While on our honeymoon, my wife and I had the opportunity to visit Rothenburg ob der Tauber and received an excellent tour from the town’s tourism bureau. Our guide was a local (born and raised), and was a fantastic wealth of knowledge. Among the sites we visited was St. James’s Church.
While standing in awe of the church’s medieval design, our tour guide noted that the church’s construction started in 1311, and the final product wasn’t completed until 1484, 173 years later. The church was built in stages, with the first one spanning 1311-1322, then 1373-1436, and the final portion lasting from 1453-1471. It required the work and vision of four master-builders to see the project through to completion, and our guide remarked on what it might have been like for the first builders to start a project for their town that they knew they’d never see the completion of.
That has stuck with me since returning home. It reminds me of a Greek proverb (“Society grows great when men plant trees under whose shade they’ll never sit”), but seeing the results of this in the form of the church was deeply moving.
Our timescales are often limited in scope, and the rapid changes in technology have only accelerated our perceptions of change. I’m listening to Thomas L. Friedman’s book, “Thank You for Being Late,” and he remarked that prior to the last century it would take about 100 years for innovation to change society enough for people to feel the difference in their everyday lives. Now, that scale is measured in mere years for the developed world. I often take for granted how much things have changed over my life so far and I lose a sense of perspective in my sometime seeming doldrum existence.
I can barely imagine what it’s like starting a project like St. James’s Church knowing that not only will I not see the project’s completion, but that no one alive who will have seen it will likely have known me either. Everyone who had known me while alive would also have slipped away in the sands of time. Our tour guide mentioned that there were four builders who oversaw the project, and we only know the name of the last one. All that remains is that name and the building to persist through time.
At least in the case of buildings and churches, it’s easy to see how the final product will be used and valued by the future. I think it’s harder to have the same faith of vision (pun somewhat intended) for a project that’s less well-defined as a public good, where not only will the thing be of use to future-people, but it will outlast you, everyone who ever knew you, and likely everyone who knew your children.