The furniture had been moved to the space in front of the TV, so there was an open space of green tiles between the desk and the table. I sat facing the TV. To my left was one of the uncomfortable couches, on which sat a pile of my books along with my acoustic guitar. Mikhail sat next to it. It was a Saturday afternoon. The usual noise made its way up through our windows, but the business of the morning market and the Buddhist melody had stopped. The usual Zen chant played next door.
“If you could choose to be born at any time in history, what would it be?” I thought carefully—I wanted to come up with the right answer. Since my historical knowledge is essentially comprised of romanticized images associated with each era before 1900, I had to force myself to be realistic at least for the sake of this question. I recall an acquaintance asking me on a car trip in New England a few years ago:
“If you had to be an ethnicity other than white, what would it be?” I had thought carefully. I remember riding in the back of the car, with the pine trees and dirt road visible as I gave my answer:
“I’d be Persian” I had said. Sure, that’s kind of cheating, but then the term ‘ethnicity’ has the advantage of being elastic enough to suit its user’s purpose. “My next choice would be Japanese.” If asked the same questions now, I think I’d give the same answers.
But this question didn’t ask what or who I would be. It asked when, and forced me to consider the daily realities of living in a time when I couldn’t find a job on the internet and get twenty-first century medical care.
“Imagine living through the changes and the struggles that occurred before you were born” he said. This threw me off.
“Wait—so do you mean I’d be born in the same place? But as an American that only gives me about four centuries to choose from. Also, many of my ancestors didn’t arrive to North America until the late-nineteenth century, and they’re not from a single country.”
“Yeah alright fine, choose any place and any time.”
“Hmmmmmmm” I emoted audibly.
“My answer is: right after the second world war. It’s the most prosperity that humankind has ever experienced.” I continued to consider the Middle Ages, Roman times, ancient Greece, the Stone Age…but despite the residual hold that teen angst claims over my psyche, the comforts of contemporary society are pretty good once you get out of high school. Would I really have preferred to live in any other time than now?
“Nineteen twenties” I answered.
“Really?” Mikhail said, surprised.
“Yes, I would choose to be born sometime in the twenties.”
“But you would have to grow up during the depression. You would probably have to serve in the second world war, possibly die. You would witness poverty and death on a massive scale”
“But I might also grow from those experiences in a different way. I wouldn’t grow so old to live through the present decline in Western culture. I would end up dying in a time when the illusion of unending social and technological progress could still believably be sold to me. I would be fit to overcome problems that people today aren’t.”
“But you might also be too old to enjoy the spoils of victory. You’d already be close to middle age by the sixties—also a tumultuous time. If you’d been born right after the war, then you’d be young enough to really enjoy it, and still probably be able to enjoy twenty-first century mass communication, easy travel.”
“If I were young enough to travel before the war, then I could see East Asia, South Asia, Africa, South America, before cities worldwide started to look the same. I could be there not only before democratization and Americanization, but before all this infrastructure and homogenization. If you’re a boomer, chances are you were already born too late to see these places before America stuck its tendrils in” I said.
“But you could still travel, you could still see places that would be different enough. Plus better access to modern medicine would be a big factor. Modernization hadn’t spread to such a degree that you couldn’t see cultures untouched by the West.”
“Sure. I guess I’m thinking mostly in American terms. Assuming I’m living in the US; not Europe, not Asia, not India, not South America, I’d want to experience the twenties as a child, not having to be very young during the depression. Then presumably the depression would affect my development as I become old enough to think for myself. Also the culture itself was poisoned to a lesser degree than it is now; sure maybe I’d end up being a smoker and I wouldn’t be socially immunized from all bad habits. But the boomers were already able to detach and fall into a world of primitive mass-entertainment. I would want to enter middle age with the Latin mass, without the sexual revolution, with the standards of previous centuries still present in my mind. The difference between our generation and the boomers is basically limited to our smartphone addictions and video games. The difference between the greatest generation and their offspring is the difference between modern tradition and nihilism.
“Well, easy for you to say—you didn’t have to live through it. How do you know you would have made it through the depression era as cheerfully as you think? Your only experience of it comes from books, documentaries, and stories from people who might be concealing the pain they went through. As for the collapse of standards, being born right after the war would mean you’d already be an adult by the time those things happened. Vatican II was 1965, the revolution in France was in ’68. As for nihilism, you don’t think it was already well underway by the nineteen-twenties? You have to go a long way back in time before modern thinking is no longer visible. And then you’d be living in conditions that are so much worse than now, that you’d probably just die in infancy anyway.
“Fundamentally I’d prefer to choose a time that would produce a better version of me. But if I’m taking seriously the risk of infant mortality, injury, and war, then I’ll choose a time close enough to now that I’d minimize those risks. So that’s why I’d prefer the early twentieth century. Perhaps even in the nineteen-teens, but then I’d already be around thirty by the end of the war. I’d prefer to be younger during that time.”
“Then drafted, then fighting a war you already know has inadvertently led to consequences you dislike.”
“Of course, America got drunk on its victory in a way. The generation into which you’d like to be born was the most selfish yet—though of course I don’t think ours is any better.
“Then you’d be content to be among the generation that produced the most selfish generation? Is that better than being the one who benefits from America’s wealth?”
“Alright, let’s suppose I’m born in the twenties, have kids shortly after the war, and they end up like our stereotyped version of a baby-boomer. Am I to blame for the social rot which produced the subsequent media-intoxicated generations? The social alienation that is now working its evil on people across the US who are dying earlier, obese, many of them sitting in front of the TV on opiates all day—there’s no saying I couldn’t at least do my part to limit this problem, this White Death as apparently it’s called.”
“But then you’re still just as responsible for your country’s problems as I would be. Your criterion for choosing a time to live is still fundamentally hedonistic. Mine definitely is, which is why I’d be a baby-boomer. I could end up being the most adventurous, wise, athletic, industrious baby-boomer there was, and I’d enjoy all the benefits of the wealthiest era in history.”
“That you know of.”
“Sure. That I know of.”
“But since I wouldn’t get to choose whether I’d get drafted in the war, or worse, then you don’t get to decide your character traits. If the era shapes who you are, then
“Then I guess there’s too much left to chance to really bother with it any further than that.”
“Then I guess the next question is, supposing you have to sit on the sidelines for the next sixty or seventy years and let the world go as it is without participating, what do you think will happen? Let’s say you can’t act at all. You’re forced to watch, as if behind a glass window through which no one can hear you. Predict what will happen by the end of your life.”
Mikhail smirked and sat back on the couch. The Zen music had stopped.