The Merciful Scale of Life

For some butterflies, all of life is a few summer days of nectar and copulation, a few sweet nights of frogs singing from the ditch.

Scale matters. A very brief life does not see much, and if lucky, sees only good. A flea can live like a burgher on a dog for its 90 days. A very long life—say, on a geologic scale—would witness the rise and fall of mountain ranges. What would pedestrian joys, not to mention humdrum disasters, even mean?

Humans live in the middle: longer than most other animals but aware of and hurt by how brief our turn in the quadrillions of spinnings. (We do not know how the box turtle and bowhead whale feel outliving us.) The placement of our given spans determines how things will go, along with other kinds of luck and hard work.

My dad’s life was harder than mine in most ways (to this point, anyway). Son of a sharecropper, he grew up in the Depression; joined the CCC as a teen and lived in a man camp to help support his family; fought in the Pacific Theater in WWII; and only afterward began his education and many-decade career. But he lived through the war, was not mutilated, had good health nearly to the end, and was able to make a living when that seemed more straightforward, for a man of his nationality, age, race, and experience.

My life has lain (so far) between annihilations. I was born a generation after WWII, in Vietnam, just before the war there. I began my own military service six years after the war in Vietnam, and got out 15 before 9-11 happened. By accident of birth I have lived mostly in safety, despite all that has happened and is happening in our world. (A friend and I joke with each other about there being an apocalypse in our old age, when we could be helpless, but the dread is real enough now.)

The idea that a life can fit between cataclysms turns out to be useful these days, as a reason for why our children should not just give up. The news they see is all extinctions, planetary dangers, social and political instability, and the murder of their peers in schools just like their own. It must be terrifying for them, worse than when we were taken to the school basement to rehearse for nuclear war, because there is no one threat now. What can our children believe about their futures or the meaningfulness of choices as seemingly humdrum as what their majors should be?

It is a time, more than ever in human history, for understanding particular experience, and how scale and placement can be everything. (This should be a primary argument for the arts and humanities.) It is, for now, still possible to emerge from our silk sheets each morning to find a beautiful summer day, and no way to tell when that might change.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.