It was Dr. Samuel Johnson who postulated that the knowledge that one is to be hanged in a fortnight does wonders in concentrating one’s mind.
I would argue that being trapped in a drafty old house during a blizzard in sub-zero temperatures has roughly the same effect.
Except that in the latter scenario, one’s thoughts tend to be concentrated toward precisely one objective: Not freezing to death.
You see, such a climatic event has fallen upon your humble servant’s home town of Boston, as Mother Nature has seen fit to coat the area with more than a foot of snow while simultaneously dropping the wind chill to approximately 200 below zero as the city attempts to shovel its way toward the supermarket for reinforcements.
In this opening week of January, there is nothing at all unusual about a nor’easter wreaking unholy havoc upon the Mid-Atlantic coast. Then again, there is also nothing unusual about a quiet hamlet in Oklahoma or Kansas being leveled by a twister in any old month of the year. In either case, we are nonetheless entitled to shake our fists at the heavens, wondering what we ever did to deserve such an unseemly meteorological fate.
As I sit here at my keyboard, encased in my heaviest winter coat, my fingers blue and shivery, I am put in mind of how experiencing extreme temperatures can be a means of connecting with the past, empathizing with people from epochs long ago.
Yes, I reside in an apartment with appallingly bad insulation against the elements, where the heating system technically works but is simply no match for the monstrous wind gusts that slip in from God knows where.
But then at least I have a heating system at all, which by law must be set above a certain temperature at all times (to protect tenants from their landlords).
Imagine how much worse it would be, I remind myself in a fit of desperate optimism, if I were forced to endure nature’s fury in a more, well, natural way. How very lucky I am to have been born in a century, a country and a social class in which I don’t.
At least most of the time.
Indeed, such days as this, when modern anti-winter technology is stretched to the breaking point, are as close as we First World citizens will get to conceptualizing harsh everyday life in the several millennia before we came onto the scene—as well as in foreign lands (and certain blocks and alleyways in the United States) that co-exist with us but are not so coated in luxury.
P.J. O’Rourke once made the point—counterintuitive, perhaps—that we Americans come to empathize for the poor and starving precisely because we, ourselves, are so rich and well-fed. We are so unaccustomed to the sensation of being truly hungry, O’Rourke reasoned, that in those rare moments when we even slightly approach it—say, during a fast or a juice cleanse—we can extrapolate the pain and suffering that comes with the real thing.
You might call it compassion through conjecture. You get a faint, momentary whiff of physical anguish and recoil in horror at the prospect of it becoming either pronounced or prolonged. Perhaps you cannot picture exactly what such a scenario would be like, but you know enough to surmise that you’d just as well keep it that way, thank you very much.
Like the cliché goes, to be born in America is to win the jackpot. And to live in the present is to be unfathomably grateful to have not lived in the past.
Reading early American history, for instance, we learn of young soldiers in the winter of 1776 marching from New York to Trenton in a frigid winter landscape of their own. Except unlike you and me, they are constantly on the move, lugging unwieldy armaments all along the way, rarely stopping for rest or shelter, and many of them do not even own a pair of shoes.
And these were volunteers.
So as we bitch and moan about the horrors of extreme inclement weather, let us balance out our (completely justified) distress with some historical and global perspective. As we kick off this new year—a time of reevaluating ourselves and putting our proverbial best feet forward—we would do well to realize that our worst days would count as many people’s best. That we are, in the broad scheme of things, the luckiest people on the face of the Earth.