One of the unavoidable truths about our lives is that we only get to experience a tiny fraction of human existence. We don't get to experience events before our birth, and we don't get to experience events after our death. All we get are a few years inbetween.
not born yet
Time travel aside, and miracle drugs notwithstanding, that's our lot. Our lifetime is simply an insignificant snapshot of everything that has been and ever will be, and our purpose is to make the most of our allotted span.
The two grey bits in the timeline above are very different. We may not experience the time before our birth but we can find out about what happened. The older generation can tell us all about what their lives were like, and the tales of our ancestors are passed on. The recent past is documented in film and newspapers, and the centuries before in historical documents and buildings. The ground beneath our feet reveals how continents and the environment changed, while fossils confirm who we've shared our planet with. The period before our birth is unexperienced but known, if not in full then within the realms of possibility.
The time after our death is different. We have all kinds of expectations about how society will continue after we're gone, but never get to discover if our assumptions were correct. Will it rain tomorrow, will our team win the cup, will that airport ever get built, does all the ice melt, do the aliens ever come, who knows? There comes a point at which we wink out, and the remainder of recorded time is something we're entirely excluded from. Humanity chugs along without us, our former presence an increasing irrelevance, as days and years and centuries complete. The future is a legacy we contribute to but never see.
And the earlier we die the less we know. Those who died in the 18th century know nothing of a world of vehicles powered by electricity. Those who died before June 1969 may have imagined man landing on the moon but never saw it. Those who died last month never discovered the future was Trump rather than Clinton, and all this might entail. Live until 2050 and you'll know far more than someone who only reaches 2025, but nowhere near as much as someone who reaches 2100. Nobody yet alive will see the 28th century, let alone the 23rd, unless astonishing strides are made in longevity... which of course you'll almost certainly never know.
Specifically, nobody knows how many good years humanity has left. It might be ages, if our species grows in technological understanding and spreads out across the stars. It might be quite a while, until some calamity besets us, either of our own doing or some unforeseen cosmological disaster. I like to think it'll be quite a while, because that means humanity has a decent future in which science and culture flourish, and generations of humans get to enjoy their time on the planet, and our current existence is inherently worthwhile.
But it might not be long, relatively speaking. Climate change might be as serious as some scientists say, and allowed to run out of control, destroying the ecosystems life on earth relies on. A diplomatic misunderstanding might trigger nuclear armageddon, laying waste our planet and eradicating centuries of progress overnight. An incurable virus might emerge, or intelligent robots might rise up and crush all human opposition, or a thousand and one other world-ending scenarios ably illustrated by Hollywood. Someone dying in 2016 might not be missing out on much, should the worst happen, nor will they ever know how close they came.
I was feeling brighter about the future before 2016 came along. We're basically a good bunch, humanity, I thought, working together in the common good against whatever's thrown at us. But this year there are signs that countries are becoming more inward looking, more concerned for their own than for outsiders, and if that means others lead less good lives so be it. Our immediate future needn't all be bad, but it could be, as a period of relative global stability unwinds and who knows what comes next.
What nobody wants is to waste their lives during a period of dystopia, their time on earth blighted by living through one of the bad bits. East Germany 1961-1989, for example, or the Black Death, or Syria right now. Oliver Cromwell's rule after the English Civil War was one of these miserably unlucky periods, with freedom of expression banned in favour of a tyrannical puritan regime. If you were born in 1620 you got to spend your twenties fighting and your thirties being glum, before release finally came in your twilight years. Likewise the first and second world wars aren't periods you'd ever choose to live through, but millions had no choice, and bequeathed to us the far happier age we live in now. How long's it got?
There are numerous ways our comfortable lives could deteriorate, from economic collapse to rising sea levels, from autocratic government to nuclear winter. It could happen overnight (oh, the electricity's not working), we might see it coming (ah, the President just tweeted he was angry), it could be much more gradual (have you seen how much data MI5's collecting?), or we might simply vote it in. Our society is finely balanced, indeed it's a miracle it generally works so well, whilst still allowing choice and opportunity and free will. How frightening then to watch the rise of fascism, the advance of religious intolerance and an increasing disregard for the environment, at this stage only a potential threat to our survival, but a genuine threat all the same.
We're fortunate to have lived through a golden age since World War Two - not perfect, but the best that civilisation has yet offered. This might well continue for several more decades, indeed let's hope it does, but history warns us that one day things will go wrong, and continue to go wrong for some indeterminate time thereafter. It'll be no fun to be around when that day comes, whenever that may be, nor to have to endure the years that follow. The best we can hope for is that it never happens in our lifetime, only after we've slipped away, in the future we know nothing about.