I once spent a glorious week in the Dordogne Valley in France, a place of pastoral splendor that is also one of the archaeological wonders of the world. As I drove into town, I passed a team of paleontologists digging in the ground, searching for the remains of our ancestors’ miraculous rise from near extinction to preeminence. Incredibly, 60,000 years ago, the total number of human beings on the planet had shrunk to less than 2,000. Half of that number traveled north across arid African savannahs and deserts into the bitter cold landscape of Europe. A small splinter group settled in the Dordogne and made one of the last stands for the human race. Against all odds, these people flourished.
Their descendant went on to create the first art we know, painting bison and deer on cave walls. They discovered the principles of farming, learned to forge steel, chisel rock, and generations later erected castles on hillsides along the river. Today, the quaint little village where I dined on wonderful French cuisine is surrounded by a patchwork quilt of farms. Adjacent to the town square is a museum of Impressionist art and a Romanesque church. The building of the villages are all made of stones, expertly fitted together, merging practicality with elegance. There is also a garden hotel, where the affluent spend their holiday, arriving in beautiful hi-tech, luxury automobiles.
Everything in Dordogne proclaims the will, love and ingenuity of our species. One cannot be in the embrace of its aura without feeling the magnificence of human spirit. The Dordogne is a monument of the climb we have made, through trial and error, as we developed the genius that would eventually decode genetics, split the atom, map the brain, and take us to the moon and back.
Our brain’s capacity to generate genius is personified throughout history, from Mozart to Beethoven, Copernicus to Einstein, Shakespeare to Picasso, Lincoln to Mandela. Their feats were not entirely or even largely individual. Their achievements are a synthesis of the contributions of other people, most of whom live ordinary lives. The story of human history is like a cathedral built stone by stone, carried and set in place by far too many hands for history to record. Instead, history represents each stone with the name of someone who stood above the crowd. In a very real sense, however, these feats belong to the whole of humanity. They belong to you and me as much as to Einstein and Shakespeare. Each of our lives carries a stone right now, representing our small contribution to the wing our generation has added to humanity’s cathedral. This spirit of legacy is captured in the lyrics of Gene Scheer: “Each generation from the plains to distant shores, with the gifts that they were given were determined to leave more.”
In these precarious times, we should honor our ancestors by focusing on the magnificence of what we are, the miracles we have achieved, and what we are capable of becoming.