People often think I’m being silly when I express my wholehearted admiration of these things, and that always leaves me feeling rather disappointed. How can you sit passively by when your own mind is so unbelievably complex that it can’t even understand itself? When there are creatures living in the world that no human has ever seen? When we’re not even entirely sure what’s keeping us attached to the ground?
When I was studying abroad in London, I was overcome by the centuries of life and love and loss and all the little peculiarities of humanity, all piled on top of one another in this incredible jumble of streets and buildings and bridges and landmarks. Just think of it: London has existed for over a thousand years. One thousand years. The Tower of London has been a tourist attraction longer than the United States has been a country.
I attended a choral service at Westminster Abbey one afternoon, really just with the passing interest of a tourist looking for something novel to do, but afterward I was struck by the immensity of what I had done and where I had been. Every English monarch since William the Conqueror has been coronated in that very location. The current building is nearly 800 years old. Think of how many people have filtered in and out of that building, how many feet have walked on that floor, how many sacred sentiments have been expressed in that space. Whether you’re religious or not, when you’re in a place like that you can’t help but feel that the air is charged with centuries of the spiritual electricity of the faithful, of the power of the God in whom they believed—and still believe.
Not to mention, of course, the fact that wandering around the building brings you past the final resting places of Isaac Newton, William Blake, Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Darwin, and Mary Shelley, to name a few. The history there is tangible, and I could feel it coursing through my body like a sip of alcohol: warm and rather comfortable, but with a fiery edge that demands attention.
On top of that is the magnificence of the building itself. I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t frequently think of buildings as really having been built by anybody. They just are. But the grandeur of buildings like Westminster Abbey increases exponentially in light of the fact that they were built by ordinary people. People who didn’t understand that sickness was caused by germs, people who almost certainly couldn’t read, people who hadn’t even been exposed to the most basic principles of geometry—and yet those people were able to achieve this incredible, improbable, mastery of physics, this beautiful work of art.
Why could they do that? How is it possible for these people who understood next to nothing about their world to accomplish something so immense? It’s because they were human. And humans are nothing if not innovative, creative, constantly seeking out ways to make our mark on the world. The same thing that allows you or me to figure out how to use our new smart phones is what allowed these seemingly-ignorant 13th-century craftsmen to build gravity-defying cathedrals.
It’s easy, being from a relatively young country, to feel entirely separate from all that history. America tends to forget its past, because we are not surrounded by it. We don’t bear the weight of a thousand years of history. We are forward-thinking, all about the future. What happened before doesn’t matter to America. When buildings get old, we knock them down and build new ones. Yes, our dedication to the shiny and new is what makes America a cultural center of the world, but it seems to me that, in the process of constantly renewing ourselves, we forget about all of those people who lived and breathed and fell in love and ate breakfast and bought clothes in the decades, centuries, millennia before us.
Of course, it is also true that being so completely surrounded by history can make you jaded and forget the significance of that past. While in London, I spent time with both Americans and Brits, and I got to thinking about what makes us so different. I came to the conclusion that it really comes down not just to the specifics of our histories, but also to the sheer amount of it. It seems to me that America has a sense of optimism and a need to prove itself to the world that England has long since outgrown. Much of British culture is built on centuries of traditions, whereas much of American culture is built on change and new-ness.
Either way, it’s worth remembering that our cultures are built by people. It takes new locations and new experiences to remind me of that, but I am amazed each and every time I think about it. Imagine the number of people in a thousand years. The number of people who, when it really comes down to it, were essentially the same as we are now. And we are the ones paving the way for the people a thousand years from now. A thousand years from now, we will be the primitive builders of Westminster Abbeys, largely forgotten outside of history lessons, individuals lost to time, but still sharing the same link of humanity that we share with the people of our past.
I think people take their lives for granted. I don't mean that in the obnoxiously cliché "Live life to the fullest!" sense, but in the sense that we tend to forget how we got here. Everything we do stems from everyone who came before us. As an American, visiting England was like extending my US History classes even further back in time. Without England, there would be no United States, or at least not as we know it. Those people who built Westminster Abbey and who wrote the Magna Carta and who walked the streets of that amazing city called London—they are the roots of my cultural identity. And they were—are—people just like I am.
Strip us of the trappings and idiosyncrasies of our generations and we are only human. And we are amazing for that.
*This was written for a travel writing contest through my school's study abroad department.*