Our pace of life forces us to reduce, simplify and condense volumes of factual information. The immense amount of data in our lives forces us to codify, categorise and define. In doing so we frequently reduce a lifetime of human achievement into a soundbite. Take Florence Nightingale. The pioneer of modern nursing. Can we really capture her life’s work in a strap line – like a slogan for a product?
A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play
A simple statement might define her ultimate legacy, but I fear we miss the humanity behind such an all-encompassing statement – much is lost, belittled, somehow diminished.
Take her nickname, “The Lady with the Lamp”. She earned this during her legendary exploits in the Crimean War – a time that consumed just two years of her 90 year lifespan.
I think we owe it to our predecessors to truly understand what a life committed to an ideal actually means. We should seek to understand the people who built our world, who pushed back the boundaries of knowledge, who explored strange new worlds, and sought out new life and new civilisations, who boldly went where no man had gone before (except for the aboriginal peoples in North America, Australasia, South America, the Indian sub-continent and the African continent of course, speaking as a European).
We forget, in our technological age, that all we have, all we are, is thanks to those who have gone before. Our forefathers knew this, right from the 12th century or before:
The 12th century theologian and author John of Salisbury wrote a treatise on logic called Metalogicon, in 1159. The gist of what he said is:
“We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.”
Nightingale’s greatest legacy came in her later work, when she was able to leverage public admiration for her Crimean work through the Nightingale Foundation. She created a training school for nurses, today part of King’s College London. She also wrote Notes on Nursing in 1859, a text widely considered a classic introduction to nursing. But even then, her remarkable work in other fields is largely unknown. Take her mathematical prowess. Nightingale was something of a mathematical wizard. It was she who popularised the use of graphics to display statistical information. She even has her own chart type, the Polar Area Diagram (a.k.a. the Nightingale Rose Diagram).
I wonder if Nightingale could have made such a major contribution had she been born in modern times? Today, our society is fleeting. Trends ebb and flow swifter than the tides. Is it harder today to make a difference? To be the person who stands out from the crowd? In a world where unconventional is the norm, are there any places where Florence could have made her mark?
I wonder if today our individual contributions are somehow deeper and narrower. Look back to the time of Leonardo Da Vinci for example. He was an artist, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, writer and interior decorator. Depending on your preferred brand of fiction, he was also keeper of biblical secrets. I don’t even have the time to read a book on each of Da Vinci’s achievements, let alone build an entire life’s work in each and every area.
But then, let’s be fair. Nightingale and Da Vinci didn’t have Netflix. I’m only half way through Breaking Bad, so I don’t have time to devote to another career. Sorry, but I’ve got to prioritise.