Still an optimist
Despite a general lack of faith in the future
August 9, 2000
At midnight, December 31,1999, we stepped into year 2000. "Big
deal!" exclaimed the neighbor's brat. I thought to myself, What a
difference for my own generation. Indeed to us, children of the 1930's,
the turn of the century came as a most fabulous event. Our parents had
crossed the boundary of the 20th century some three decades earlier. But
their experience couldn't compare with ours.
Year 2000 is especially fascinating for us. We were told by to our elders
that the new millnnium would reopen the gates to the Garden of Eden. We
eagerly listened to our teachers' optimistic descriptions of the future
and devoured the anticipatory stories of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. The
shimmering colors of a bright future sparkled in our heads and the incipient
and rapidly expanding movie industry excited our dreams on the silver screen.
There was Einstein with his uncombed hair, Gandhi with his goat, Roosevelt
with his cigarette-holder, Agha Khan with his beautiful Begum, Stalin with
his pipe, Hitler with his rebel forelock, Mussolini with his bouncing tummy,
mingled with Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Mickey-Mouse, Felix-the-Cat, Shirley
Temple, Tom Mix, Greta Garbo, Boris Karloff, the three Barrymores and a
cluster of other rising stars.
In the haze of fancy we discerned the skylines of fantastic cities and
the shapes of extraordinary machines to come. The resplendent sun of year
2000, full of marvelous promises, radiantly shone over our sand castles.
Yet, there was a fly in the ointment: Would we live long enough to reach
the promised land? If we survived in good health, at the turn of the millennium
we would be in our mid-seventies, unable to take advantage of all the goodies
Our worries did not last long. Every day the papers reported about scientific
advances in longevity. Doctors offered advice about dieting. Advertisers
extolled the virtues of yoghurt and spinach. By the mid-fifties, despite
Auschwitz, Hiroshima, weapons of mass destruction, Stalin, McCarthy and
other sorry persons and events, we remained optimistic because of the numerous
and extraordinary inventions that kept coming at a rapid pace: antibiotics,
organ grafts, genetic coding, supersonic flight, space exploration, television,
communication satellites, computers, magnetoscopes ... Nothing seemed impossible.
We often kept ahead of scientists and their inventions by steeping ourselves
into modern science fiction that had replaced pre-World War II anticipatory
stories. But by the seventies, things began to change. Cassandras proliferated,
airing apocalyptic prophecies about the depletion of the ozone, the greenhouse
effect, pollution of the seas and the atmosphere and many other calamities.
Although I am in favor of reasonable exploitation of natural resources
and thorough protection of the environment, I profoundly distrust prophets
of doom. They tend to exaggerate dangers.
Many of my school fellows of the thirties have passed away and I don't
know how they would have reacted toward the so-called "Greens".
But the survivors, including myself, have remained faithful to their childhood
optimism. Indeed many of the scientific and technological promises of the
thirties have already come true. But now I wonder. Did the 20th century
ever exist? As paradoxical as it seems, the question deserves close attention.
A thorough examination shows that 19th century values and conflicts
dominated the West until World War II. Then the scientific and technological
revolution of the fifties threw us headlong in a completely different era,
an era which reassembled the third millennium as we imagined it. It is
as if the 20th century was whisked away or completely vanished. Yes,we
skipped the 20th century, like elevators in a high-rise building jumping
from the 12th floor to the 14th, over the missing 13th!
A MISSING CENTURY! Look at the feeling of disarray and confusion that
bewilder people. Look at the quest of so many individuals for spiritual
help. Millions of men and women resort to psychotherapy or seek counseling.
Many turn their back to the future and try to resuscitate a supposedly
securable past.They flock around "gurus" or religious preachers.
Look at our unlucky compatriots in Iran who are in the grips of mollas
who want to restore the Dark Ages!
Even intellectuals and academics feel the general malaise. They speak
of "civilization crises" and publish books upon books about the
causes, adding their worries to those of the environmentalists. A few scientists
go much farther. I still remember the dire prediction by Munoz Ferrada,
former director of Chile's Villa Alemana observatory. He put the "end
of the world" for May 18, 2000, at 1.30 pm, following the alignment
of all the planets of our solar system. This would produce such a powerful
electro-magnetic force that all planets would disintegrate, he predicted.
(See Le Figaro, Paris, September 23, 1963)
I, for one, prefer to stick by my own guns in order to explain our present
mood. I only would add that the "omission" of the 20th century
should not worry anybody. Indeed, in the infinite accountability of the
universe, the loss of one century is negligible. Moreover, dividing time
into decades, centuries and millenniums, is nothing but a system of reference
to help our faltering memory. The Chinese pretend to live in the year five
thousand and something; Jews see themselves in the middle of the fourth
millennium; Christians at the beginning of the third millennium; Muslims
at the first half of the fifteenth century; and according to the late Shah's
calendar it is the middle of the third millennium. So what? Why shouldn't
we start our calendars from the Big Bang when the universe was born a few
billion years ago? Time has no other meaning than what we assign to it.
The important thing is to enter the third millennium in the "nick
of time" and escape the ill fate of the main character of the science-fiction
short story titled "The Thirteenth Floor". I don't remember the
author's name. It was about a man who insisted on renting the non-existent
13th floor of a high-rise apartment building in Miami. The manager thought
that the man was a lunatic, but welcomed the extra money. Astonishingly,
every evening the renter went to his desired floor. But when the manager,
led my his curiosity, tried to find the mysterious 13th floor, he found
himself entombed between the 12th and 14th floors!
So the 20th century has come to a close. We are like migrants on the
move toward a new home. We have to sort out our belongings and shed the
things we don't need. We have to get rid of the beliefs and habits that
hinder adapting to the new knowledge brought by never-ending scientific
discoveries. Otherwise, we risk getting caught out of balance like the
manager and his 13th floor!
We, the surviving children of the 1930's, embraced the spirit of the
third millennium long ago. Most of our dreams have been realized. And we
regret neither our dreams nor our sustained optimism. We are thrilled to
see today's youngsters are already looking toward the fourth millennium!