May 072014

Note: The Following was published in January 2011 in Neighbors of Batavia Magazine. I recently realized it never made it to my blog.

As I approach 60, the moment of turning the calendar from one year to the next gives me pause. I wonder if I will have left a legacy. Will I have helped moved humanity forward, or might my life have been, as a dear friend once fretted, a throw-away line? I ponder the best way to spend the 365 days I gently step into on January 1.

In those moments, an image painted by Hendrik Willem van Loon in his wonderful book, The Story of Mankind, comes to mind:

High up in the North in the land called Svithjod, there stands a rock. It is a hundred miles high and a hundred miles wide. Once every thousand years a little bird comes to this rock to sharpen its beak. When the rock has thus been worn away, then a single day of eternity will have gone by.
We live under the shadow of a gigantic question mark.
Who are we? Where do we come from? Whither are we bound?
Slowly, but with persistent courage, we have been pushing this question mark further and further towards that distant line, beyond the horizon, where we hope to find our answer.
We have not gone very far.”

I find this image of a single day of eternity compelling. In the face of an eternity this unimaginable, I feel small and insignificant.

I recall standing in the presence of the Giant Sequoias in California and marveling that many have lived thousands of years. Many were alive through the entirety of the Current Era. They lived through the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, the Middle Ages and the rise and fall of the Divine Right of Kings. To them, the ink on our Declaration of Independence has yet to dry. American representative governance, the World Wars, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War happened moments ago. And yet, even to them, van Loon’s “single day of eternity” is unimaginable.

Then I imagine living the life of a mayfly—often a single day. As you begin to mature by mid-morning, you wonder about the species’ evolution. You see so many ways in which it falls short of the enlightened state of which you dream. By midday you are working tirelessly for the betterment of your fellow mayflies. Within hours, as you age, you become distraught because, in spite of your lifetime of dedication and effort, little has changed. The species is no less selfish…its lifespan hasn’t increased…there is no less violence between you and those with which you compete for resources. You wonder if there is any hope for the future. I imagine that species is awed that a human such as myself has witnessed tens of thousands of their generations.

We might witness the mayfly and smile. How silly to imagine, that in such a short lifetime, an insect could hope to actually witness evolution! Then I wonder if the Sequoia looks at us with the same mix of wonder, whimsy and pity.

And yet, as humans, we live with the hubris to imagine that in our lifetime, or certainly within a few generations, we will experience the advancement of our species into something significantly new and wonderful. Not only do we expect to have witnessed advances in evolution, we believe we will have personally contributed to forward movement so significant we can actually witness growth. Then, as we age, we become distraught because, in spite of a lifetime of dedication and effort, little has changed. The species is no less selfish…its lifespan hasn’t increased…there is no less violence between us and those with whom we compete for resources. We wonder if there is any hope for the future.

If it is naive to expect my life will make a noticeable difference in the course of human history, what then? How should I decide what to do, how shall I spend the moments I am given in the year ahead?

One answer to that question, and there are many, rests in the flapping of the wings of butterflies. The Butterfly Effect tells us that a minute air disturbance in one part of the world can, through a complex and unpredictable chain of events, foster a tornado halfway around the globe. And the butterfly that set the future in motion has no idea of its impact thousands of miles away and months or years later.

The future unfolds based on “initial conditions.” An infinitesimally small change in this moment, can, as a “single day of eternity” transpires, allow an entirely new, dramatically different future to blossom.

So what I think about, as I step into the 365 days that begin on the first of January, is what initial conditions am I creating in this moment? Is the wisp of air I am disturbing filled with joy, kindness and generosity, or anger and hate? Am I aware of the pain and heartache in the face of the stranger next to me, or am I focused on me and my needs? What can I do in this moment to give the future the very best foundation on which to begin its next “day of eternity”? My stay on this Earth is far too short to witness the impact of the initial conditions I set, so all I can do is have faith that the future will best be served if I serve this moment in the most loving and attentive way I can.

So for me, life is a constant struggle to meet, and negotiate with, each and every moment. As I approach the next, I hope to serve it the best I can as I inhabit it, and it inhabits me. And then, perhaps, I must simply trust that the “single day of eternity” that that moment and I become part of will take care of itself.

Feb 202010

When Andrew asked the question, it didn’t appear to meet the philosophical dictates of our Socrates Café—a place where we explore the questions of our life by “remaining in the question.” The way Andrew posed it—what is life?—seemed to beg for an answer. I have read a fair amount about how science defines life, and those definitions are complex, technical and nearly endless. I felt totally incompetent to add to the conversation now firmly planted on the table in front of us.

But then we recalled the Native American traditions that taught us to think of everything as infused with life and giving all things the respect a living being deserves. Each rock, river, tree and animal added to their life and so was treated as part of that life.

Then Jean reminded us of James Lovelock’s Gaia theory in which he proposed the Earth itself is alive, and that each of us is a portion of that life force—elements of a much larger and more complex living system. Like the mitochondria that exist in our cells and enable cellular life to exist, everything is simply an essential part of the larger living being the indigenous people of the Andes reverently refer to as Pachamama—Mother Earth.

The conversation migrated to Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil believes computers will ultimately become more intelligent than humans, enabling them to create other machines more intelligent still. Taken to its extreme, Kurzweil talks about a technological singularity in which progress becomes so rapid the future becomes infinitely more unpredictable than it is even today. I have heard it said that Kurzweil hopes to live until such a time that computers have the capacity to reproduce the neural synapses from his brain, enabling him to “live” virtually forever. Do we call it life if a machine infused with the memories, intelligence, wisdom—and perhaps even the consciousness—of Ray Kurzweil? And if we do, and such a machine is unplugged, is it murder?

That led us to cybernetic organisms—cyborgs—that combine the natural with the man-made. At what point do humans relying on massive support from machines cease to be alive?

We even touched on the philosophical questions posed by our rapidly increasing understanding of genetics, including the possibility of eliminating disease and creating designer babies. What happens to the variety of human experiences when we can genetically engineer beauty, happiness and an end to suffering? What horrors will we rain down upon ourselves as we begin to forget the wisdom we can only realize through misery and suffering? Will we somehow forget the very meaning of generosity and humanitarianism? At what point do we transgress from being good to being God?

Today, a week after the Socrates Café, I am still animated by the conversation. I recalled the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn in which he suggested we are arrogant to think evolution continued unabated until Homo sapiens arrived…and there it came to an inglorious end. Is it possible that evolution continues and that we, by our invention of artificial intelligence, are now in some way its handmaiden?

So was “what is life?” an appropriate question for our philosophical inquiry? More than I ever imagined. We ended up uncovering some of the deeply philosophical questions the next couple of generations of humans must face and answer. They make our current debate over healthcare and taxes seem almost trivial by comparison.