I used to think my grandparents had lived through amazing times in history.
Now I’ve realized I have, too.
On my days off last week, I watched hours of the Olympics. They are, among other things, a fantastic way to pass time. It goes faster when you watch the Games, I’m pretty sure. Then on Sunday night and the wee hours of Monday morning, I watched the newest episode of “The Newsroom,” which dealt with the night Osama bin Laden was killed. I won’t say where I was or what I was doing that night, but in sum, there are a lot of reasons I’ll never forget it. (No, it wasn’t dirty. Geez, people.) I happened to finish the episode on my laptop at 1:30am, the perfect time to flip on the TV and watch the rover Curiosity land on Mars. Live.
It has struck me over and over in the last week or two that we are constantly witnesses to astounding things. So constantly, in fact, that we have become impervious to them. That’s what makes us, sadly, so different from the Greatest Generation. We have lost so much of our ability to be amazed and humbled.
I am typing this – typing it – on a laptop computer no heavier than the slab of ribs I’m defrosting in the kitchen. This laptop can bring me live images of something happening literally a world away. My phone, connected to no wires and requiring me to stay in no perimeter (unlike the days when I was frustrated that the phone cord didn’t reach into the dining room from the kitchen), contains almost as much data processing hardware as the laptop does, but is a fraction of the size. On either of them, I am able to communicate instantly with friends as close as the next room and as far as Australia and Hong Kong. I can even see them, if I choose.
“The Newsroom” begins each episode with a theme montage that features, first in a series of images, and old-timey satellite soaring through space. Just the fact that there is such a thing as an old-timey satellite is sort of mind-blowing.
These things are parts of our everyday life now. We barely notice.
But for some reason, the confluence of recent events has my mind on a different track. I’m grateful that knowing my grandparents and their experiences as I did has taught me an appreciation for history as it happens. I have parlayed that appreciation into other elements of my life. And so at a time when the Olympics converge with the Mars Curiosity landing, an epic (if nearly intolerable) presidential campaign, a global economic crisis and a chaotic assimilation to endless social media, sometimes I just have to stop, look around, and catch my breath.
Those of us who weren’t awake for it may not have reacted much to the Curiosity landing. After all, it’s not the first time we’ve landed something on Mars. The Opportunity is still there, you know, roving. But this was the first time we landed something the size of a car there, without any real testing to see if the whole thing would actually work. It did. It landed perfectly in the perfect spot, unbroken to our knowledge. Within seconds of watching the live reaction from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California to the news that Curiosity had successfully touched down after what NASA had termed “seven minutes of terror” for its landing sequence, that thing was beaming back images of the planet it was on. Sending pictures through space of a planet none of us have ever set foot on.
Why is that not every bit as awe-inspiring as when we sent men to walk on the moon?
In 35 years, I have lived through the return from an oil embargo; the election of a Hollywood movie star as president; the invasion of Grenada; the Iran-Contra affair; the war in the Persian Gulf; massive world-changing earthquakes in California, Japan, China, Indonesia and Haiti; Hurricane Katrina; the World Trade Center bombing (1993); the Oklahoma City bombing; September 11th; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the impeachment of a president; the election of an African-American as president; the appointments of the first and second African-American Secretaries of State; appointments of the first, second and third female Secretaries of State; the dissolving of the Soviet Union; the destruction of the Berlin Wall; the Velvet Revolution in Poland; the protest in Tienanmen Square; the Occupy Movement; the Arab Spring and similar uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya and Iran; countless space missions, landings and discoveries, including the International Space Station in cooperation with the Russians we previously tried desperately to humiliate in the Space Race; the dawn of the personal computer; video cameras (Beta/VHS/digital); the invention of the internet; laptops, cell phones, digital cameras, cell phone cameras, the microwave, answering machines, voicemail, Facetime and Skype, Facebook, MySpace, Friendster, dating sites, Twitter and innumerable other technological marvels; the turn of a century that once seemed only fantasy (without computer meltdown); the arrival of unfathomable diseases and the cures and effective treatments for so many more; pet microchipping; heart valve replacements; artificial hearts; lifelike prostheses; cars that park themselves…
I could go on and on.
And yes, some of these things exist now only to make our lives easier and allow us to be lazier. We may mutter that it would have been better if they’d never been invented at all.
But watching the Olympics… watching people of every race and nation break down in tears at the triumph of victory and the pain of defeat, watching pride and heartbreak combine, watching people do things I could never, ever do… I find myself cheering for every single athlete, every single time. I don’t care that they’re from China or Russia or Korea. I don’t care that they come from a country diametrically opposed to mine. I don’t care that, by and large, we view their nation’s people as threats to ours. Because when they are united in competition and congratulations as individuals, each with a story, each with a suffering, each with hopes and fears and families they have loved and perhaps lost, it is never more clear that we are all the same. I cry when they cry. I cheer when they cheer. Watching the Curiosity land on Mars, it is undeniable that, everywhere on this planet, every person is subject to the life-ending fragilities and immortalizing strengths of the human condition.
What these things, all these histories I have lived through, show is that we as a species crave and strive for purpose, understanding and unity. What almost all of these things do is bring us together, search for life, and sustain life.
I watched a room full of geniuses at NASA’s JPL jump up and down, cry and cheer endlessly over what had been accomplished at 1:31am Eastern Daylight Time on Monday morning when they learned that all their work over 12 years had finally landed on Mars. On Tuesday, I watched an entire Olympic stadium full of people from all over the world roar their heart-swelling support for a Dominican runner who sobbed on the first place podium after kissing his grandmother’s photo on the track where he’d just become the fastest man to run the 400-meter hurdles.
I watched history unfold, with the common strings of pride and sacrifice uniting the planet, and discovering another one.
And I am still amazed.
Video worth watching:
Felix Sanchez’s Olympic Gold Medal Ceremony
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, Monday, 1:31am EDT/10:31pm PDT