Our sensory perception is of things in the present, and that perception is often of just the immediate surface layer. Walking down the sidewalk seems ordinary, as does the concrete beneath our feet, but nothing is ordinary. Behind every thing there is an immensely long story stretching back in time well beyond our ability to ascertain. History is real even if we can’t know what exactly it was. All and everything has a deep story; my shoes, for instance.
My shoes are what were once called sneakers but nowadays fall under the category of “athletic shoe.” They are comprised of varying components: the sole, the body of the shoe and the laces. All these parts have deep stories in themselves; the chemical discoveries that provided the formula for the various parts and the mechanical inventions that allowed them to be assembled. Deeper still are the stories of the people who participated in these discoveries, the events of their lives and the lives of their ancestors. Each layer reveals how it is we arrived at a finished shoe, which through its presence alone provides sufficient evidence of its own history.
The concrete beneath my feet has a deep story, too; not simply the story of the creation of concrete and the concrete delivery truck from which it flowed, but the history of the driver of the truck, the technology of the truck itself, the development of the internal combustion engine and the oil and gas industry. This just skims the surface of the multi-layered, complex history carried within all things, things we mostly take for granted or rarely contemplate.
I’m typing this short essay on a wireless keyboard that syncs with the screen of my iPad. The keyboard is made of metal and plastic parts assembled, most likely, in China. It displays characters of the English alphabet. Somewhere within its hidden history is the identity of the Chinese worker who touched or perhaps tested my keyboard, and the entire history of his or her family across the centuries in China. And the history of the alphabet, plastic, and metallurgy are buried in there, too.
All of history culminates at this moment, the consummation of endless complexity converging at a subjective point in time we call “now.” “Nowness” has been characterized as the reflective “Jeweled Net of Indra” or “Interdependent Chain of Causality.” Were we omniscient, each moment would flood our consciousness in an overwhelming tidal wave of historical information, hyperlink upon hyperlink; instead, we choose bits and pieces from this wave of information to impart meaning and value.
Documenting the provenance of an antique piece of Tiffany jewelry, for example, increases its trade value, yet the sentimental attachment I feel for the 1952 Hamilton watch my grandfather wore adds nothing to its trade value. That at twelve he travelled across the Atlantic Ocean in the steerage level of a steamer with his eight-year-old sister in tow in order to escape rising antisemitism in Europe is true history, but of little to no interest to anyone else save the members of my family.
It’s worthwhile to recognize our deep ignorance, that the fullness of history is mostly hidden from us; better yet is to appreciate the fathomless forces and events leading up to the manifestation of this moment. “Nothing,” it is said, “comes from nothing,” and thus it is that all things carry within them the whole story of everything.