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Taking the long view (updated)

Así se expresa uno de los más grandes artistas de nuestra época: Rodin. (So says one of the greatest artists of our time: Rodin) –Mexico City’s cathedral website

Rodin, of course, died in 1917. Say what one will about the failings of the Church–and I won’t deny that it has failings–one must admit that it takes a long view. In fact, I suspect many would see that as among the Church’s primary failings. I don’t see it that way. Ever since the invention of the steam engine, technological advances have whittled away at the isolating effects of space and time. Travelling and communicating today take a fraction of the time that they did when Rodin died.

That’s a pretty amazing change, and it has had many positive secondary effects. But it has also made our modern world an impatient one. I’m always reminded of this when a friend visits from overseas and doesn’t have a mobile phone that works in the UK. Suddenly, they are not ubiquitously available. I cannot get in touch with them at every moment. In fact, their ability to receive messages is suddenly both time-bound and space-bound: they’ll receive my voicemail when they get back to their hotel; they’ll get your email the next time they stop by an internet cafe.

We’ve gotten used to the convenience of ubiquitous connectivity very quickly. Or, most of us have. My father still doesn’t have a mobile phone. That said, like most of us, he spends the grand majority of his time in a very small number of places: home, office, country club. Were there to be an emergency, we’d be able to track him down without too much trouble. But reaching most people, 24 hours a day, can be done by punching ~14 numbers into any phone in the world. Or, increasingly, by sending an email.

And so we think now is the thing that matters the most. In the process, many of us forget the past and neglect to prepare for the future. I think living in the moment is very important. But I think perspective is even more important. Perspective helps one avoid assuming that proximity (either in time or in space) indicates importance.

The long view is, of course, relative. One of my favourite things about Google is that it takes a long view. Or, at least, it takes a longer view than Wall Street does. And given the absolute idiocy evident in the stock market over the past 3 years, I think Google’s approach is thoroughly justified (even when that means my stock options are underwater).

The scale of Oxford’s long view is a bit different. I’m reading a great book right now on the architectural history of Oxford, and I (re)learned something that might surprise you: the first women entered the university in 1878, and the first women’s colleges were founded soon thereafter. But they could only attend lectures. It wasn’t until 1920 (42 years later) that they were allowed to take degrees.

The Catholic Church also takes a long view, but I’ll save my views on the Church and pre-modern notions of law for a later post. For now, it will suffice to say that I am fully confident the Church will eventually change its mind on the gays, gay marriage, clerical celibacy and a host of other social issues. It may not happen in my lifetime. Or that of my children…or their children. But it will happen. That’s a long view.

At the other end of the spectrum is me at work, where I like to say I don’t worry about anything that won’t be remembered in 10 years. That rule helps me keep perspective. Some people think I’m crazy, but I’d prefer that number was 100+. Life is short and time is long, and worrying about things in the present is a distraction from being grateful and loving and other things that actually matter in the presence. I think so, anyway.

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