There is an old saying attributed to Bernard of Chartres that goes something like this: “We are like dwarves perched on the shoulders of giants, and thus we are able to see more and farther than the latter.” It is a simple, but brutally true sentiment, stating that each successive generation of humanity, regardless of culture or personal history, are held aloft by the countless others that came before us.
As a fantasy writer, I’ll admit that the idea of standing on the shoulders of giants, marching unerringly into an ever-changing landscape, has a certain appeal, but in some ways the reality is far more awe-inspiring.
We’re born into this world filled with rules (both unwritten and formal), social cues, and history that have literally been millennia in their formation. Given that every being is born with only one lifetime a piece, sometimes I think it’s a miracle that someone can manage to glean enough to make it in the world, and less than a surprise that we still struggle to learn the ways of the world right up until the final day we lay our heads to rest.
But more than learning what we should and should not do, the ins and outs of the lessons and rules set down by the men and women who came before us, what really astonishes me is how much they accomplished. The world has been broken down and built back up more times than anyone can count, and every day we stand in the result. Every building, every sidewalk, every coin, and a million other minutiae, are the product of centuries of progress. These are things that we see every day, but to most people the history and significance of these objects are easily overlooked. Unless something is new or noteworthy about it, a coin is just a coin, a building just a building, partially obscured from us by a veil of preconceptions and the numbness brought on by repeated exposure to a specific stimulus.
However, unlike your brain’s sense of smell, which automatically screens out old scents so new ones can be discovered, this mental veil can be cast aside, if only for a few moments. It’s not particularly hard to do, and can even be an interesting mental exercise, but in my experience it helps if you don’t peer past the veil for too long.
The world is a place filled with boundless wonder and beauty, but it is also a world that you would hesitate to step in if you didn’t start out in it in the first place. In many ways, it’s like standing in a massive footprint, and the longer you spend examining its edges, the more you wonder what manner of being made the print, and what you should do now that you find yourself trailing in its footsteps.
Sadly, you can’t live in this world constantly looking back, because even as you do, the giant whose shoulders you stand on continues to march forward. This is a truth that we must live with from the day we were born, and we become part of it the day we die. It’s a humbling thought, one that can freeze you or inspire you to greater heights, sometimes both. Personally, I suggest the second one. ;)