A time capsule

I read an article about pandemic time capsules. It appears that in some circles it has become popular to create a time capsule with items that are symbolic of life during the pandemic. The container can be as simple a a cardboard box or as complex as a stainless steel capsule that is water tight and, probably ordered from Amazon. The contents are to be a message to your future self primarily, though some proponents suggest creating a time capsule that would be discovered and opened by others after your life. The capsule might contain direct items such as photographs, notes or letters, newspaper clippings and other items. It might also contain symbolic items such as toilet paper or a bag from a meal delivery service. People are encouraged to be creative and enjoy the process.

I suppose it is a variation on creating a scrapbook or a photo album. My version of the idea, of course, is by writing an essay every day and posting them to the internet. I also have a digital file on the cloud where I and my children and grandchildren can access all of the archives, filed by date. I have no idea whether or not anyone will want to do so, but for now it is entertaining to me.

We used the concept as a teaching tool for many years. We asked those preparing for the rite of confirmation to imagine how the experience would change their lives. Then we invited them to write a not to their future self and enclose it in an envelope. We would keep those envelopes as we met with the class and went through the various exercises of learning about the history and tradition of the church, basic biblical literacy, and skills for living in community. Then, during the week of their confirmation we would give the letters back to the students and allow them to read them and reflect on the year. The ensuing conversation was generally meaningful as we compared their initial expectations with the reality of the experience. Often we gained insights that enabled us to become better teachers.

I’m not sure that we need special time capsules to remind us of our year of pandemic isolation. Years that involve momentous change seem to be more easily remembered than others. I often find myself reflecting on years when we moved from one home to another while the years in the same home tend to blur into one another. On the other hand the growth and development of our children and grandchildren offer many experiences that help us remember specific ages and stages of their growth and development.

One of the big developments that may affect our memories is the change from film photography to digital photography. I just looked and I have over 33,000 photos and 300 videos accessible through the photo application on this computer. I didn’t collect photos as readily when I had to purchase film and pay for developing. I remember the extravagance of the summer of 1978 when we took a trip to Europe and I budgeted 72 frames of film each day for six weeks. The physical weight of the film was a significant element in my travel plans. In those days we had to have special bags to carry film onto airplanes to prevent the x-ray machines from destroying the film. These days I carry enough computing power to have all of the photos I took on that trip accessible to my cell phone. What is more, I can sort my photos by date, by location and increasingly by using facial recognition software to identify individuals in the photos. The sheer volume of photos, however, makes it less likely that any single photo will inspire or even inform future generations. I have no idea what our grandchildren will do with photos. They may have access to all of our photos, but it yet remains to be seen whether or not that access will be meaningful.

We created time capsules on several occasions during my career as a pastor. Each time the capsules were created in response to a specific anniversary of the congregation. We also served churches where time capsules had been created by previous generations. In one church there was memory of a time capsule having been created and we planned to open it on the occasion of a church anniversary, but no one could remember where the time capsule was. Some thought it was behind the cornerstone of the building, sealed in the masonry. Others thought it had been stored somewhere inside. We never did find it. Nonetheless, we made a new one with some photos, a newspaper article about the anniversary celebration, a coffee mug, a contemporary English version of the Bible, a photo directory of the congregation and other items. I guess we’ll have to wait another 50 or 75 years to see whether or not anyone will be able to find it when the time comes.

There are lots of reasons to believe that the year that has just passed is worth remembering for historical purposes. The pandemic has been judged as a once-in-a-hundred-years event. Although it is difficult to predict, and some claim that pandemics will be more frequent in the future, it certainly brought to mind the 1918 flu pandemic and made us all try to get what information about that event that we could find. It begs the question, “How do we want those who come after us to remember us?” Of course, we aren’t in complete control of how we will be remembered. Future generations will have multiple ways of accessing information, many of which we can’t yet imagine. Those living in the early years of the 20th century couldn’t imagine how we would be able to access so much information so easily.

So perhaps those who create a time capsule to remember the year that has passed are doing good archival work. I won’t be making a capsule, however. I’m pretty sure that I would never be able to find it when I decided to take a look.

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