“A great majority of our parents grew up in what was the beginning of a changing world.”

Why would I complain about such a sentence? The grammar is fine; the word choices are workable; the punctuation is perfect. No clichés have been fractured, no bizarre mental pictures conjured. And I would argue that I, at least, did grow up in what was the beginning of a changing world.

Didn’t we all?

There’s the problem, of course. Many generations have grown up in the beginning of a changing world, although not all generations are conscious of doing so until middle age or later, when they look back and marvel. Fire, anyone? Post-wheel? The Roman Empire? The Christian Era? Mohammed? Global exploration? Renaissance? Protestant Reformation? Enlightenment? Late eighteenth century, with those two big revolutions? Industrial Revolution? Civil War? World War I? The age of the automobile? airplane? penicillin? Depression? New Deal? World War II? Post-colonial age? Atomic age? Cold War? Space Race? The ‘Sixties? The age of the computer? the cell phone? Making this list, I am struck by the fact that since at least the nineteenth century, every single generation grows up in what is the beginning of a changing world, because this old world keeps changing and lately seems to change faster and faster. So, fundamentally, the problem with this sentence is that it says nothing.

The other problem is the one that delights me, though. Perhaps it’s simply in the nature of consciousness that we believe, deep down, that the world came into being when the “I” in question came into being. I am of course intellectually aware of the past; and, thanks to literature, I have spent many hours in the past, seeing life through the eyes of characters who live in other times and other places. But to be honest, I have to admit that reading literature, studying history, and looking at old family photos hasn’t helped me conceive of real individuals living full minute-to-minute lives before the miraculous appearance of ME. And even in the present, consciousness seems to vitalize only the here. I know many adults who will admit that when they were little they thought the teacher lived in the school in a kind of state of suspended animation until the ringing of the morning bell and the arrival of young THEM. I was also always surprised when, calling home from my college dorm, I would hear my mother say that the family had gone somewhere or done something: that suspended-animation thing again.

I think that same kind of surprise visits my students when they think about the lives of people who existed before they were born. Hence:

“Music was just beginning in the Sixties.”

“In 1977, New Haven was under construction.”

And my favorite:

“I learned a lot from reading The Knight of the Burning Pestle. For example, I didn’t know people had sex back then.”

Maybe we define all time in terms of our own and assume that what we’re not conscious of having existed didn’t exist. In this sense, then, maybe we’re all like the girl one student wrote about, a girl who “saw the era of her ways.”

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

4 responses to ““A great majority of our parents grew up in what was the beginning of a changing world.”

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    Absolutely love the phrase “era of her ways.”

    I was amazed to discover, along these lines, that Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote the Little House books about pioneer days in America, died in 1954. Can you imagine what changes she saw in her lifetime? (Of course, 1954 might sound like pioneer days to some of you reading this.)

    I also love the quotes we see from time to time about how the youth of the world aren’t what they used to be, they are idle, feel entitled to things we used to have to earn, don’t respect all the old values that make for a sound civilization, etc. And then you find out the quotes are from some writers of Ancient Rome. Perhaps they, too, had lived through more eras than they could process with any sense of perspective.

  • pervert

    I don’t know about people in Medieval times but my parents NEVER had sex. Nope, nope, nope. La, la, la, la…can’t hear you.

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