The Big Picture

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Matt Geiger

When you look at a photograph, you are seeing about one 60th of a second in time. That is all. I think this alone is sufficient proof of the importance of the small moments that make up our lives. 

The oldest, extant, written language is the Kish Tablet, found in modern-day Iraq. Written in Sumerian, it is 5,500 years old. Now, if any of us stumbled across it, we might notice how old it was, or how exotic the letters looked, or ponder the work that went into chiseling them into limestone. But there is one thing none of us could do: read the story it tells. Because none of us can read ancient Sumerian.

In the south of France, in a place called Chauvet, there is an ancient cave. It contains a collection of pictures that are 32,000 years old. Human beings who lived and thought and dreamed and worried and laughed–just like you, and just like me–created them. Despite their antiquity, and in contrast with their written counterparts, these stories are universally accessible to all members of the human race. You do not need to speak or read French or Ancient Sumerian, or anything else, to understand them. All you need is to gaze upon the haunting images of cave bears, cave lions, wooly rhinos, mammoths, horses, Ibex and owls, and something is passed on to you, as if directly from the women and men who stood there 300 centuries ago and felt the overwhelming need to show others what they saw in the world. 

While mammoths and cave bears might seem exotic to us, these early people were merely creating pictures of the things they saw around them every day. In a strange way, those cave paintings are simply small, personal moments, frozen in time. Not that different than a snapshot I might take of my daughter at the local grocery store. 

I have long contended that every species has a unique adaptation, a gift from natural selection (or whatever other deity you prefer to sacrifice your goats to), that allows it to survive, and sometimes even thrive, in this hostile, beautiful world. The giraffe has its long neck. The Cheetah has its speed. The owl has those incredible eyes. 

And we humans have perhaps the most miraculous adaptation of all: stories. 

We are able to create and consume stories that pass on vital information which simply cannot ever be effectively conveyed through other means. People often lament the fact that people have trouble agreeing on hard facts, but it’s important to remember that we live in a narrative world. The physical world is merely the stage on which we play out our stories. There is a reason we celebrate “Hamlet” more than the wooden planks on which the actors who perform it walk.

And pictures tell stories. They did 32,000 years ago. They do today. 

They are one of the most universal forms of language. 

I went to a funeral, recently. In a tiny metal box at the front of the church were the physical ashes of a woman who lived an extraordinary life. It was roughly the size of a box of Cheerios. So small in the physical world. She had lived nearly a century, and she had been internationally famous. Yet there she was, reduced to literal dust. But the building was filled with some kind of ethereal residue of life, and it existed because the people there gathered to tell stories. Her son, as he finished his memories, told of the last time he made his mother a cup of coffee before she slipped away from lucidity. Famously hard to please, she took a sip of the creamy, sugary drink, looked at him, and said: “That’s perfect.” That was a tiny moment in a sprawling life. It took only a second. But it was full of meaning. If the physical, factual world is so important, why did the sense that she persisted feel so overpowering in the narrative realm, when we all knew she was now transformed into ashes? 

Our eyes are essentially tiny cameras. They take in countless snapshots of the world around us, and our brains fill in the gaps. Each image we see is a fraction of a second. Our minds fill in the rest. I recently read an academic paper about human beings who experience traumatic brain injuries and can no longer see movement. They do not lose their vision, however; only their ability to see fill in the blank spots between the frozen images. 

The lions in the Chauvet cave were painted over the course of mere minutes, as the human brains that created them transformed an infinitesimal moment in time into something that has lasted for more than 30,000 years and will, perhaps, last many more thousands. It not only kept alive something of the people who painted it; it also preserved something of the essence of those incredible, wild megafauna that roamed Europe at the time. Their “real” lives were only a few years, before they were hunted to death and eaten, or perhaps succumbed to disease, starvation or extreme cold. Their physical lives might as well only be a 60th of a second, for how very short they were in the grand scheme of things on a planet that is 4.5 billion years old. But when those little moments live on, our brains, with their incredible adaptation, their ability to give and receive stories, can create vast universes of meaning, emotion and experience. 

Each moment represents a sliver of time so small it is almost impossible to fathom. And yet the meaning of these–for the people in them and the people who see them–reaches far beyond the confines of time, far beyond mere facts, and far beyond the walls that we sometimes, mistakenly, think hold us in as we go about our daily lives. 


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