My high school history teacher, Mr. Drake, once expressed his disdain for when people fantasize about living in the past. I suppose any historian sees a lot of that: romanticized notions about some long-past “golden age.” When we got around to studying the court at Versailles, he told us:
“Now, you don’t actually want to live at Versailles. First of all, if you lived in France at that time, you probably would have been Bodo the peasant with no teeth. Life would have been short, and hard. But even if you lived at the court, get ready. Yes, it was very beautiful to look at. But the noblemen still pissed on the tapestries that took thousands of hours to make. If you’ve ever wondered why some of them are discolored about three feet off the ground, that’s why.
It was cold. There was no running water. There were rats. People bathed twice a year, and then they just put on perfume to cover up the stink. People wore wigs, for fashion, but also because they were malnourished and their hair fell out. You don’t see that in the movies.”
Any time a new service or technology gets introduced –say, email, Google maps, smartphones– we go through what I call the “excitement interval” where people get really excited about how much time it saves, or how much more convenient it makes things. But then the pace of life catches up, and the benefits of these things become expected, mundane. I now expect to know exactly where I am at a given time, I don’t relish the relief of not getting lost; I expect instantaneous communication, rather than appreciating the ease with which I can reach people. It’s so easy to take these things for granted and wait for the next exciting leap forward.
This morning, drinking tea in my apartment, I am enjoying conveniences that would have blown the minds of royalty from virtually all of human history. Electric light. Refrigerated food. A hot shower (probably one of the greatest pleasures known to humankind). Recorded music on demand. Teas and spices from all over the globe. Fine cosmetics that won’t poison me. A full head of hair! Access to doctors with tools other than leeches. Wireless internet! I can send a message to my fellow noblemen at the touch of a button. Reliable heat. When I want it, solitude.
I love my one-bedroom apartment. I’m sure some celebrity somewhere has got a shoe closet the size of my entire unit. But a space with these amenities is outright palatial compared to the quality of life of the past, and of much of the world today. We get fed the message that we can’t be happy with what we have; we need to live like modern media royalty, and then, one day, we can feel satisfied. But I am already surrounded by so many things that bring me health, comfort, and enjoyment. All around us is the message that it’s not enough. But even the “basics” of everyday first-world life, even the most dedicated minimalist homes, provide so much to enjoy!
On that note, I’m going to channel my inner Marie Antoinette and take a 30 minute shower before I get ready for my chariot, the #6 northbound bus, to carry me off to class.