Thinking of oneself in the past tense is always an interesting exercise, and one I’ve engaged in a lot recently, since the passing of a friend a few days ago. The death of old friends, of respected and cherished individuals who enrich our lives in countless ways, and who, by virtue of their existence somehow also define our own, naturally provokes thought.
Helen Kerwinwas just such a remarkable person, a model of powerful womanhood that I upheld as exemplary to my own daughters, and to which I continue to aspire myself. A founding member of my church, Spirit of Life Unitarian Universalists, Helen was an elegant and vigorous woman, who led a socially conscious and socially active life well into her 80s, and was loved, respected and admired in the communities of which she was such an active part. A celebrated “Rosie the Riveter,” cancer eventually weakened her body but not her spirit or mind. An avowed atheist, with an open mind and a broad sense of humor, Helen told friends at church as recently as a couple of weeks ago, that “if there’s anything after this , I’ll find a way to get back and let you know.”
Personally, I don’t think there is anything else. And I think that’s okay, and as it should be. That’s a far cry from how I felt when I was younger, and lay awake at night pondering with welling sorrow a future without me. I don’t think I was an especially morose child, but maybe being raised by very old people whom I loved deeply and without reserve, but who could die – and often did – without much advanced notice or fanfare, made me reflective on that point.
And so I would lay in the deepening gloom of a thick, airless New Jersey summer night, listening to crickets and the far off rumble of distant thunder, and imagine a world where I no longer existed, where space ships traveled to the moon and back on a regular basis, where wars came and went, new children were born, and puppies grew to doghood, and new books were written, and trees grew gnarled and ancient – and I wasn’t there for any of it. Sometimes I’d be moved to tears not only by the thought of all I’d miss, but by the realization that there would eventually be a time when I would neither be missed nor even known to have existed.
Some children are musical or artistic prodigies. I was a savant in existential angst.
I thought, at the time, that this would become distressingly more apparent and increasingly depressing as I aged. But I found the opposite to be true. The older I got and the busier I got with the actual business of living, the more I learned, and the commensurately more doubtful I became of heaven or some other afterlife, and the freer I grew from the fear of an unknown and unknowable future without me.
Much of human civilization, I came to realize, has been spent pondering our purpose and creating hopeful options for immortality, to make it all seem less futile and somehow more enduring. The Egyptians built pyramids. The Chinese buried legions of clay soldiers. Even the first self-aware cave people buried their dead with flowers and simple possessions. Life, despite devastating wars, roller coaster economies, changing climates, and daily strife, is good, or at least better than its opposite – and we want to take it with us; we want life to endure.
But I’ve come to believe that we’re just memes to an end.
Our biggest gift, as a species, is also our biggest Achilles heel – our self-awareness, which is largely the result of overclocked brain power. Self-awareness of course, results in a cognizance of our own mortality, and a resultant turn to science and/or theology to try to get a grip on things.
As far as we know, we’re the only creatures on earth trying to understand ourselves. To break that down further – the tool we use to try to understand ourselves is the exact organ we’re studying, and don’t yet (and may never fully) understand: our brains. In essence, this is what neuroscience is – the science of the brain trying to understand itself. But we are, in the end, “creatures on earth,” conflicted and muddled ones, to be sure, and completely unlike the other creatures on earth, but still just one species among billions of others on our planet. The fact that we’re self-aware makes us different but doesn’t free us from the laws of nature – which is always, at bottom, as Darwin pointed out, species success.
The reason life goes on, so unflinchingly and seemingly unfairly when one of us dies, when thousands and millions and billions of us die over time, is because life isn’t about each of us individually – it’s about all of us collectively. The accident of our intelligence is the key component of our species’ success, which in our case consists of more than biological perseverance, but also of peripheral knowledge in science, the arts, and philosophical inquiry, among others. It may just as likely be the key component in our demise. But ultimately, maintaining the success of our species is as much about passing down knowledge and insights as it is about passing down genes.
I recently caught a blog post by one of my daughters, in her online travelogue. Her post title, “Tis a Gift to Be Simple,” echoes the hymn of the same name that she’s familiar with from church. The quote at the top of her blog– “Afoot and light hearted I take to the open road. Healthy, free, the world before me, the long brown path before, leading wherever I choose.” – is from Walt Whitman’s Song of the Open Road, which spoke to me nearly 40 years before she ever saw it.
She opens her reflections, “One of the best Christmas presents I ever received was a Kelty Redwing 2600 backpack. Small enough to take on an airplane as carry-on, yet light and large enough to pack with a week’s worth of supplies, it has so far proved infinitely useful.”
We gave her that backpack two years ago.
“The ability to carry everything you need on your back is something of an empowering and liberating experience. You are not reliant on anyone else to carry your burdens; your hands are free to move around, pull yourself up, and keep yourself safe; and most of all your needs are reduced to the bare essentials.”
She came to that conclusion on her own, but it is one her parents and siblings share, as well.
The pictures and charts accompanying that piece are also of shared experiences – a mom and daughters camping trip we took last winter, a visit from a local Buddhist monk to her church youth group several years ago, her reflections on Buddhism and the Happy Planet Index and simple living. These are all things we’ve done together, or talked about and shared our views on together. She is, in fact, like her brother and sister, exhibiting ways of being that while uniquely her own, have been deeply influenced by her family and the cultural experiences to which we’ve subscribed – our habits of living, thought, faith, art, music, literature and social consciousness.
In this way, our story continues with and through our children, and will continue whether or not they even have children of their own. Through their work, and art, and social interactions, they bring a way of being into the world, passed down and hopefully improved upon by generations both before and after them. In the same way, my friend Helen’s family, friends and children pass along her powerful ways of being by keeping alive the stories, ways and means of Helen.
From the pyramids and clay soldiers, to our favorite literature and foods, and inventions, and our deepest inner thoughts scrawled in journals and blogs, we keep our species alive – in spite of our countless shortcomings – through the stories of previous generations. We’re here, I think, only to make those stories good and relevant and useful while we’re alive – to apply the best practices and lessons learned of those who came before us, and to build on them for those who come after us.
If more people considered that the point of living is not where we go after we die, but what we do while we’re alive, then maybe more people could put their short time on earth to better use. I’m hopeful. The ship of humanity is huge and turns only slowly and ponderously, and leaves a lot of flotsam in its wake. But we do turn. We do learn.
Maybe the most important thing to learn is that it’s about all of us together, not any one of us alone. We are memes to human ends, and the more we invest in memes worth spreading, the greater our collective chances of living well into a far better future.