A Quiet Reminder: We're All in This Together

SO THE CALENDAR rolls on. If the passage of time is the only certain thing, why are you surprised again to find that yet another year has turned, and with it - now for sure - another millennium.

In prospect more than a year ago, the coming of the 21st century seemed impossible to imagine. The numerals 1 and 9 at the head of every date, preprinted on checks, were as immutable as your parents were when you were a child. Yet your parents were not gods, and the number 19, it turns out, was easily left behind. And today, there goes that third zero as you begin to date your checks 2001. And at last the argument over when exactly this millennium begins is moot. The new era has begun.

A year ago you were one of the dolts with a cache of bottled water in the cellar and a stash of $20 bills in the sock drawer. With everyone else, you blamed your anxiety on a coming computer glitch, yet even at the time you knew that something else was going on. You waited for reports of power failure in Sydney, of airplanes dropping from the sky above Tokyo, or of an accidental missile launch in the Ural Mountains. Your bank was going to delete your savings account. Your car was not going to start. Your furnace would shut itself down. Maybe - Who knew? - your toilet wouldn't flush.

None of it happened, and before you had used up the bottled water or spent the cash, you forgot that the mere turning of the calendar could seem so fraught with risk.

By comparison to all of that, the coming of the new year yesterday seemed quite mundane, and it is clear that you have already become accustomed to the 21st century, even if, technically, it has only just begun.

What is the lesson here, you wonder? It has something to do with the impossibility of imagining with any accuracy the actualities that lie ahead. This has been your experience again and again, especially when it comes to fear. As Y2K showed, you are a master of conjuring coming disasters: your retirement fund gutted by a stock market crash; your beloved child paralyzed in an auto accident; your work found shallow; your job downsized. Time passes, the dangerous future becomes the manageable present, and, lo and behold, the market, having stumbled, adjusts. Your child was only late. Your work is taken as good enough. Your job holds. It is the business of the future, in other words, to be unimaginably dangerous. It is the business of the present, however it arrives, to be coped with.

Easy for you to say. But isn't the passage of time as you experience it - a source of anxiety, yet mostly benign - bound to draw you into such complacency? Isn't one definition of privilege exactly this: that anticipated fears almost always exceed actualized outcomes? The stock market indeed. All that is down is your profit margin.

What does the turning of the calendar mean to those living in places where, whether because of disease, hunger, or, say, marauding mercenary soldiers, the present is the problem, not the solution? What if your retirement account and the health of your children are the same thing? And then if your children are dying of malaria? But no. Living on the sunny side of Main Street USA, your idea of disaster is the Y2K fizzle, the largest consequence of which for you was a little extra cash.

But what if disaster means your rent went up faster than your salary, you lost your home, you have no checks to date, and now you and your two kids live on Main Street, literally?

A year ago today the earth seemed wondrously united in the afterglow of a common celebration, not a power failure but fireworks in Sydney that set off a CNN-tracked sequence of Roman candles in every time zone, including Rome's. The dividing line between the past and the future had never seemed so sharp, and for a moment that divide outweighed all the others - of class, language, nationality, geography, religion, and politics. That happy communion of a year ago faded, along with the novelty of the number 2000, but maybe now, stumbling with the digits of the year again, as human beings everywhere are doing, you can recall that so much more joins you to the human family than cuts you off.

If your privilege keeps you firmly in the globe's minority, still your fears - even including your fear of the callousness that comes with privilege - make you one with the fragile world, which, ironically, defeats the deepest fear you have. Happy New Year.

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