it.” —Minkah Makalani, October 2, 2016
This moment is always the only one I have the ability to act in; here is the only place I meet the world beyond myself.
But peering back at all this time behind me is a way to remind myself that every current crisis and every current joy is part of a much, much larger, much, much longer unfolding story. Twelve years, 40 years, 238 years, 12,000 years, 200,000 years—all of these are spans that put my transitory life seconds in context.
Perhaps for some people a sense of scale evokes a sense of smallness and futility. For me, it inspires courage. My people, my species, has gone through extinction events and resisted traumas of all kinds; and here we are.
We can’t amend the choices of the distant or recent past, but we can choose and act anew in this moment, here.
It takes strength to work as Davis has, for years without reward and no guarantees of success. And it’s something that more of us will have to learn to practice ourselves, whatever our domains and no matter how hopeful and resilient we endeavor to be.