Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” – On Perspective

I am in a contemplative mood today. This likely has to do with the fact that work and family life have been frenetic for months, and while the pressure is still high, today it has backed off enough to allow breathing room. The weather reflects my outlook. As I look out my office window, rain is falling on what started out as a beautiful day in the foothills of Canada’s Rocky Mountains. A few minutes ago, lightning punctuated a moment, blasting the ground no more than two miles away. The skies are overflowing; black clouds running for cover as light begins to break through in the Southwest. After brief, wrenching chaos, it will be clear and sunny again.

The motivation for writing something this afternoon is twofold. First, last night one of my daughters pointed out that exactly one year ago, she had been doing something memorable. I was sure that it had been two years, such has been the living packed into the past 12 months. I have been telling myself for some time that the waters around my personal life have stabilized. But last night when I took account I had to acknowledge that I am still in flux. A daughter and grandson moving back in with us; my wife and three youngest children living in France for six months during what will likely be for all of us a watershed family experience; our eldest son becoming engaged to and marrying a wonderful non-LDS woman (the wedding was just under two weeks ago); changing law firms for the first time in 14 years; various other personal and family milestones as well as challenges.

While this degree of change is somewhat uneasy, it is welcome.

My second reason for writing is to record some thoughts provoked by Bill Bryson and his magnificent “A Short History of Nearly Everything” (…) . A scientist for whom I have immense respect calls this arguably the best science book ever written for a popular audience. I have the picture-included version at home, but had not done the work necessary to appreciate it. As an afterthought, I tossed the book on CD into the car for a trip last weekend, and finished it while commuting to and from work this week. Information like this changes the world by disclosing it. Few experiences grip me as does this. A few hours with Bryson recalled my early days on the way out of Mormonism. Hence this note.

In amazingly few words, Bryson sets human life (on average, 650,000 hours for each of us, as he notes) in the context of the universe and earth’s histories, and the evolution of life. His pulls this off with humour, and so as to engage people like my pleasantly inattentive 16 year old son, who enjoyed a couple of hours of the book while in the car with me.

Bryson’s account is exhilarating, humbling and terrifying in more or less equal parts, at times consecutively and at other times simultaneously. It was not so much that I learned new things (which I did in spades), but that Bryson organized and held together so much of what I now realize I barely knew in a way that I could see parts in relation to wholes. To suddenly perceive a whole is often a radically different experience than any amount of looking at the parts. The bigger the whole, the more likely this is to be a dazzling experience. Think of a bin full of sheet metal, rivets and fans suddenly replaced by a jet in flight. That is what Bryson did for me with science.

I won’t try here to repeat Bryson’s trick, but will re-emphasize the feeling that overwhelmed me as I listed to this master teacher.

Life is a delicate miracle – far more miraculous than I had appreciated. The word “miracle” has been redefined for me relative to processes I thought I understood. The ordinary will never seem ordinary again, as least when I take the time to think.

At the risk of degrading the idea of miracles, we are each a miracle – every one of us, each bacterium, and everything in between.

Our species is at most a spark of inscrutable origin floating precariously within reality’s boundless, draughty expanse. Somehow, we have the unfathomable opportunity to protect and nurture that spark into what we cannot imagine, while at this point seeming far more likely to snuff ourselves out as a result of a staggering combination of collective ignorance and indifference.





Have you ever tried to build a fire outside on a wet, breezy day when you were freezing cold? Maybe you were winter camping with some Mormon Boy Scouts. Do you recall how you felt when a piece of almost dry moss you scraped from under a log started to catch? Can you feel the impulse to open your coat and completely surround the tiny flame to allow it to ignite, and then to lay in the snow and do whatever is necessary to breath life into it? This is how I felt at moments while listening to Bryson, except that my very existence danced in the balance.

Bryson’s book would not have hit me this way several years ago while my Mormon testimony still stood firm. God was, after all, in the wheelhouse. I didn’t know what was going on, but He did, and everything would be okay in the end. The scientists were groping their way through the first few steps of an infinite road that was entirely within God’s immaculately conceived and fastidiously groomed backyard. Science was an interesting sideshow, as was the entirety of our earthly existence. The main event would start when we re-entered the eternal realm on death.

This is like walking a tight rope with the unshakable belief that there is a huge, soft net three feet below. As long as you hold that belief, people who are really good at tightrope walking and offer to teach you will probably not attract your attention. In fact, you will probably believe that those who walk carelessly and fall off the rope to the applause of their similarly walking friends are cool. Once you understand that there is no net, things change. Learning how to stay on the rope becomes more interesting.

As I wrote that analogy, I was struck by the fact that I have often used similar ideas for different purposes. For example, while Mormon I perceived my life as a continual tight rope walk (sans net) toward the Celestial Kingdom, while the passage through this life was not worth worrying about for its own sake. Earth was a kind of hothouse where we sprouted before moving on to greater things.

The question, as it now appears, is not so much whether we have a tight rope to walk, but rather where it is. Add to that the realization that real tight ropes don’t come with nets.

The narrow Mormon path was fraught with danger. There were so many ways to disqualify myself for that glorious, eternal life after death. I was terrified that my children might fall off, and so attempted to control their behaviour in ways that will probably cause difficulty for me and some of them for the rest of our lives. The overwhelming importance of making it into the Celestial Kingdom caused such an intense focus on “the rules” that life’s present wonders escaped me. One of my unexpected responses to throwing away the Mormon rulebook was a sudden revelling in the present as it burst into my field of vision for the first time. I hasten to note that there are still many rules I regard as crucial, the golden rule chief among them. But we are talking kind and gentle compared to the heavy tome I used to carry with me.

These simple guidelines keep my eye on the future to an extent, but if my orientation used to be 90% future and 10% present, it is now more like 50-50 most of the time, and I try to spend part of each day 100% focused on just being. This is a wonderful change. As one of the meditation books I’ve read indicates, being in the present is an “off button for the ego”. It is an off button for many of the other ills that trouble our frenetic, Western psyche. Modern, mainstream Mormonism is a classic example of Western consumerist, pseudo-spirituality run amok.

In any event, the tight rope Bryson talks about radically differs from the Mormon balancing act toward the CK. Bryson’s is not an individual tight rope. Rather, it describes our species’ improbable trajectory from origin to here, and our long-term prospects. So long term, in fact, that our brains are not designed to deal with them. Getting out of those mental handcuffs is one of our greatest individual and collective challenges. Listening to Bryson is as good an antidote for this ill as any I know. I am making sure each of my children become familiar with this marvellous piece of work. I have to be careful about how I do this. If they know how badly I want them to read Bryson’s book, they won’t as matter of principle.

Put another way, Bryson describes the pinhole through which the elephant somehow passed, and points out narrow passages which it must also eventually navigate. Our choice is not whether to go through the tight spots, but if we will sacrifice anything now in order to avoid suffering in future generations.

Imagine that you will have to complete a marathon two years from now. If you cannot finish the course, your only child will have to carry you. If she cannot, you will both die. You hate exercise. How much will you do to train for that marathon?

While this analogy is inadequate in many ways, it does get to the heart of the issue. In the not too distant future, humanity (including its most wealthy and profligate parts) will probably need to live in a fashion that is much less destructive than ours. The more we each consume, the heavier the burden that will eventually fall upon our children’s children.

When I imagine one of my daughters trying to drag my lazy lard-ass up a mountainside, I “get it”. I am about to buy a new car. This image will influence the kind of car I buy. I have been thinking for some time about moving nearer to where I work and my family engages in most of their activities. This image will influence that decision.

I want to do what little I can. I will do some things, but no doubt far less than I could and probably should. The better the images I construct to carry Bryson around with me, the more I will probably do. We are narrative animals. Bryson is a good story teller. But even his story is too hard for most of us to grasp, let alone remember. So I visualize myself having a hard time finding the will to exercise with clear knowledge that about my skinny little daughter will have to drag me through a mountain marathon with both our lives at stake … Yup, that works.

Perhaps here we find love’s defining test. To whom, or what, does our love extend? How far does it surpass our cultural tribe? To how many future generations? To what forms of life?

As Bryson stunningly illustrates, all life comes from a single font. It is “one” is the most literal sense. This is the most blindingly true, stunning statement science has produced. It runs far deeper than the usual chit-chat about the interconnectedness of life. We have far more in common with bacteria and all other life forms than that. However, the degree of our interdependency is enough. We will kill our offspring, if not ourselves, if we continue to neglect reality.

One way to deal with the issues Bryson raises is to throw up our hands in acknowledgment of the fact that no single one of us, or even a large group of us, can conceivably have any affect on such gargantuan processes. A fly might as well attempt to rebuild the World Trade Center or bring peace to the Middle East. However, I can imagine our ancestors less than 100 years ago being justified in a similar belief with regard to man’s first footprints on the moon, or many kinds of communication in which we now engage thoughtlessly and constantly. How does a cell phone work, by the way?

This, really, is my point. So much has been accomplished by people who caught a glimpse of what needed to be done, or they wished to do. They simply started; they did what they could. Bryson brought this point home as well. “Do what is right, let the consequence follows”, as the children’s song says. Pretty simple. Hugely powerful idea.

Nothing Bryson taught me has changed my basic orientation with regard to the future versus the present. However, it has changed the way in which I will choose to enjoy the present, and the aspects of the future to which I attend.

In an odd way, the experience I had this week with Bryson’s wonderful book is a microcosm of the decamping Mormonism experience. Both’s flavour and thrust are provided by changing perspective. Culturally imposed mysteries are replaced by real mysteries. Imaginary tight ropes dissolve in some places, and imaginary nets in others. We direct our effort and attention toward things over which we have a real opportunity to exercise influence, instead of tilting with windmills. We have a much better chance of accepting what we cannot change because we can identify it, or at least some of it. We still, however, live by faith. That is what I am talking about – a better informed faith.

In this context, as we choose when to orietate ourselves toward the future and when the present, the entire experience seems more peaceful. This is consistent with what social psychologists like Daniel Gilbert (“Stumbling on Happiness”) tell us. That is, when we improve the sense of control people have over their environment, their sense of well-being dramatically improves along with their physical health. Having an idea with regard to what is controllable and what is not is a first, and very significant, step along that road.

Part of Bryson’s story is disturbing. His description of climatic catastrophes of various kinds that come and go for reasons we have yet to determine made me queasy. Then there are the catastrophes we do understand, and that visit earth regularly – comets, volcanoes (including the one bubbling beneath Yellowstone Park that is more or less due as I write), earthquakes, etc. These are terrifying, and inescapable. Regardless of what we do, any of these monsters could snuff us at any time. However, when we work out some quick probabilities with regard to any of these events happening during the next several thousand years, they are tiny. We take more risk traveling to work in a car each day. More the point, we can do nothing whatsoever about certain risks, and given what our species has done at the positive end of the scale during the last couple of centuries, it is foolish to place any limits on what we may achieve during the next few millennia. Let’s just chip away at it and allow our progeny to see what happens.

Human beings are psychologically well-equipped to deal with unavoidable risks. Unfortunately, this usually means pretending they don’t exist. We need to find a way to change that tendency, and have a recent history of being able to do so at least in some cases like CFCs and leaded gasoline.

We are much less able to deal with social rules that are constructed to control us by way of maintaining in a double bind. That is, unless we fit into the particular box that has been designated for us, no matter what we do, we are wrong and bad, and the organizations that control our lives are right and good. This is a killer. The opportunity to take that monkey off my back in exchange for facing the very occasional earth sterilizing comet, ice age or volcano feels like a fine deal – like I won some kind of lottery.

I have no idea what my life or the world will be like even 30 years from now. I hope I’m still alive and vigorous. As I approach my 50th birthday, I don’t take that for granted. I’m at peace with whatever comes.

In the meantime, I will walk more lightly and spend more time simply enjoying what is before me as I pass along – smelling the flowers without cutting them.

The sun is now shining; the streets still slightly damp. High wispy clouds float instead of scuttling through darkness. Life is wonderful. A delicate miracle.

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