Our Omnipresent Past
Ephemeral. From the Greek ephemeros – literally, "that which lasts but a day."
For most of the existence of Homo sapiens, our lives were filled with ephemerality. Things, people, events came into our lives and then were gone, consigned to a ghostly existence in memory (if we were lucky).
Once it was thus: a friendship formed in childhood could be allowed to run its course. Perhaps the friends drifted apart – emotionally or geographically, or both. Later in life, that childhood bond could be all but forgotten, save perhaps as a fleeting visitor in sleep.
Or: A concert is attended by a group of adolescents. As the performers take the stage, an electricity runs through the crowd, an energy generated not least by the understanding among the spectators that, once the show is over, it will be gone forever.
This knowledge focuses the attention of the concert-goers – every sense heightened so as to imprint the experience as strongly as possible on the mind in a desperate attempt to fight the ephemerality of the moment. The result: memories that are vivid and visceral, memories that will thenceforth walk through the walls of the mind, sometimes when summoned by a scent or a sound, sometimes confusingly coy even though consciously called upon.
These experiences – the concert, the friend, and much more besides – were cherished all the more for how short-lived they were in our lives and how evanescent they proved in our memory.
The moment, so fragile, so fleeting, was easy to savor because it had to be savored.
* * *
In a sense, one can view the entire history of human culture as a long twilight struggle against ephemerality, a desperate attempt to freeze and preserve our thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
Our ancestors began the fight by carving images of the beasts they hunted and ate – and that hunted and ate them – on cavern walls by flickering firelight. They wrought idols in bone and wood and stone of the thing they worshiped, or the enemy they killed, or the lover they bedded, to make physical those feelings of devotion or hate or lust that drove their hands and hearts.
Later, much later, came writing, and our thoughts and feelings could be preserved (after a fashion) for as long as the inscription survived, or the language was understood, or there were eyes to extract meaning from the markings. Writing was – perhaps still is – the most potent weapon in our anti-ephemerality arsenal.
But at what cost?
Socrates, famously, looked askance at writing, wondering if we were trading our memories and souls for convenience. (Socrates may himself have been illiterate; he certainly never wrote anything down, as far as we know. It is a great irony that his wisdom would be lost to us completely had his students Plato and Xenophon shared his prejudices toward the written word.)
One can only imagine what Socrates would think of the internet and social media. Probably not a fan, it's safe to say. If he thought the masses were mindless sheep back then...
The thing about the internet and social media that would dismay Socrates the most, I think, is that these tools have seemingly and finally conquered ephemerality. The past is no longer the past, but now continually collides with our present and threatens our future in ways impossible to predict but that often do violence to our present lives and loves.
Consider: Any past lover or friend can be found on Facebook and can find you. How many marriages have suffered as a result? After all, why give your all to your current when the past continually beckons?
Similarly, attend any concert these days, and there they are: hundreds, thousands of phones capturing the moment. Why pay close attention, why immerse yourself in the experience, when it can be accessed on YouTube or your phone as soon as you get home and at any time thereafter?
We spend so much time chronicling, we forget to live. Sure, you can call up that Instagram pic of that meal you had in Madrid last year. But in your haste to capture and share, did you forget to fall into the flavor as it touched your tongue?
Maybe the past was meant to stay buried. Maybe it's meant to remain in that graveyard of the heart reserved for those bittersweet memories that make the difference between living and being alive.
Maybe the past is best remembered, however poorly, while the present is best seized, however clumsily. Perhaps the quality of ephemerality imbued our lives with more meaning than we realized.
Mother Teresa once said, "Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow is not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin."
How can we begin today if yesterday never leaves?