The historian can set the boundaries of an era or event.
The First World War began on July 28th when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. It unofficially ended on November 11th, 1918. The Second World War began on the September 1st when the Luftwaffe made their first forays into Poland. It ended on the 30th April, 1945 when the Reichstag was captured.
When does the first leaf of autumn fall? It doesn’t. There is no falling leaf that marks the end of summer and the coming of the fall. The transition doesn’t happen in a moment, but over a succession of moments. It is a fade, rather than an abrupt shift, from season to season.
So too with the phases of our lives. After one specific moment, we do not become an old man or cease being a child. There is no individual scene which marks the change from mean to kind, from ignorant to enlightened. The change is slow. Gradual. Imperceptible, except for the person looking back over the entire timeline of existence.
Why does this matter? Why should you care about the first leaf of autumn or the lines of demarcation the historian relies upon? Because it’s a reminder that change is incremental. So incremental in fact, that we cannot sense it happening.
Everything you do today, in the next few moments, contributes to this slow march of change. But it doesn’t feel like it. To us, slow change feels like no change. So we get frustrated. Angry. We seek progress right now. We want to see tangible, graspable evidence of our improvement. We want to subvert the process.
That’s natural. The human animal is remarkable for several things. One of which is it’s insatiable ambition. It’s desire for more, better, stronger, faster, not later, but now.
But that same hunger, if not tempered, harms. That hunger can drive us forward and make us better. But it can also cause us to overlook and underestimate the things that are really important to our growth. The small things that make a big difference.