Saturday, August 14, 2010

"It's a mighty little old world"

When would you say the following was written?
I know an Esquimau in Upernavik who sends to Cincinnati for his neckties, and I saw a goat-herder in Uruguay who won a prize in a Battle Creek breakfast food puzzle competition. I pay rent on a room in Cairo, Egypt, and another in Yokohama all the year around. I've got slippers waiting for me in a tea-house in Shanghai, and I don't have to tell 'em how to cook my eggs in Rio de Janeiro or Seattle. It's a mighty little old world. . . The terrestrial, globular, planetary hunk of matter, slightly flattened at the poles, and known as the Earth, is my abode. I've met a good many object-bound citizens of this country abroad. I've seen men from Chicago sit in a gondola in Venice on a moonlight night and brag about their drainage canal. I've seen a Southerner on being introduced to the King of England hand that monarch, without batting his eyes, the information that his grand-aunt on his mother's side was related by marriage to the Perkinses, of Charleston. I knew a New Yorker who was kidnapped for ransom by some Afghanistan bandits. His people sent over the money and he came back to Kabul with the agent. 'Afghanistan?' the natives said to him through an interpreter. 'Well, not so slow, do you think?' 'Oh, I don't know,' says he, and he begins to tell them about a cab driver at Sixth avenue and Broadway.
I recently discovered that many people believe globalization is something that started happening a very short time ago. Actually, a perception of a "mighty little old world" has been around prety much forever. The quote above is from a collection of stories by an American writer O. Henry published in 1906. You could find references to how tiny our planet is pretty much at any stage of the existence of humanity.

Every generation of people thinks they have invented their sense of self, their fears, anxieties, their worldview. They couldn't be more mistaken. Take, for example, this apocalyptic feeling that the world is about to end which informs so many of the things we say and do. Well, this sense of impending planetary doom has been around since times immemorial. People of the early Middle Ages were as convinced that the end is coming as we are.

The most difficult thing for any human being to accept is the realization that they might be completely insignificant, ordinary, with no special meaning to their existence. In what concerns entire generations, this fear of insignificance translates into a belief that everything we experience is radically different from anything that came before. At the same time, the idea that after we die the world will go on undisturbed by our disappearance hurts our sense of self-importance. As a result, we come up with strategies aimed at convincing ourselves that we are both more unique and more significant to the existence of the planet than any other generation.


Richard said...

Actually being insignificant and at the same time unique are not mutually exclusive. We are all unique persons each with their own fears, hopes, and dreams. Are some of these ordinary? Yes and no. Just because a dream is common to many people doesn’t mean its specifics aren’t unique to each individual who holds it. As for the world as a whole being indifferent to our passing, well so what? The dead, I suspect, are remarkably uninterested in what the living think.

Anonymous said...

"People of the early Middle Ages were as convinced that the end is coming as we are."

The difference is, this time -- at least for the human world -- there is a very good chance at least that the science-based eschatologists are correct.

Even mild global warming has a non-negligible chance of killing the oceans and causing outright human extinction.