Last week, I took a cable car ride across a large city.
It was sunset, and over the course of my 40-minute journey, the city transformed. The watercolor sky showed off its pink, orange, and gray tones as storm clouds rolled in the distance. Street lights flickered on. City residents entered and left my cable car, their polite nods assuaging my tourist guilt for intruding on their evening commutes.
The speed of the cable car as I floated over dense neighborhoods, sometimes a few yards above rooftop rain barrels, allowed me to observe the city below me in three-second increments.
Three seconds is long enough to catch a snippet of conversation here and watch a successful layup in the basketball game there. It’s long enough to see a successful “tag” as the kids laugh and run away down the street. Music emanating from different establishments blends together cacophonously. Parishioners find parking in the church lot. A jogger disappears under the tree canopy along the river.
These glimpses of real life felt like a gift to me, an anonymous viewer. The hundreds of people I observed during the course of my cable car ride unknowingly shared their lives with me, a stranger, for a few seconds. It was a privilege to observe those brief moments in other people’s lives, because in observing them, they became my moments, too.
What came before and after, though, are inaccessible to me. I can fill in the narrative of the before and after: I can imagine the rich and full lives of the people I observed and weave together a story of where they were in their journeys when they were frozen in time by my observation. I can imagine their motivations, their personalities, their families, their comings and goings. But whatever I conceive is pure imagination.
I know nothing of the people I observed. Three seconds, and nothing else. This cable car ride was a reminder of how limited our perspectives, how miniscule our knowledge, and how fleeting our experiences are.
When considering our current shared human moment, I am reminded, too, of how little I know. On my mind are civilian deaths and atrocities in Israel, Palestine, Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh, and other places unknown to me; the ongoing legacies of colonialism and genocide on every corner of this planet; the denial of worthiness and dignity to women, trans people, and impoverished laborers around the world; state-sanctioned murders of Black men; indiscriminate mass shootings; the ascendency of Christian nationalism; and our looming climate disaster. It feels too much, too overwhelming, too impossible to process, even for those of us not directly impacted by these events. No matter how many facts I absorb or how many personal stories I read, I cannot know the full context and I will never see the full picture. All I have is a three second vignette.
Whether you believe in a chaotic universe held together by chance or a grand unifying metanarrative of humanity, we are only capable of knowing a tiny fraction of the whole story. We are offered glimpses of the lives of others every day: news reports about a litany of violent conflicts; passing glances with strangers in traffic; cryptic posts by acquaintances on social media; and many others. We can attempt to fill in the before and after, but whatever we conceive is pure imagination.
Our infinitesimal smallness in a wide and infinitely complex world is cause for humility but not despair. Humility, for many of us, is a tangled, sticky word that can evoke humiliation. Instead, I understand humility as being quick to listen and slow to render an opinion, viewing each person I encounter as a source of knowledge and wisdom, and accepting that I can only see three seconds at a time.
In the epilogue of War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy writes of the tension between the “law of necessity” (or law of inevitability in some translations) and freedom. Humanity is caught up in the sweep of history, and despite humankind’s perception of individual agency, the law of inevitability controls all: a person, even when they act “alone, always bears within himself a certain series of considerations which guided, as it seems to him, his past activity, serve him as a justification for his present activity, and guide him in his suppositions about his future acts” (Epilogue, Part 2, Chapter 7). Our choices are informed by previous actions, external influences, and assumptions about our futures. Our choices do not belong to us.
Yet despite this, the human experience is one of freedom: “Once there is no freedom, there is no man. And therefore to imagine the action of a man that is subject only to the law of necessity, without the slightest remainder of freedom, is as impossible as to imagine a totally free action” (Epilogue, Part 2, Chapter 10). Necessity and freedom. One cannot exist without the other.
We did not choose this moment, because, as Tolstoy would say, the law of inevitability dictated it would come to this. We do not fully know what came before; we cannot know what comes after. But in our limited freedom, we get to decide what we do with our three seconds. The options before us are many: despair, humility, courage, compassion.
History will continue to unspool. The inevitable will happen. Your three seconds will come and go. What will you do with them?