Two millennia ago, the Roman Empire ruled over most of Europe, Christianity had not yet come into existence, and the global population is estimated to have been in the hundreds of millions. Two millennia earlier, complex systems of trades and significant urban centers were already existence in Egypt, the Middle East, and China; by then, bronze and early iron tools had been used in various parts of the world for hundreds of years. Another tool, writing, had emerged in its earliest forms in Sumeria, predating bronze tools by 3 millennia and marking the beginning of recorded history. Another 5 millennia earlier, the cultivation of wheat and barley had begun in Mesopotamia. Twenty millennia prior to this, Europe had been populated by humans, as had North America. The first cave paintings and earliest evidence of fire and tool use are dated to 20 or 30 millennia before that. The species Homo sapiens left its birthplace of Africa at least 100 millennia earlier.
The average human lifespan is around 80 years old, a mere 8 percent of a single millennia. If I live a full life, I will have experienced less than .001 percent of human history. I am part of a far grander, far longer narrative. I am a human in the year 2014, a member of modern civilization, living 150 millennia since the birth of our species.
I am alive, descended from a common ancestor with modern Chimpanzees, a divergence that took place around 5 million years ago. The earliest primates developed at least 65 million years ago from a branch of the mammal clade, which itself came into being at least 250 million years ago. Life first walked on land 350 million years ago. The first animals, in the forms of early fish and bilaterians, first appeared 600 million years ago. Life on Earth, in the form of simple cells, has existed for the last 3.5 billion years. The Earth upon which they lived is 4.6 billion years old. The universe in which the Earth exists is 13.7 billion years old, three times the age of our planet. Through the vast breadth of history that predates me, my body has developed into the tool I use to interact with reality. I encounter the world around me through senses that have been developing for millions of year. The brain which endows me my intellect is the product of millions of years of evolution. My species relies upon its heritage for its character, a heritage it is unable to comprehend.
Astronomers predict that the universe will continue to exist in its current form and function for at least another 100 billion years. By then, our star will have been dead for tens of billions of years, along with all of the life that lived on this planet. Earth, now in the year 4.6 billion of an expected 100 billion, is a young planet, and my species, in only its 150,000 thousandth year, is a young species. I have appeared at the very beginning of existence.
As a human being, I am a species that over millennia of development has evolved an ability to recognize and to define its sense of selfhood, through a process of conscious, directed thought. I think and act because of the mechanical processes at work within my physical self, mostly but not entirely localized to my brain, because of the firings of my neural synapses. As with other animals, my behavior is largely determined by the subconscious mind and instinctual programming. Through sensory input I perceive local stimuli and, having consciously recognized it, produce a response. Is this much different than the instinctual actions of a dog, or a squirrel, or an ant? When I fall asleep, I dream. So too do dogs and cats. I recognize loved ones and grieve over their death. So too do elephants and apes. I can approach problems, recognize patterns, and produce complex solutions. So too do crows. The human experience is created in the same manner that any other animal experiences life. My understanding and experience of life is distinctly human, but it does not stand alone. As I play with my pets, I wonder if they recognize their selfhood. It is part of my selfhood to be able to ask this question, but my brain is not sufficiently evolved to know whether their brains, and their programming, allow them to develop this thing my species calls selfhood. Even if they do not, they must be aware of the world around them; they too experience being. I realize that my experience, the human experience, is only one of an array of possible ways of being. I am a human being, but I am part of a far grander, far more diverse world of life with which I share most of my DNA.
I share this world with 7 billion other individual beings of my kind. I have my own fears, hopes, dreams, ambitions, desires, worries, and anxieties. I have my own personality, my own sense of humor, and my own sexual preferences. I have my own prejudices and hatreds. So too does everyone else. There is nobody in the world exactly like me, just as I am not exactly like anyone else in the world. Yet, as a human being, I am far more similar to everyone around me than I generally acknowledge. From this recognition comes my ability to sympathize, to empathize, and to relativize. There are many flavors of human character, but ultimately we are all driven by the same motivations and urges. How could it be otherwise?
I am a white, Jewish American with European heritage living in North America. My cultural, social, ethnic, and environmental circumstances, the very essence of my identity and my selfhood, are the products of mass migrations, geographic changes, and racial interactions. I have spent my entire life in the American Northeast, but my blood has no connection to this land. My family, scattered across the Old World because of the diaspora, immigrated to America from Germany and Russia in the early 20th century. Before that, they lived in small Orthodox Jewish communities in Poland and the Ukraine, mixing and intermarrying with the local population. Before that, they lived, oppressed, in Spain. Before that, they lived in Israel. The Jewish people, my people, can trace their history and heritage back four thousand years to Israel’s earliest tribes. Yet before that identity was constructed, they were Semites living in the Middle East. Before that, they were proto-Semitic migrants from North Africa. Before that, they were early human migrants from the Great Rift Valley in Africa. My blood is an amalgam of different peoples from different places with different cultures. My blood comes from across the world.
My people have been the target of hatred and oppression for most of their history. Jews have been called sub-human, worse than vermin. Because of my heritage, I myself have been the target of hatred for parts of my life. Because of my heritage I am, for some, a source of disgust. My identity is an insult. But my identity is a construct, developed over thousands of years of migration and interbreeding and cultural development. Those who despise me shared my lineage thousands of years ago. Those who despise me were born from the same process of biological and geological development, from the same course of events which brought me onto this Earth. How can my Jewish identity be such an insult, when it is only a sliver of what composes my human identity? How can “otherness” exist, when the characteristics which separate us are only a sliver of what composes our human identity? I am a Jew, but more so, I am a human. I am despised for my differences, but my differences are ultimately insignificant. I cannot bring myself to see other cultures and people as the “other.” The “other” are still human beings, their differences only part of a far grander, far longer narrative.
I live in an upper-middle-class household in this 1st century after The American Century, in a democracy that has produced the highest per capita wealth in human history. I attend a college whose annual tuition is higher than the poverty line. I live in the most powerful country on Earth, and see the world through the lens of national exceptionalism. Unlike most of the peoples of the world, living now or before me, I have never struggled with hunger, thirst, homelessness, or need. I am distanced from the horrors of war, genocide, disease, prejudice, and oppression. I owe these circumstances to my parents, who I did not choose. I owe these circumstances to the location in which I live, which I did not choose. There are children starving in Africa because they were born to parents who they did not choose. There are civilians dying in Syria because they are living in a location that they did not choose. Millions of human beings live in poverty because of circumstances outside of their choice or control. My existence is privileged, by virtue of random lucky chance.
In such a life of comfort, an overwhelming sense of complacency arises. I do not struggle, for I was not born into circumstances in which struggle is necessary for life. Yet I recognize that I owe this to luck, and that not everyone who lives on this planet was fortuned by such luck. I live in a culture that teaches me (but not all of my peers) that good fortune makes it my moral responsibility to give to charity, to volunteer, to serve humanity. I make it my duty to do good works for those who are not fortuned by good circumstance. Elements of my cultural heritage teach me to ask, why should I live in comfort while others struggle, when I have done nothing to deserve this comfort? Yet elements of my cultural heritage teach me to ignore the plight of others, to live satisfied in the comfort I possess. There is a constant struggle between the norms of my society, from which the concept of the unimportant “other” is produced, and my own moral standards. Still, I cannot see myself as a moral human being if I accept the suffering of others without action by justifying their circumstances as simply bad luck.
Like most people living In this place on this planet in this era in this country in this socioeconomic context, when I wake up in the morning I turn off my alarm and brew a cup of coffee. The electricity used to power these tools has been used by humanity for only a little more than a century, but for me they have always existed. They are a fundamental part of my life, allowing me to live with the comfort and ease I have come to expect. I dress myself in a style of fashion that has been the norm for only a decade, a fact so ordinary that I can barely bring myself to recognize it. To get to work, I commute in my car, an invention less than a hundred years old. I work on my computer, a device only 40 years old, and access the internet, which has been around for less than 20. But, again, for me, these have always existed. I have never known life without these tools. I have no concept of an identity without interaction with technology, and it is possible that my very cognition has begun to transcend my body and inhabit my tools, but perhaps such a process has a longer history than I am inclined to see. Back home, I turn on my color television, first sold half a century ago; start my videogame console, first sold half a decade ago; play my favorite video game, sold only a year ago; while chatting with my friends through my smartphone, an invention just as young, using lingo and slang so contemporary to my generation that people born only two decades earlier can barely interpret it. In school, I study philosophical and political doctrines that have existed for mere centuries, and some even less than that but often taught as “old”. The humanistic, secular worldview I hold is a modern phenomenon. I do not need to worry about my atheism, a belief once so heretical that, a thousand years ago, it would have been cause for my execution. My way of life is a new invention; nearly everything I know and nearly everything I use has come into existence in recent history. I can choose my own spouse and have a choice in how many children I want, a privilege that has only recently become norm. I can choose what state or continent I wish to live in, an ability that has only recently been available to the average individual. I do not need to forage for food or search for shelter, having been born into a society that readily offers them. I buy food in a store, food that is planted and picked and transported by people I will never meet, in fields where I will never set foot, using a currency of exchange that I rarely handle in its physical form. I am part of modern civilization, socialized and conditioned to its norms, procedures, and elements. Yet modern civilization is fleeting; it is part of a far grander, far longer narrative.
Would Cody Knipfer have succeeded in the distant, or even recent, past? Would I have been the person I am today, holding the perspectives and values I have today, had I been born in the past? Everything I know and think is the product of modern civilization. How fluid our identities must be, if they can be entirely transformed simply by the place in time in which we live. Can we truly ever know ourselves separate from the context of place and time? Are these integral parts of our identity, of our conception of selfhood? Cody Knipfer is a 21st century human being. Had I been born in any other time, I would not have been me. I would have been shaped with different values, socialized to different norms, given a different perspective. The inherent workings of the world, categorized and described by the human constructions of science, religion, and philosophy, would have looked and operated very differently to me. Such recognition troubles me. I do not know who Cody Knipfer is as he exists in the state of nature. Do I, then, really know Cody Knipfer?
People alive today remember the names and deeds of Adolf Hitler, John F. Kennedy, or George Washington. These individuals are not too far removed in place or time to have been forgotten. Yet fewer people remember the names of William de Normandy, conqueror of England, or Pepin the Short, father of Charlemagne. Fewer still remember the names of the leaders of the Roman Republic as it approached the height of its conquests, ruling over an empire far greater than any that exists today. Only the most serious scholars will recall the names and deeds of the earliest Egyptian pharaohs or the earliest kings of Mesopotamia, who commanded great armies and were regarded as living deities. Nobody knows the names of the first tribal leaders and chieftains, who oversaw the beginnings of human civilization.
The lives of the countless generations that preceded civilization are almost complete mysteries to us. Despite their deeds, their names are lost forever to history, forgotten in the great distance in time that has since past. For even history, the narrative of human civilization is an invention of the recent past. How many countless souls I aspire to greatness; my ambition is the driving force behind my thoughts, my words, and my actions. I want my name to be in the history books, my deeds to be remembered for ages. Despite my deeds, will my name too be lost as my civilization ages? Will I too be forgotten as hundreds, and then thousands, and then hundreds of thousands of years pass? The memory of my existence is fleeting. I am part of a far grander, far longer narrative.
It is a natural desire to want to leave a legacy. It is how I feel my accomplishments and contributions are given value. It is how I feel my life is given weight. I have won numerous awards in school and accolades in my work life. I have worked hard through stress, or what I have been socialized to perceive as “stress,” to achieve these distinctions. Yet just as my mortal body will pass away, so too will my legacy. The vastness of time and space will inevitably swallow up every accomplishment humankind has ever made. Should I struggle as hard as I do to leave a legacy which will eventually be forgotten? I find myself torn between a nihilistic sense of futility and a belief – a belief owing to a cultural heritage with origins in those “ancient” philosophers– that my work, regardless of its ultimate fate, will have helped somebody. I cannot control the vastness of time. I cannot ensure the survival of my memory. I can, however, make a tangible difference in someone’s life. My identity is one which recognizes its insignificance on the macro-scale, but which recognizes its importance on the human scale.
I am Cody Knipfer, living in the United States of America on the planet Earth in the Orion Arm of the Milky Way galaxy in the Local Group of the Virgo Supercluster 13.7 billion years after the creation of the universe. I am an individual human being among 7 billion others, living among millions of other forms of life. I am the product of chance, probability, and change entirely outside of my control. My identity is developed by the factors in my environment which I do not or cannot perceive. I am a part of a far greater narrative.