Sep 152013
 
Note: I am submitting this for publication in the November/December issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine. 
 
“Imagination is the organ that allows us to thrive on the cusp between danger and opportunity.”
Lee Smolin in Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe


Every morning we wake into a world fraught with both danger and opportunity. If imagination is what allows us to thrive on the cusp between them, how is it we imagine—and reimagine—the world in ways that animate our lives and give them meaning?

We have as many as 100 billion neurons. Line yours up end to end and they would stretch 600 miles. (Of course you’d be dead, so don’t try this at home!) Each neuron can have thousands of branches, and connect with tens of thousands of other neurons.

At any given moment, billions of neuronal pathways can be activated as we interact with the world, but they are most active when we engage with life…allow ourselves to be challenged by new circumstances, unusual problems, different ideas, and unique and difficult experiences. When faced with novelty, we can retreat to well-worn, comfortable ways of thinking…or allow life to captivate us, spawn new neurons and connections, and cultivate our brain and its capacity. Provided we are not struck down by the ravages of dementia, we are capable of mental and emotional growth until late in life.

There are times when being challenged is intriguing, energizing and not overly difficult. I was confronted with new and different ideas when I read Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe by Lee Smolin. Smolin suggests there are billions of universes, and they reproduce inside black holes—of which there are as many as a billion, billion in our universe alone. I feel insignificant in the face of billions of stars and galaxies, but if this is only one of billions of universes, how can I even begin to comprehend the immensity? I could disregard Smolin’s ideas and choose not to be changed by them, but if, instead, I sit quietly and ponder, “What if that’s true?”, I can almost feel the growth of new pathways as my brain considers the astonishing implications.

But engaging with life is often difficult, or even heartbreaking. There is a sliver of the brain—the ancient, reptilian limbic system—from which joy, love, fear, anger and sadness emerge. This tiny lobe activates even before the newer, thinking, imagining frontal cortex is invited to the cognitive party. It’s one thing to read ideas about billions of universes that churn my thinking but leave my emotions relatively undisturbed. It is quite another to engage in ways that roil my emotions, and light up pathways that prevent me from even thinking. In a moment when sadness, anger or fear wells up inside, it’s not thoughts and ideas, but emotions that are the greatest challenge to my brain and its journey on the cusp.

I have been inspired by a woman I did not know well…until recently. Life has challenged her in a way I cannot even begin to understand. Some months ago her twin sister passed away—I have since learned that losing a twin is as horrifying as losing a child. And yet, she has reengaged with life in ways that have amazed me. I asked how she learned to reimagine her life in the new world without her sister. “When my sister died,” she told me, “I had two options: lie down and die or live my life. I chose to live! My heart aches beyond belief some days and that will probably happen for a very long time, but, I will continue to plunge forward. I will not give up.”

So what allows us to imagine and reimagine our world in ways that lead us toward opportunity and away from danger? Choice. We always have the choice to disregard, cower in fear, be overwhelmed by sadness, or overtaken by anger. Alternatively, we can imagine the opportunities present in every trial—no matter how faint and difficult to discern—create new neurons, new neural pathways, new knowledge…and “choose to live” in the new universe in which we find ourselves.

Sep 122011
 
Note: The following is the text of my remarks at Batavia’s memorial on the 10th anniversary of 9/11
 
Thank you Mayor Schielke,
 
Please join me in also thanking Chief Deicke, Chief Schira and all the men and women of the Police and Fire Departments for the amazing work they do to protect us.
In his poem “This Being Human is a Guest House” Rumi suggested the following:
 
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
 
How, even ten years later, could we conceive of being grateful for the horrific momentary awareness that visited our house on September 11, 2001? How can we ever forget or forgive the violent deaths represented by the candles that remind us that the light of 3023 lives has been extinguished?
It turns out “How?” is seldom the right question. A better question is “Why?” Why should we choose gratitude? Because here, in this moment, we have a choice about how to move forward.
We can choose sadness, or it’s painful relative, depression, as our guide. But anyone who has lost a loved one knows that sadness, grief and depression become a hole out of which we must climb if we ever hope to begin moving forward.
If not sadness, we could choose anger, or it’s more vicious, destructive relative, hatred. But if we choose hatred, then those who, on this day ten years ago, were motivated by hatred have won. We will have been recruited by them into the dark side of our nature…the side of our humanity that has always dragged us backward.
So if not sadness or anger, perhaps we should choose fear, or terror…cower and tremble in a corner. But that path forward truly dishonors the 3023 we are here to remember.
So if not sadness, depression, anger, hatred, fear or terror, then what.
We might choose…admiration…admiration for the more than 300 public servants who raced with courage into harms way, and gave their lives to keep thousands of other lives from being extinguished.
We might even, as the poet Rumi suggests, choose gratitude. We could be grateful for the billions of acts of generosity—both large and small—that erupted during the past ten years. We could be grateful for each person who came here tonight hoping to find a new way forward. Look around and be grateful for the intentions, hopes and humanity of these, your neighbors.
We might even choose joy. Why joy? Because the 3023 lives extinguished on 9/11 contributed to humanity before their tragic end. In the late 1970s, I taught Algebra and Geometry to a quiet, young man named Richard Guadagno. Rich went on to become a naturalist and inspire hundreds to love the wilderness that remains on this planet we lovingly call Mother Earth. Rich was on United flight 93 that ended its journey, and his, in a field in Pennsylvania. He is represented by one of these candles tonight. I will choose to honor Rich’s life by remembering the joy he brought to so many…including me.
 9 years ago tonight we stood here silent and sad, because 10 years ago we stood in disbelief. Tonight we stand here having been given an opportunity to turn our dis-belief into new beliefs…and make new choices.
There have been nearly 316 million seconds since the tragedies of 9/11. 316 million moments of truth in which I could have chosen, with heart ripped open, the possibility of becoming new.
At the memorial nine years ago, I said,
 
“It is not within my power to change anyone but myself. So here is the commitment I make. I will honor the pain by living each moment with more kindness and generosity… honor the loss of loved ones by living each moment with more awareness of the needs of those around me…honor the loss of my sense of humanity by living each moment with more integrity and love. And I will honor each of you by trying ever more diligently to understand—truly understand—our differences and disagreements.”
 
It has been said that the path forward can seem backward and the path into light seems dark. As I ignite a few of the candles that will share their light with us, I pray to be shown ways in which I might shine light wherever there is darkness, joy wherever there is sadness, gratitude wherever there is hopelessness, and love wherever there is hatred.
Tonight I ask you join me in making new choices that will move us all forward with a new understanding of what it means to be human.
Thank You