Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Accidental Universe, Accidental Us

The explosion of that small meteor over Russia—injuring over a thousand people and terrifying many more thousands—when added to the close encounter with yet another planetary rock, this one an asteroid that barely (by a mere 17,000 miles) missed another earth hit that would’ve caused even more damage, left me pondering our place in the vast shooting gallery we call the Universe. It is not so much that we have to fear another cosmic collision like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. It is that these two encounters remind us just how accidental, how truly unpredictable everything about our existence appears to be. We are mere blips on the screen of cosmic time. Less than blips. We appear, “strut and fret our hour upon the stage,” as Macbeth put it, and then are heard no more. We try to attach some sort of significance to our every “decisive” move, but the truth seems to be that we are not even in charge of the tiniest aspects of our lives, much less the largest, and that even if we were, what even potentates do is so paltry in the grand scheme of things that it might as well have never happened.
            There was a zen master named Huang Po who one day, in answer to some questions from his audience, assured his students that if he told them the truth about their real condition, they could not stand up to it. Then he summed things up this way: “There is nothing on which to rely. That is what you have to realize. There is nothing at all on which to rely.” What he meant by that was what the meteors remind us: some flying piece of rock could strike the earth, for no reason whatsoever (though no doubt our religious leaders would try to link it to some deep sin of ours), and if it happened to hit in the right place—New York city, say, or Moscow or Beijing or New Delhi—it would wipe out half of our species and all its works. To ward off our terror of such things, we imagine we can rely on our government, or on our military, or on our scientists watching out for such things. But the truth is that there is nothing they or anyone else could do in such an event. We have no cosmic ray guns, no Super beings from the planet Krypton, who could divert the thing. Nothing on which to rely. And this works in those small everyday accidents that continually afflict us as well. Nothing lasts, nothing is secure even for a moment, especially us. In fact, modern physics tells us there isn’t a real, core “us” to begin with.
            And of course, the situation is even worse than that. It now appears that the very ingenious devices we humans have been busy erecting and inventing over the past few thousand years—safe food supplies, military and scientific weapons, fossil fuels to power our heat, our conveyances, our mastery over space and time, pesticides and herbicides to increase our crop yields—have been leading us down the garden path to disaster. We thought such manifestations of human genius were helping us, making us more secure. We thought they were leading more of us to healthier, happier lives—about which our cheerleaders take every opportunity to remind us. Instead, they have been leading us down a fool’s path, their very sources of power being the engine on which we are undermining the stability of the planet we’ve lived on for millions of years. The planet is warming chiefly due to our pollution. The oceans are dying chiefly due to our pollution. The very seeds of the plants we’ve relied on for a stable food supply are being distorted and chemicalized chiefly due to our tampering to make them “secure” from blight and disease and weeds and change. So everything we have done—thinking that this is our grand purpose in life, to save ourselves and other human beings and make all lives better—has been a mirage. Worse than a mirage. Not only has it not been a useful purpose, a salvational purpose, it has been, in the long run, a suicidal one. By trying to make ourselves last, we’re killing not only ourselves, but possibly all the life on the planet.
            So what we are compelled to say is that if so-called “gods” have our interest at heart, it is an interest that leads us to extinction—which, in that curious way things have of feeding back on themselves—might well be the best thing for the rest of creation and the planet itself.
            On the other hand, the cosmic events that we know about, or think we know about, make this idea of purpose a very dubious proposition. We are accidental creatures, seemingly without purpose. We, the human species, cannot be viewed any longer as some divinely-ordained (or cosmically-blessed) system of life that some wiser entity has directed all existence towards. I mean, why would any rational or benign or compassionate entity create a system, evolution, whose highest branch is occupied by a species like ours? A species that threatens, is in fact well on the way to destroying the whole system out of which it arose. The only logical way to look at this (and evolutionary theory sees it precisely this way) is as accident. Everything we are, everything we do is accidental, and can only be understood probabilistically. We have almost no say in who we are or how we have developed or what we choose to focus on or fight for. We are born with certain proclivities, like self-protection and reproduction, geared to certain environments over which we have no control. We are what we are born with added to where we happen to have been dropped and by whom. And we are swept along by the historic and economic and social and cosmic forces that pertain during our puny lifetimes. To think that we can help anyone or save anyone, much less ourselves, much less the planet, is based on sheer ignorance of the facts.
            That is, if we insist, as most humans do, of thinking of ourselves as self-directed, self-contained, human individuals responsible only to and for ourselves. On the other hand, if we could change our perspective only slightly; if we could come to understand that it is not the survival of our little selves that is the issue, but the survival of the whole grand scheme that includes life and non-life, every animal, vegetable, mineral, planet, sun, galaxy and all it relies upon, then perhaps something can be salvaged. Not saved. Salvaged. We might come to see that, as the aforementioned Huang Po put it, the jewel of salvation for which we have been turning the world upside down to find has been attached to our foreheads all along. We, the totality of what we really are, is always already salvaged. It relies not upon our feverish doing designed to secure us and our nearest and dearest from harm, but upon our simply accepting the risk of our connection to, our dependence upon, our identity with all that is.
Of course, this is not easy. Everything we’ve been taught, everything we think we have learned on our own militates against it. Almost every sensory and material gift we’ve been given, everything we think we have earned on our own, militates against it. And yet, something nourishes in us this counterintuitive truth. There is a jewel that belongs to all, a jewel which, given how we see things, must seem accidental. Preposterous and iniquitous. But which, in the end, may come to seem the most inevitable, and indeed the most salvational reality of all.

Lawrence DiStasi

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