Recently, while strolling through the Riverview Cemetery in Strasburg (VA) I was struck by the dates on the tombstone you see above. Noah Russell was born before the War Between the States concluded and died before World War II had ended. What changes he witnessed in his lifetime! Born when there were still a few muskets on the battlefield and lived to see Flying Fortresses dropping bombs over Europe. His dates remind me of my great-grandmother, who traveled in a covered wagon from St. Joseph, Missouri to the family homestead in Kansas, then lived to see Alan Shepard launched into space. Yet, I wonder if I have not lived through even more dramatic change than Mr. Russell or my “Mom-mom.” I also wonder if the progress we have witnessed in my lifetime has outstripped the human capacity to adapt to it.
The changes that previous generations endured were at least imaginable. You didn’t have to be an engineer to imagine a horseless carriage or a flying machine. You could imagine harnessing the power in steam or in electricity—you may have had no idea how, but these powers existed for all to see.
I never imagined the changes that I’ve seen and experienced.
When I entered high school in 1972, slide rules were on the way out and something called a “calculator” was on the way in. The top-of-the-line, scientific calculators were manufactured by Texas Instruments and cost $149.95. (You math geeks can click here for a history of TI’s calculators, their functions, dimensions, costs, etc.) I never imagined that 50 years later, one could go to almost any store and find a calculator that runs on solar power for under $10.00.
I never imagined that we would go from vinyl and tapes to CDs, then to mp3s, then to streaming music from “the cloud”; not that I could ever imagine that songs, movies, photographs, and virtually the entire knowledge of humanity—think about that because it is no exaggeration—would just be floating around on the ether, as it were, and all we’d have to do is click a button or two on our phones, which we would carry in our pockets.
I remember when a top prize on any game show was an “Amana Radar Range,” which was the first microwave oven. Now, we have air fryers because, you know, microwaves are too slow and primitive. Of course, I also remember my great-aunt Vida fixing dinner on a cast-iron stove.
I never imagined that when I required surgery to repair a heart valve that the surgeon could guide a robot’s hand into my chest cavity and make a snip there and put a ring here and sew me up in under 3 hours; and have me back on the dance floor in three weeks. In fact, it took me a full year to realize the magnitude of what Dr. Vinay Badwahr had done. That frightened me after the fact. Even 5 years before that time, the doctors would have had to perform open-heart surgery and my recovery would have taken far longer. As for 50 years before, well . . . I probably wouldn’t be writing this now. That surgery was performed on me! And I still can’t even believe that it exists.
I can at least remember when Life—that is, change—happened more slowly, and in ways that were at least imaginable. My poor children and their contemporaries, however, have lived in nothing but a chaotic swirl of change. No wonder these new adults are often anxious and depressed. They no sooner entered the world than it changed, then changed once more, then changed again. I at least remember Aunt Vida’s stove and the outhouse and the crank phone. I grew up in a relative constancy that young adults have never known. Nikita Khrushchev may have waved his fist at us all and threatened us with nuclear annihilation, but the thought of The Big Bomb was not nearly as anxiety-producing as the thought of What Can Possibly Come Next? What is the Next Thing that will totally rearrange my daily life? Evolution required us to be adaptable, but I don’t think even Mother Nature imagined the pace at which change occurs these days.