“THE GREATEST OF ALL THE ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF 20TH-CENTURY SCIENCE has been the discovery of human ignorance.” Lewis Thomas, Lives of a Cell. “OUR IGNORANCE, OF COURSE, HAS ALWAYS BEEN WITH US, AND ALWAYS WILL BE. What is new is our awareness of it, our awakening to its fathomless dimensions, and it is this, more than anything else, that marks the coming of age of our species.” Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

He not busy being born is busy dying.

“I hold your quickly fading photograph in my more slowly fading hand.”
Ranier Maria Rilke

            I’ve orbited the sun 59 times and I have seen, under the sun, that Solomon was mistaken.
            Solomon the Wise, son of David, King of Israel, preacher of Ecclesiastes, misspoke. Not when he said, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” He got it right with that bumper sticker, all his sic transit gloria mundi stuff. The guy was one of the original skeptics. It’s plain that he doesn’t hope for an afterlife in some supernatural realm:

But whoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished; never again will they have any share in all that happens under the sun.
            But he didn’t grok our ephemeral situation deeply enough. He still claimed, “The Earth abides forever, the sun also rises.” (Sound of buzzer) I’m sorry, that answer is incorrect.
            It’s not just you and I who are vulnerable and mortal. The sun also dies. In about 6 billion years, the sun will deplete most of its hydrogen fuel and flare into a red giant, charring the earth into a cinder. (Carl Sagan claims that after a lecture a man approached him to ask, “Did you say the sun will boil the oceans in six million years or six billion years?” Sagan repeated it would happen in about six billion years. The man wiped his brow: “Phew!”)
            I can hear you thinking that the impending demise of the sun is not exactly breaking news. But try listening with your skin, as I put it to you again.
            Nothing lasts.
            Even the sun follows the same trajectory as a mayfly! Here today, gone tomorrow. You, me, our loved ones, our enemies, our children and grandchildren. Dead men walking.  EVERYTHING—from quarks to galaxies—is merely mortal, an appearance, a temporary pattern, an eddy in a stream, a sumo wrestler in a cloud, changing, morphing into a ballerina, then... poof!
            Where are the snows of yesteryear?
            But wait, there’s more to this memento mori.
The endless stream of countless deaths has not altered the fragility of flowers. Orchids are still softer than silk. Newborns emerge from their mother’s wombs equipped with no more armor than Adam wore when Lucy gave him birth in Africa. This suggests an untouchable condition at play here, an uncreated and indestructible nature that moves through the process of birth and change and death like John Coltrane gliding through the notes on “Favorite Things.” In other words, death does not negate life.
Indeed, death will come as no surprise. it will not arrive from outside of us. Death is no stranger, stalking from a distance. It is an intimate and inherent function within the total process that we are. That which birthed me will grant me death. And death does not cancel life, like some kind of annihilating attack from without, because death is life. We’ve just been calling the process by half of its reality. The term should be “Life-death,” or better, “birthing-dying.”
Remember Bob Dylan’s line? “He not busy being born is busy dying.”

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