The Paradox of our Age

It was the best of time, it was the worst of times

The essay was born as a “The Paradox of our Age.” Its true author isn't George Carlin, Jeff Dickson, or the Dalai Lama, nor is he anonymous. Credit belongs to Dr. Bob Moorehead, former pastor of Seattle's Overlake Christian Church (who retired in 1998 after 29 years in that post.)

In May 1998, Jeff Dickson posted the “Paradox of our Time” essay to his Hacks-R-Us online forum, loosing it upon the Internet. That essay has since spread far and wide and has commonly been attributed to a variety authors. The backdrop to the spreading was the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine shootings.

Below is the Internet meme version — a good example of the human need to make sense of things by grabbing onto existing ideas we find inspiring (at times missing the link to the original author), building on them as a way of creating our footprint, and sharing them as a social gesture.

The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less, we buy more, but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees but less sense, more knowledge, but less judgment, more experts, yet more problems, more medicine, but less wellness.

We drink too much, smoke too much, spend too recklessly, laugh too little, drive too fast, get too angry, stay up too late, get up too tired, read too little, watch TV too much, and pray too seldom. We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often.

We've learned how to make a living, but not a life. We've added years to life not life to years. We've been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet a new neighbor. We conquered outer space but not inner space. We've done larger things, but not better things.

We've cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul. We've conquered the atom, but not our prejudice. We write more, but learn less. We plan more, but accomplish less. We've learned to rush, but not to wait. We build more computers to hold more information, to produce more copies than ever, but we communicate less and less.

These are the times of fast foods and slow digestion, big men and small character, steep profits and shallow relationships. These are the days of two incomes but more divorce, fancier houses, but broken homes. These are days of quick trips, disposable diapers, throwaway morality, one night stands, overweight bodies, and pills that do everything from cheer, to quiet, to kill. It is a time when there is much in the showroom window and nothing in the stockroom. A time when technology can bring this letter to you, and a time when you can choose either to share this insight, or to just hit delete.

Remember, spend some time with your loved ones, because they are not going to be around forever. Remember, say a kind word to someone who looks up to you in awe, because that little person soon will grow up and leave your side. Remember, to give a warm hug to the one next to you, because that is the only treasure you can give with your heart and it doesn't cost a cent.

Remember, to say, I love you to your partner and your loved ones, but most of all mean it. A kiss and an embrace will mend hurt when it comes from deep inside of you. Remember to hold hands and cherish the moment for someday that person will not be there again. Give time to love, give time to speak, and give time to share the precious thoughts in your mind.

Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.

You can find Dr. Moorehead's version here. If we compare the two, we can see how the changes evolved his version to a meme that spread over the Internet. Where did he (and the Internet) find inspiration? Likely in the work of others who came before. Take for example the classic example of paradox in the structure of Charles Dicken's opening to A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

The backdrop of Dickens' story was the French Revolution. Even revolutions don't start in one day, and they are the product of many actors and occurrences, including chance.

Each generation stands on the shoulders of its previous one. The metaphor of “dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants” (Latin: nanos gigantum humeris insidentes) expresses the meaning of “discovering truth by building on previous discoveries.”

Its most familiar expression in English is found in a 1676 letter of Isaac Newton#:

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

In modern times, Stephen Hawkins' On the Shoulders of Giants is a curated collection of the “momentous discoveries that changed our perception of the world with this first-ever compilation of seven classic works on physics and astronomy.” It shows how each scientist built upon the work of his predecessors. Hawkins' selection of the writings is helpful guidance.

The paradox of our age is that though we are all connected, our culture is highlighting and encouraging individual credit rather than collective contribution.

We should not be afraid to recognize the contributions of others. Rather, we should learn to recognize them, so we can build on those ideas as countless writers, scientists, etc. have done to bring us to where we are. A worthy meditation as we head into the holiday season.