I do not idealize the past. If there were a button which existed to allow people to magically transport themselves to any past epoch with wholly different cultures, languages, and families. I’d hope it would be destroyed and banned immediately. There are many, many things which I wish were different about living in today’s world, but short wishing exponentially better treatment for the mentally imbalanced and learning disabled, I doubt there’s a single wish for my life which is not a wish of an extremely privileged, entitled person. Even if I’m Jewish, short, balding, overweight, in bad health for my age, learning-disabled, and all too often morbidly depressed, I’m a thirty-one year old ‘white’ male at the beginning of 21st century America. Statistically speaking, there is not a single epoch in a single country yet known in which a person of my characteristics had a better chance for a quality life. My paternal grandfather’s life had most of the drawbacks which I have, but he was born in Northeastern Poland, five years before World War I’s outbreak. By the time he was a teenager, he’d already survived two wars which claimed millions and millions of lives. In his twenties, he would have to survive in a worldwide economic depression and a Stalinist puppet government capable of punishing even the slightest infractions with imprisonment, torture, and death. At my age, he knew that the greatest ordeal of all was rapidly approaching.
The chances that he would live on to prosper in America are as infinitesimally small as the chances that my life will be a failure for its duration. Even now, as a thirty-one year old underachieving ne’er-do-well in a hyper-achieving community, the odds that I’ll wake up tomorrow and that my potential will suddenly flourish for its remainder and that the anguish of my younger years will never be seen again are exponentially better than at (very) least 95% of the earth’s population will ever realize its potential for living a quality life for even a day. When you look at the statistics, it becomes so bleak that it’s kind of funny. No one should envy the circumstances of any life encumbered by major depression, but oh my god how much worse could it be? Is there even a percentage point of a percentage point of the earth’s population who could ever have the opportunity to squander, let alone utilize, as many opportunities as I’ve yet had?
80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day - I can barely get through a day without spending at least $50. I might have my problems, but I have high-speed internet access in order to unwisely broadcast them; meanwhile, 1.6 billion people don’t even have electricity, and 22,000 children die of poverty every day. We don’t hear about their suffering because they live so far removed from any kind of privilege that there is no way to properly chronicle their existence as anything but a statistic.
In the meantime, I’m almost chronically sick, no doubt in large part from the fact that I can’t stop eating, and I complain incessantly about my various ailments on this blog. These complaints may get more frequent - how long will larger ailments like diabetes and heart disease patiently wait for me to stop getting hungry? I complain about chronic colds, yet 2.6 billion people don’t have any sanitation to prevent the spread of unnecessary infection. I complain about dehydration, yet 1.1 billion people don’t have adequate access to drinking water. I complain about various learning difficulties I’ve had over the years, yet the world still contains a billion illiterate people. I complain about pain all up and down my spine which I no doubt generated for myself by being overweight, yet the growth of 27-28% of the world's children is stunted from malnutrition. And yes, I recently complained about a rather extreme surfeit of diarrhea (the brown thunder) on this blog, which is in especially bad taste considering that 1.8 million children die every year from diarrhea (reading that last figure froze my blood). No doubt, it’s better to be a well-off person in 2013, but for the vast majority of the world, it doesn’t make much difference to what era they’re born into - it’s all shitty. And the way we know that is that the gap between rich and poor is larger now than in any era when history could be reliably recorded. In 1820, the gap in means between rich and poor was 3 to 1; in 1992, it was 72 to 1. How much larger must that gap be now? Even in our era of recession, it is still the great ever era in human history to be a person of means. But it’s no more or less terrible to be a person without means than it ever was.
There are times when, like all nerds of the earth, I might wish myself born into an epoch - past or future, here or there - which might better value my particular qualities. But to fantasize about being born in a different epoch would presuppose that I’d be a person of means, which is a ridiculous conceit. It might be fantastic to live in fin-de-siecle Vienna, but only if your father was a bourgeois gentleman who allowed you a stipend to live off, and only if you could easily escape from mainland Europe in time for the World Wars. It might be wonderful to live in mid-century Greenwich Village, but only if you were white, had a university education, and survived The Great Depression, or WWII, or Korea, and weren’t blacklisted by HUAC. People of later generations than ours might fantasize about living in Silicon Valley, but that presupposes that they’d be gifted with millenial computers, possess the proper connections in the tech world, and can find a niche skill which a better-educated Chinese or Indian worker couldn’t develop for a fraction of the salary.