Moments in Time

Time has its moments—and the most memorable of these moments have made history, the plethora of events and trends that have shaped the world over the millennia, seem far simpler than it really is. In the opening days of the new decade, Time magazine had a new, special edition on the shelves: “The Decade that Changed the World”. It reflected on the more memorable, vivid moments of the previous decade, that cluster of ten years between 2000 and 2009.

So that was the decade that changed the world? The decade, mind you. Not just one of the many. That was the decade that left the world a different place, which had apparently never happened before.

Of course, every decade of the past century has stood out, leaving the planet a different place (though hardly an unrecognisable one). While earlier centuries—the twelfth century, the seventeenth century—invoke certain moods and images, now it is each and every decade that has its own unique ambience. The twenties, the sixties, the eighties, all invoke a few notable images.

A year, however, is a slightly less eventful period. One-tenth as eventful, strictly speaking. Only a few embody a “world-changing” mythos, thanks partly to pop historians in the mass media, infatuated with anniversaries and nostalgia. In the past fifty years, perhaps only 1968 (“the year that everything happened”) and 1989 (“the year that,” as you can probably gather, “changed the world”) have reached that apex. A few others have achieved some heightened sense of prestige, perhaps within limited circles. Even I have added to this, writing a book called 1975: Australia’s Greatest Year. It was not a stand-out year in most places, but in my homeland, it was—politically, artistically, dramatically, culturally—so full of nation-changing events to be worthy of its own volume, three decades later.

But even in a “normal” year, certain events ring out. It is the Hollywood style of history. Like any great movie, history is now recalled by its most powerful scenes. The hero triumphs. (Washington becomes President. Macarthur leads the troops to victory. Ali defeats Frazier.)  The hero dies tragically. (The assassinations of Lincoln or JFK. The death of Diana. The murder of John Lennon.) Moments of terror. (The Titanic. Hiroshima. 9/11.) Moments of beauty. (Michelangelo paints the Sistine Chapel. Mozart composes his Clarinet Concerto in A K622.) Moments of excitement. (The Roaring Twenties. Beatlemania. The fall of the Berlin Wall.)

Of course, these were simply the turning points, the moments when various quieter or more humble moments come together, leading to a climax. While 1989 might have had more thrills, many smaller events in previous years had provided equally significant times. How could the Berlin Wall have fallen without the series of forgotten moments preceding it? Moments that, a few years earlier, placed Mikhail Gorbachev in charge of the Soviet Union. Moments that inspired the citizens of East Germany to demand their freedom. Moments that gradually caused the world order to change.

In our life stories, like world history, the most significant moments are not always the loudest ones. Consider all those times that we are overcome by emotion, leaving us forever affected. In hindsight, these moments… well, they usually make no difference. Consider the time spent with close friends, the ones you assumed would be your friends for life. In how many cases have those friendships ended—not usually in a stormy or tragic fashion, but almost unnoticed, fading away quietly as you grew apart. They have not been sad farewells, but logical, organic separations.

Look back on the decisions you have made, the ones that seemed most essential. Did they make a difference? In many cases, yes; in some cases, no—however momentous they seemed at the time.

Then look back at the moments in your life that, in hindsight, were truly significant. Did you even notice them at the time? Did they seem like they would change your life?

For this writer, one such moment was the day I walked nonchalantly into a meditation class, half a lifetime ago. I wanted a positive change, but had no way of knowing that it would be perhaps the most important day of my life. It would lead me to the spiritual life. Most previous ideas of life were soon replaced. I would never experience those moments that I had expected—but never really wanted—to witness in the future. Getting married, starting a family, starting a mortgage… That’s what everyone does, right? No, not everyone. Once I walked into that class, my life took another direction. I remember enjoying this class on the day, but it was some time before I even began to understand its significance.

Indeed, while I’d like to wax lyrical about what a magical day it was—how it lifted me to the heavens and made me feel a joy that nobody had ever felt before—I’m afraid that such a reminiscence wouldn’t be sincere. As I said, I enjoyed it. I even saw it as something very special. But it was hardly the fall of the Berlin Wall.

At the time, it was simply a nice, quiet moment. One of many that changed my world.