Monday, August 24, 2009

The Search for Meaning

We are all always doing it, consciously or not: searching for meaning. It often involves going back to look at what god is, what religion is, what faith is. And when we do, all are found wanting. No god who is specific to a single group of people should, these days, with all our knowledge of anthropology, psychology, and comparative religions, get our fidelity, much less our support or money (or, sadly, the delusional fealty of puerile U.S. Presidents; about which an August 15, 2009 piece, “A French Revelation, or The Burning Bush” by James A. Haught informs us—to wit, that George W. Bush, in trying to sell the invasion of Iraq to President Chirac of France in 2003, appealed to Holy Writ as justification: “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East…. The biblical prophecies are being fulfilled…. This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins.”) No. It is simply preposterous to think that every people known has had a god exclusive to them, who looks out only for them—their "one" always being the “right and most powerful and only one,” of course. Thus, the conclusion: no personal god. God, as seen historically, is a figment of group imagination, perhaps a necessity for group coherence, for group pride, for personal anxiety reduction and some nice art, but hardly more. Evolution, if looked at strictly, teaches us not only that there is no heavenly destination for the “faithful,” but more crucially that there is no meaning, no progress or eschatological goal towards which life/evolution tends. In fact, if looked at coldly, the emergence on this planet of humans—the alleged apotheosis of evolution, the crown of God’s creation— has led to more problems than that of any other species. We humans are destroying not only life but the planet as well, in which sense we seem more like a devolution, and a diabolical one at that. All other animals, or many, at least, are symbiotic, like bees and flowering plants. Bees are indispensable to the flower’s pollination; the flower’s pollen is indispensable to the bee’s honey. And we seem to be ravaging that bee-flower symbiosis too (as in bee-colony collapse). The deflating truth is, we humans seem not to be indispensable to anything. We have no symbiotic relationship with any other life form (with the possible exception of fruit, whose seeds we are supposed to scatter in our stool—though even there, we modern humans, with flush toilets, prevent ourselves from scattering seed, and scatter mostly toxic waste instead). In short, we humans are primarily, if not exclusively takers of the natural wealth created by others. Destroyers.

Which seems a pretty grim conclusion; and it is. But perhaps, like most things, it contains its own obverse. If looked at carefully, that is, this human penchant to destroy can be seen to derive from being unaware; oblivious to what we are doing. So if there is anything about humans that we might label potentially meaningful, it would have to be not our “knowledge” in the academic sense (the unconscious realization of which is probably the cause of so many returning to today’s fundamentalisms—which are rather futile attempts to find in rigid tradition something, some raison d’etre which science has not only been unable to provide, but which it appears instead to demolish), but rather our awareness. To be aware means many things. But surely one is to see that every breath, every pulse of our blood is constituted of billions of years of evolution, of the lives and deaths of countless creatures (which is one reason why some knowledge, i.e. learning about the lives of all creatures, via biology, is instructive and perhaps salvational), and before that, of the formation of countless stars and planets and galaxies and black holes where every element used in our miraculous assemblage—carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, iron, etc.—must be created. To be aware means to see that everything before me has cooperated to bring me to this very point, here and now, to enable me to breathe, to enable my neurons to fire, my eyes to see, my hair to grow, my limbs and muscles and cells to function as they do. Consider just one or two facts from Natalie Angier’s recent book The Canon:

"In the average human cell, some 2,000 new proteins are created every second, for a daily per-cell total of almost 173 million neonate [i.e. newly-born] proteins. Multiply that figure by the roughly 74 trillion cells in the human body, and you get a corpuswide quota of…1.29 x 10 to the 21st power..proteins manufactured each day." (p. 203)

That’s 10 with 21 zeroes! Now this is just staggering. And it is just one hidden, awe-inspiring element of every body’s activity that goes on each second of each day of each year for its threescore and ten years, and more. The other pole of this immense activity that goes on inside each of us, all without our conscious aid, is the cleanup end: cells also destroy billions of proteins each second, by means of enzymes devoted to nothing but this crucial task; for the way the cell works is that it wants tons of proteins ready for any job that might come up, but doesn’t want them hanging around clogging things up; so its motto becomes, “synthesize the proteins constantly, but make them unstable.”

What this means—especially when we see that all cells in all life forms are constructed on the same essential plan—is, again, that all of evolution, all the creatures before me, have brought the planet and its creatures, its basic plan for life, to the stage that has produced me, that has allowed me to exist, to breathe, to walk, to sleep, to grasp, to think, most of which is no individual achievement of mine. And every other thing in my world—rocks, plants, water, leaves, trees, grass—is similarly the product of countless eons and adaptations, and so deserving not only of my respect, as kin, but of my gratitude, as progenitors.

Which is what we are left with in the end if we are truly aware: gratitude for this very moment, and all that it contains (simply contemplating the fact that what will transpire in this moment, and the next, is utterly unknowable, is the edge of a monumentally incomprehensible Niagara of happenings and changings that is literally creating the world anew as it creates me, is dizzying), and the very fact that I can at this moment even contemplate it, appreciate it, be grateful for it. This is, I gather, what love is. Love in its most exalted sense. Simple gratitude for being. For the fact of my being. For the fact of my being able to be. And it can be contemplated and appreciated in any one of a billion ways, on any one of a billion levels—my breathing, the air I breathe which has been exhaled by green plants; the bacteria which have made and make the soil and all else of importance including my very cells; the rocks which have been composed over eons of flowing lava and compressed into their individual shapes and pounded into sand and soil and, ultimately, me; the fish and clams and salmon and birds and whales and raccoons and crows and swallows and spiders and fungi and the whole panoply of creation. All of which, each element of which has an indispensable function in making us, as humans, possible. Most of us, most of the time, necessarily ignore all this. Are completely unaware of how much has been done and suffered by so many for so long so that we can breathe, eat, walk, leap, laugh, talk, think. But in a real sense this awareness is what we are for. We are that which can become aware of all this, appreciate it, consciously foster it—though we can do almost nothing to create it in the sense that a bee makes honey or a plant makes oxygen or worms make soil or bacteria make just about everything. Indeed, with respect to these great workers, we are the useless organism. The functionless organism. And for that we should be far less cavalier, and far more grateful that we have even been allowed to be.

“God,”in this sense, is simply a shortcut, or shorthand, (or perhaps short-circuit) for expressing all this. And it may be a greater disservice to the truth and vastness of it all than was the old polytheistic view of those whom we call, in our arrogance and ignorance, primitives or pagans. Because at least their spiritual systems were attempts to comprehend and appreciate the multiplicity and interdependence of it all. Our “one god” concept induces us to forget, makes it too easy to simply say, ‘It’s up to Big Daddy in the sky, he who loves and fosters me above all others and in a pinch will massacre all others on my behalf, so I can forget all else, forget my responsibility for it and to it.’ No. Because that’s precisely the problem—forgetting it, taking it all for granted. And that was something the old native tribes, the tribal peoples, at least tried not to do. They had ways of expressing their debt to it all, as for instance, when they would express gratitude, propitiation and guilt for taking the lives of animals like bison, or fish like salmon, to whom they expressed their gratitude, their awareness of their dependence upon, by figuring them as their gods. We, in our arrogance and ignorance, simply package all our consumables (ugly word) in plastic, and seldom if ever take the time to feel that it is an animal or a fish or a fruit we are consuming; seizing energy, our very lives, from. We expend, in fact, endless energy to remain unaware of what it is we are doing when we eat. The same with all else that we plunder and consume and kill: we don’t want to know. Thus, knowing, not in the sense of grasping so as to collect and exploit more of that which we ‘know,’ but in the sense of awareness, of cultivating respect for the inexpressible depth of that which we are using and benefiting from—this may be what we are for. This may be the one sense in which a notion of meaning or progress can be considered. And it is not at all clear if it is enough. Not with all the waste we have already piled up, with all the planetary mayhem we have already caused and continue to cause and plan to cause. Not, that is, unless something like awareness can eventually touch enough of us, in sufficient numbers, to exhale a very large, collective “enough;” we can do this no longer. It is too cruel, too unconscious, too dismissive of all that is, of all we are.

That might, if we are lucky, mean something.

Lawrence DiStasi

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