Why Our Times Are Not Simple
In the year 1966, a loaf of bread would run you about 21 cents. I, for one, remember being a little shocked to discover in those days that my best friend, Julie, had lunch sandwiches on bread with chewy crusts. Mine were made with the staple: the white-white, mostly air pocketed Wonder bread. It was an early lesson for me about variety.
Nowadays, when I want to know the price of bread, my information is instantaneous, thanks to the internet, but there ends the simplicity of knowledge, and the fluid and efficient use of time as I enter the worm-hole of All That Mankind (Thinks It) Knows.
The price of bread is no longer a simple question. It depends on, well, whether I’m talking about a simple loaf of white. What about whole grain breads? Organic? Do we need to consider any environmental factors, such as transportation costs, droughts, or strikes? If I want to bake my own loaf of bread, do I add in the cost of my own time? What if I buy three loaves, freeze two, and use them later? Do I depreciate the cost? We have come to examine things ever so much more thoroughly. Sometimes I think heck with such exacting and exhausting deliberation. (For the record, the best average for a loaf of bread that I can deduce is about $1.88 these days, according to Thepeoplehistory.com.)
Rising complexity has also affected education in my lifetime. When I was in grade school in the 1960s, it was good enough for our teachers to be prepared to teach the “Three R’s” (Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmetic). No more. Good teachers have always known they had to find different ways to say the same things in order to reach every student. Where once this was intuitive, modern times have generated a complexity unimaginable in my youth. We have parsed differences among humankind that have sent the art of teaching well beyond the simple act of topic-driven knowledge-sharing. A teacher—all teachers—must be prepared to reach a broad diversity of minds. Cultural, ethnic, emotional, social, physical, and other differences make teaching daunting. You have to respect someone willing to go there. We all should thank a teacher today.
Once (at least in America), opening a tap to drink water was simple. You fill the glass, you drink. Now, one is given pause, and ought to consider the water quality. Am I drinking a bunch of toxins? Has my local government tinkered with the system? Am I lead-poisoning my child? Ask the citizens of Flint, Michigan if drinking a glass of water is simple these days.
Even time is no longer simple. My daily life consists of Monday through Friday, followed by the weekend—except that all my calendars split the weekend with Sunday on the left and Saturday on the right. This is a nuisance when noting a weekend activity on the calendar, but I’m accustomed to that. My first introduction to the concept that my Western-centric calendar was not the only one was upon arrival in Ethiopia on what I thought was Sept. 11, 1999. I didn’t know I was arriving on their New Year’s Eve. From the air, it looked like all of Addis Ababa was burning as we came in for the landing. What I was actually seeing was the ritual bonfires lit at dusk on their special day. And that’s not all. Their notion of time was linked to the equatorial sunrise and sunset, twelve hours apart. What we call 6:00 a.m. was their “zero hour”, and 6:00 p.m. was 12:00. How odd for me, for 3:00 a.m. to be what felt more like 9:00 a.m. at home.
If I wanted to, I could use any one of some 29 calendars in the world (if you include all three Hindu calendars), a notion that the dear internet has brought to my attention.
The lesson is that a) life has not become simpler with the abundance of information available at my fingertips, and that b) I am nonetheless enriched (if somewhat overwhelmed) to learn about the wider range of reality beyond my limited world. These are simple observations of an increasingly-complex world, offered without judgment or bias — although I’m still going to be careful with my drinking water.