Dear reader, at some point in your wanderings around the sun, you’ve no doubt heard some variation of these words: “Where were you when JFK was assassinated?”
Shortly after noon on November 22, 1963, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated as he rode in a motorcade through Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas, Texas. It’s a moment in time that’s become etched into our cultural consciousnesses, even for those who, like myself, were not alive to see it.
For others, the events of September 11, 2001 will constitute the second half of the question: “Where were you when…?”
As human-shaped humans, we seem to take strange comfort in these temporal touchstones – reference points that allow us to find our place within the man-made construct called time.
Man-made? Oh yes, time is a largely human concept. It’s a way of measuring our existence based on our own unique perceptions, backed up by the circadian cycle of the sun and moon. Consider the new millennium. When the clocks struck midnight on January 1, 2000 – or January 1, 2001 if you must be boringly pedantic about it – a new millennium was begun. But only to humans. On another world elsewhere in the galaxy, it may have been called “broccoli.” For all we know, on that other planet this month could be called “Murray” and be longer than a day.
What I find most interesting in this temporal tomfoolery is that out of all the profound historical events we could choose from, we tend to focus on the negatives rather than the positives.
No one ever asks, “Where were you when we put a man on the moon?” or “Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell?” Poll the average person on the street and they can probably tell you when Elvis Presley died, but not the date that Rosa Parks defied the orders of a bus driver in Montgomery, Alabama and kicked off the civil rights movement. (December 1, 1955 in case you were curious.)
Most people can tell you when the Great Depression began, but they have no idea when American women were given the right to vote. (August 18, 1920)
Now at this point my long suffering reader you may argue that knowing the exact date isn’t as important as the event itself, and on that point I agree. One of the main reasons people don’t know their history – and as a result tend to repeat the same mistakes, a la Santayana – is because our education system reduces history to just facts and dates, rather than the significance of the events. However, that’s another tale for another time.
So why then do we focus on negative events so much? It’s probably due to our emotional nature. Negative events tend to leave lasting scars – pain, anger, loss – whereas positive events, while certainly emotionally potent at the time, don’t seem to leave the same lasting impressions on our psyches.
Maybe this is an evolutionary trait. Perhaps positive feelings are transient to encourage us to seek them out more regularly. It’s possible that the effects of negative events linger to remind us to not make those same mistakes again. If our track record is any indication, we’ve failed miserably in that regard.
The future is an unknown, and there’s always the chance that we’ll finally learn from our mistakes and create a better one.
Time as they say… will tell.