“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.”
— Thích Nhất Hạnh
This is from Sasha Sagan, daughter of Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan, remembering a time from her childhood when she began to understand mortality. Her parents told her:
“You are alive right this second. That is an amazing thing,” they told me. When you consider the nearly infinite number of forks in the road that lead to any single person being born, they said, you must be grateful that you’re you at this very second. Think of the enormous number of potential alternate universes where, for example, your great-great-grandparents never meet and you never come to be. Moreover, you have the pleasure of living on a planet where you have evolved to breathe the air, drink the water, and love the warmth of the closest star. You’re connected to the generations through DNA — and, even farther back, to the universe, because every cell in your body was cooked in the hearts of stars. We are star stuff, my dad famously said, and he made me feel that way.
My parents taught me that even though it’s not forever — because it’s not forever — being alive is a profoundly beautiful thing for which each of us should feel deeply grateful. If we lived forever it would not be so amazing.”
Today would have been my brother’s birthday, and I’ve been saving this passage from Boris Pasternik’s Doctor Zhivago to mark it. Here the title character, Yura Zhivago, is speaking to Anna Ivanovna who feared she was terminally ill. He offers what he thinks happens to us when we die, and the primacy of our social connections:
“So what will happen to your consciousness? Your consciousness, yours, not anyone else’s. Well, what are you? There’s the point. Let’s try to find out. What is it about you that you have always known as yourself? What are you conscious of in yourself? Your kidneys? Your liver? Your blood vessels? No. However far back you go in your memory, it is always in some external, active manifestation of yourself that you come across your identity–in the work of your hands, in your family, in other people. And now listen carefully. You in others–this is your soul. This is what you are. This is what your consciousness has breathed and lived on and enjoyed throughout your life–your soul, your immortality, your life in others. And what now? You have always been in others and you will remain in others. And what does it matter to you if later on that is called your memory? This will be you–the you that enters the future and becomes part of it.” (Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago, p. 68)
I still haven’t mastered the ability to completely separate the academic and the personal, and I’m not sure I completely want to. Instead of an impenetrable wall between them, perhaps, for me, there is a wrought-iron fence with an open gate. What I mean is that I often go between the two, allowing them to inform each other. The passage from Zhivago is from literature, and is not a scientific statement. But it runs parallel to some aspects of science, which seems poetic to me, particularly on a day I’m thinking of my brother.
Every so often, some occurrence comes along that throws life into a new orbit. My trajectory was recently shifted by such an event – I fell in love with a girl. She’s much younger than me: not even a week old, in fact. And she happens to have half of my chromosomes, as daughters tend to do. She is healthy, and both she and her mother are doing well. I find myself carrying her around the house, just staring at her face. When she’s awake and looks back at me, which is mostly late at night unfortunately, it’s magical.
Obviously, we knew this day was coming. We’re not ready to plan her entire life out for her just yet (not until she’s at least a month old). But for a while now I’ve been thinking about what it will be like to be a father to a baby girl, and all the possibilities and challenges life has before her. She has two older brothers, who are crazy about her, but there are things that I worry about for their sister that I didn’t have to think about for them, at least not as much. Forgive me for how naïve this is about to sound because I know I’m behind the curve, but I’m trying…
Earth’s night sky in 3.8 billion years (NASA images).
“He was bitter at the universe for all the things it didn’t give him, for how it shortchanged him, for how it sometimes made him feel lesser. “Why couldn’t he just be normal?” he thought. He felt like this too often.
But he always, without fail, waded through the dark clouds and returned to the same thoughts that helped dissipate the bitterness – that we all have our baggage and insecurities that weigh on us. Some carry heavier weights than others, some that look to be almost unbearable, some that seemed to be (from the outside) trivial. But no one was without burden. His burdens were not as great as some, but they were still his.
I’m at a loss as to how to properly address yesterday’s tragedy here in Boston, on Patriots’ Day. Following the attacks at the marathon and a nearby scare for our neighbors at the JFK Library, our university was closed yesterday afternoon and for most of the day today as a precaution. I’ve been wondering how, as teachers, we’ll get back to normal so soon after the event. Do we ignore it, and go on as if nothing happened, or address it head on? I don’t know, and will probably make some gut decision during tomorrow’s morning commute.
“You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” – Steven Wright (comedian)
“It seemed like a good idea at the time.” – S.A. (neuroscientist, friend)
Lately, I keep seeing a recurrent theme in a number of widely different sources. It’s a concept taught in Economics 101, that of tradeoff and opportunity costs – money or time invested in one object or activity cannot be spent on another. A related concept, foundational to biology, is life history theory (LHT). In his book “Patterns of Human Growth,” the biological anthropologist Barry Bogin defined LHT as:
“the study of the strategy an organism uses to allocate its energy toward growth, maintenance, reproduction, raising offspring to independence, and avoiding death. For a mammal, it is the strategy of when to be born, when to be weaned, how many and what types of pre-reproductive stages to pass through, when to reproduce, and when to die.” (1999: 154)
you could be a winner at the game of life