Friday, August 29, 2014

LIFE AS A PALINDROME* – Why We Need Nature Both Coming and Going

My recent work as a hospice volunteer has me thinking more and more about life, and how wonderful it is, regardless of how quickly or slowly it may wind down, that the hospice movement focuses not on the process of dying, but on the process of living until one dies.

The difference may seem subtle, but for hospice patients it is not. One of the reasons I’ve always feared the idea of aging is that, nearly every time I’ve visited
a nursing home, no matter how nice the accoutrements, the residents seem so isolated, so stuck inside those cheesy-art-strewn walls with companions not of their choosing, so unplugged from Nature.

Have you heard this comedy shtick—attributed to several sources—about why life really should be lived backwards?
“I think the most unfair thing about life is the way it ends. I mean, life is tough. It takes up a lot of your time. What do you get at the end of it? A death! What’s that, a bonus?
I think the life cycle is all backwards. You should die first, get it out of the way. Then you live in an old age home. You get kicked out when you’re too young, you get a gold watch, you go to work. You work for forty years until you’re young enough to enjoy your retirement!
You go to college, you do drugs, alcohol, you party, you have sex, you get ready for high school. You go to grade school, you become a kid, you play, you have no responsibilities, you become a little baby, you go back into the womb, you spend your last nine months floating…and you finish off as a gleam in somebody’s eye.” **
Isn’t that a wonderful notion? Why can’t life be more like that?

Of course, I can’t help but bring to this reflection my Nature-loving, quasi-pantheist point of view—that we come from Nature and, whether we’re smart enough to stay engaged with her throughout our lives or not, we inevitably go back to Nature.

  We’ve always been here and we always will be.

It's not exactly the scenario laid out in the comedy bit; there, even though that ideal life is reversed, it still has a beginning and an end. The advantage of my truth is that, far beyond our blink-of-an-eye, flesh-and-blood presence here on this blue-
green pinprick of light in the deep black fabric of the cosmos, we’ve always been here and we always will be.

As I suggest in my previous post here, The Stuff of Stars – What Every Human Wants—this amounts to nothing less than immortality. Not the fuzzy going-home-to-God-in-heaven version I was brought up with, but one that’s equally positive and, for me at least, considerably easier to believe.

These days, as the Children and Nature movement and its “Nature Deficit Disorder” diagnosis of screen-bound kids gain traction around the world, it’s easy to believe that Nature is most essential to human beings when they’re young. After all, they say it’s then—mostly before the age of five—that the essential building blocks of a healthy, happy life are laid down. And Nature is, indeed, a master mason.

In the U.S and many other cultures of the “developed” world, we then grow up, we tie ourselves to our work and our homes, and many of us forget what it was like to be one with Nature.

But if we could accept, for a minute, that the end of life is—or should be—the mirror image of its beginning, wouldn’t it make sense that Nature play as big a role in our health and happiness when we’re very old as when we were very young?

Take me outdoors...where Nature can replenish my soul with her perfect, timeless beauty and wisdom.

My hospice training urged us volunteers to bring with us to patient visits a “tool kit” of things to read, pictures to look at, music to listen to, perhaps a few games to play. And, depending on my patients’ particular likes, I will have those things.

But the most important device I will bring is the turning of a door knob. For it is only outdoors where all of one’s senses are brought to life at the same time, where a person whose horizon draws near is reassured, not just of being thoroughly in each moment, but of an essential sense of belonging—today, tomorrow, forever.


I hope with all my heart that this will be the case for me, that when I’m too feeble to easily get out and use my precious abilities to walk and climb and paddle, someone will be kind enough to lend me those capacities. Take me outdoors, with the animals and plants and moving air, where Nature can replenish my soul with her perfect, timeless beauty and wisdom.

The end of my life may not be, as the quote imagines, the gleam in my parents’ eyes, but I’m convinced I’ll see a much deeper intent, that of a benevolent universe, welcoming home, after his briefest of visits to this earthly life, one of its own.

* The word “palindrome” comes from the Greek
palin dromo, which means “running back again.”

** This bit has been attributed to George Carlin, Woody Allen, and even Andy Rooney, but there’s a pretty convincing case for its actually having been written (and performed on the
Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the early ’80s) by lesser-known comedian Sean Morey. 

At any rate, I found this a particularly nice version of the life-backwards story, as it is audio-only—allowing one to conjure one’s own imagery. LIVING LIFE BACKWARDS

Sunday, August 3, 2014

THE STUFF OF STARS – What Every Human Wants

The other day one of my Facebook friends shared a video that’s got me thinking like very few social media posts do. It is astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s response to this question from a TIME Magazine reader: What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the universe?*

In brief, what astounds Tyson most about the universe is that every single atom of everything that comprises life on earth—or anywhere else for that matter—originated in certain high-mass stars that exploded some fourteen billion years ago and blasted gas clouds through the galaxy. Every ingredient necessary for life was in those gas clouds, which eventually condensed, collapsed and formed the next generation of planets.

       We are part of this universe; we are in this universe, but perhaps more 
       important… the universe is in us. Many people feel small, because they’re 
       small and the universe is big, but I feel big, because my atoms came from 
       those stars. ~ DR. NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON

At our very core, isn’t this what every human being wants most? To know where we came from; that we’re part of something bigger and more enduring than ourselves or our self-devised institutions; that, in fact, we’re connected—to each other, to all life, to the earth, to all of creation?

             At our very core, isn’t this what  
             every human being wants most?

I suggest that this is why we experience such profound joy, such awe, beholding the Grand Canyon, the birth of our child, or perhaps the rescue of a person or animal from grave harm. This is why I felt my spirit deepen and soar at the same time when a 50-foot Pacific gray whale cow, just twenty feet away from my dinghy, swam under her calf, lifted it gently and pushed it to my outstretched hand.

These wondrous moments are, necessarily, rare. But there are countless smaller, everyday wonders that surround us every day. We knew how to see them and let ourselves be affected by them when we were children, but too many of us have lost that ability. Too much other stuff competing for our attention—distractions, pressures, expectations.

It’s sad enough to see how many of us have lost that innate, childlike sense of wonder, that feeling of belonging, in its deepest, truest sense—to Nature, to each other, to life. But what’s sadder still is seeing how seldom we seem to realize it, or, if we do, how little that bothers us.

Still, the loss must hit home at some level, judging from how desperately we struggle to compensate.

      I’m afraid...we’ve come to actually think 
      that virtual reality is the best we can do.

I’m not about to say that this age of instant gratification, of crowd-sourced truths, of virtual connections, is entirely without redeeming value; that would make me a hypocrite. But the degree and the sheer amount of time consumed by these illusions of “reality” and “connectedness” is nothing short of astounding.

According to Nielsen's annual Social Media Report, in just one month, Americans spend 121 billion minutes on social media sites. That’s more than 230,000 person-years we spend “staring into the glaring screen of so-called sharing”—and remember, that’s just in the United States, and in just one month!

I’m a great believer in the notion that if something looks bizarre or over the top, it’s quite likely more than a fluke; there’s often a good reason for it. In this case, I’m afraid that reason may be that somehow we’ve come to actually think that virtual reality is the best we can do.

It isn’t.

This brings me back to Tyson’s inspiring words. When we hunger for something to inspire us, for a sense of belonging, for a purpose, there will never be a shortage of answers flying up at us from the ten-diagonal-inch screen sitting in our lap.

If all you want is an answer, that’s fine. But for those of us seeking THE answer, that can only be found by turning that thing off and looking up at the stars.
* MOST ASTOUNDING FACT - Neil DeGrasse Tyson