It has been a rough week for me. Following all the political news culminating in the reality of today and tomorrow has left me broken, sad, and wondering how it is we humans have not progressed as much as I imagined over the past 300 years. A friend of mine, author Judith Ashley, wrote a wonderful blog post about the horrors of the Witch Trials in our country and how that compares to what far too many experience still today. I had never thought of comparing that history. I won’t belabor those points here, but if you are interested, please read her blog and what others have said in comments. To end the week I found out a beloved aunt has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in late stage. She is sanguine about it. At 82 she is ready to join her husband, of more than 50 years, who died six years ago. She is currently in no pain and we learned the cancer has metastasized to her brain which helps her to forget regularly.
What this week has done is left me looking for the soul of hope, the soul of ancient times that can marry with current times, the capacity for me to put all of this in perspective so I can move forward. There are days I feel I cannot possibly do enough to change the world, and others where I feel what I do is so insignificant that I don’t know why I should try. I am a believer that one person can make a difference. I am a believer that one person working with another, working with yet another can make many more times a difference than the total sum of those gathered together. But even those beliefs were not offering me solace today. It seems in the last few years that the tsunami is crashing and, though I’m a good swimmer, ultimately I will tire and be pulled under.
In my search for a thread of hope, I came across Dr. Kathrine Mack–known as astroKatie on Twitter. She is an astrophysicist/cosmologist professor at North Carolina State University who focuses on studying dark matter. It was appropriate to find her today, as this is dark matter to me on a philosophical level. This was her status update of August 31st on Twitter.
“You are stardust. And you are the ashes of the Big Bang. And you are, at every imaginable level, a creation of the Universe, vast and beautiful and suffused with unbridled power.” @AstroKatie
It is exactly what I needed to read and to take into my soul to put things in perspective. I start here with that positive mindset, and a promise that I will return to that positivity. But first, I invite you down the warrens of my mind in trying to put myself within a vast universe and what meaning can be attributed to my part in it.
Most human’s see the reflection of their own being in the universe and that shapes our conception of ourselves. I certainly fall into this category. The problem is in the very recent past, probably up until the turn of the 19th century, most of humanity saw more permanence in the universe than impermanence. And for the vast majority of humans on earth I would say that is still true. After all, the sun still rises and sets the same way now as it did for ancient and medieval man. Plants and animals still reproduce with the same regularity and through the same processes as in older historical periods–whether passed along by oral traditions or written. Even with all of our knowledge of evolution and biology, today humans are biologically the same as those over at least the past 5,000 years. It is true that we believe we can trace evolutionary changes but to someone who lives today and may have a memory of perhaps four generations, it does not appear that our evolution has progressed much at all.
However, with all of science, philosophy, and theology that can now be read and examined, it seems that human’s existential relationship to the universe has changed drastically. I would suggest that up until the industrial revolution, whether you were a “modern” man or woman or a member of a native tribe practicing the ancient ways, you knew with certainty where you came from, why you lived, your place and responsibility in the world. Also you likely had a sense of how old you would be when you died and how that was likely to happen. Depending on your religious beliefs, economic class, and education, for the most part you could take some comfort in this knowledge. Even top scientists who studied the stars still had deeply seated religious beliefs that helped to fill in the holes of the theories regarding where you came from and where we are going.
Modern humans, however, do not easily accept where they come from as a limitation or even a definition of themselves. Nor do we accept what the logical end will be. Most important of all, modern humans don’t seem to have a grasp of why they are alive. The exception to this is those who are of deep faith and accept that God (or whatever larger entity they believe rules the universe) has a master plan and they live to fulfill that plan. I would posit that even those raised in a religious belief like this often have questions, doubts, and their mind goes to those questions in the darkest of times. Furthermore, because of science and medicine I believe that modern humans hold more of a belief, and thus strive to achieve, immortality in this plane. Though I don’t think modern people believe they will never die, I do think they believe they can live on in some fashion. That may be through technology (e.g., cryogenics, brain download to computers, some marrying of artificial intelligence with bodies) or through control of other physical entities such as property, wealth, monuments, or religion itself.
I admit to some of these thoughts myself. I write to have a voice that I believe would never be heard otherwise. I have neither the power or the money to wield multi-media empires and bring anything I might say to the masses. I have a likely outsized belief that my life matters in the universe. I think a lot of people believe this–whether it matters because you are doing God’s work or because the thought of accepting the daily drudgeries of life would be impossible if you didn’t believe it is all worth something larger. Even the atheist, the humanist, or the chaos theorist has a need to make themselves heard and known. I have always believed life is fair and if I work hard enough I will be rewarded. Perhaps that comes from my Christian upbringing, doing good on earth to be rewarded in heaven. Or perhaps it comes from my hardworking parents who instilled in me that people are primarily fair and compassionate and those who keep their nose to the grindstone will be rewarded in their lifetime. My father stopped believing that somewhere in his 60’s. He died a man who wanted desperately to believe he’d made a difference, but wasn’t at all sure he did. He made a big difference in my life and in the life of all of us children and many extended family members.
No matter how much we study and yearn for some assurance of immortality, the reality is that humans are still a finite being. Our intelligence challenges us to understand the Infinite and the Absolute, along with the Indefinite and the Relative. Talk about cognitive dissonance! I have always been a person to embrace change, as I see it as a way to learn and grow. However, I admit that today there is so much talk of change that I become lost in a sea of nothingness. I have a need for something permanent. Must I grasp that the only permanence in life is impermanence? My Buddhist friends are all nodding at this point and telling me: “Yes, that has always been and will always be.”
I do believe in many tenets of Buddhism, which I adopted early in my college studies. Yet I also yearn for some of the assuredness of answers that my childhood Christian upbringing declared. I do believe that all religions speak of a personal responsibility. That is to treat one another with kindness and compassion, no matter how much I disagree or don’t understand them. I actually extend this responsibility not just to humans but to all beings including animals and plants, and maybe one day extraterrestrials should I live that long to meet them. All religions have a belief in not focusing on yourself but on the good of others or of the community or of the universe itself. Religions that have a belief in life after death, also seem to have some type of cosmic judgment and fairness built in as well. I’m not so sure of that part, but I am sure that is what makes humans always be looking for fairness–that there are rules to be followed and those who do so will be rewarded.
There is a part of me that asks: “If the Universe is so large, and I am so small and so fleeting, then in the grand scheme of things what I do is utterly insignificant and inconsequential. Then it follows that my successes and failures, my anxiety and sadness and joy, all of my ambition and toil to be “someone” or “something” more is merely gratuitous. That is a sobering thought and one I have spent most of my life ignoring. But I think that recent events in the past four to five years have hammered it home.
For some people, this thought alone is enough to make you not get out of bed the next day. For me, it is actually a comfort. By erasing my imagined self-importance in the universe, I am freed of the long-range worry that my success may never be immortalized. Instead, I can focus on the immediate goal for it’s own good purpose. In the case of my relationships, that means focusing on the few people where I can make some positive impact–whether that is a kind word or deed, something I’ve written that moves them, teaching them a skill or concept I understand, or simply being present as they go through a special time in their life. In the case of my writing, that means focusing on the next book or finishing a series or making another format of my work (like audiobooks or movies or whatever new technology opportunities may come) for what it brings to me–a new way to share my voice–instead of focusing on some imagined level of success that will bring me happiness or notoriety. I do know that, in order for me to extend energy to others, I have to believe that what I am doing is useful for today, for this moment in time.
Of course, I can say that fairly easily. My heart believes that. My mind, on the other hand, questions that constantly. The primary reason I will never be a good Buddhist is I am not at all good at accepting that where I am is exactly where I need to be–to neither think of what has gone before and let it limit me, nor to worry about what is to come. There are some exigencies, like making enough money to pay my bills. And I want to make a little more than just being able to pay my bills. I’d like to have enough to regularly travel to the east coast and see the grandchildren at least once a year. I’d like to have enough to take a nice vacation with my husband every year. I’d like to have enough to build a nest egg to help others. But I am letting go of the concept that I need to be a six figure author. Obviously, I wouldn’t turn that down but it is no longer an overriding goal I’m going to worry about.
Wallace Stevens wrote “The mind can never be satisfied”. And that definitely describes me and my constant quest to redefine reality. My mind wants the world to know I exist, whether in my lifetime or not. My mind wants to know all the world, and all eternity. I know it’s not possible, but it still wants it.
For tonight, I am taking a moment to quiet the mind and just be in the universe.
I am taking a moment to contemplate the “nothing that is”
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”
― Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man”Lets Connect!. Follow me on your favorite social media sites