An entry in Encounters
It strikes me that one of the great challenges we face at the moment is getting a grip on our own hubris. We need, first of all, to recognize its existence, which we too often do not recognize. We need also to understand the danger its existence bestows upon us. I believe it’s due to our hubris that we think we can control the world. More to the point, it’s due to our hubris that we think we can understand the world. I suspect the tendency toward that belief is one of the greater dangers we face and divesting ourselves of such beliefs would go a long way toward helping us to deal with a future that’s likely going to be very much out of our control.
One of the better ways of ridding ourselves of such hubris is to embrace this world of ours in all its mystery, messiness, confusion and contradiction. Every day we find ourselves a part of a planet so brimming with life and magic that an honest appraisal of its reality would make it clear to us that we have very little understanding of it. It is, after all, a trickster, and seems always ready to prove our folly—to place into sharp relief our arrogance. We approach this world as though its mechanics are simple and straightforward, as though they can be understood and modeled and thus predicted, and as though we can therefore control the world, shaping and molding it to our liking, creating a preferred reality rather than working to live well within our actual reality. Time and time again, this approach has proved misguided at best, and often times deadly.
We build nuclear power plants, for instance, thinking that we can set in motion incredibly powerful natural reactions, create massive amounts of insanely deadly wastes that will exist on a time frame essentially outside the bounds of human comprehension, and control and manage this process and these wastes. Time and again, we’ve been proven wrong. The fail safe designs fail, the earth provides unforeseen circumstances, the impossible events become possible. Earthquakes and tsunamis occur, human error and fallibility takes its toll.
We think we can dump massive, incomprehensible amounts of pollution into the biosphere and it will simply absorb it, dispose of it for us, protect us from ourselves. We are proven right to a degree, but wrong to a more important degree. The earth rebels, we are forced to suffer the consequences of our own waste, and our assumptions are proven false. Cancer rates rise, asthma increases, rivers burst into flames.
We proclaim that money will bring forth oil, but it doesn’t. We proclaim that war will bring about peace, but it doesn’t. We proclaim that we can abuse and neglect our soils and still they will feed us. But our soils die, and turn to dust, and they blow away in the wind. The oil we dump on them only lasts so long before it destroys that which we claim is being nourished. Eventually, if we can’t get past our own blindness, we will starve.
We believe that we can run every aspect of the natural world through the scientific, reductionist wringer, break it down into pieces small enough to understand, change each piece, put it back together and then expect it to function based on those reductionist changes. It doesn’t work, because the world doesn’t work so simply. The natural world functions as a whole, and the pieces put together begin to take on mysterious tendencies—the sort of tendencies that don’t always show themselves until the complexity and interactions of the whole takes hold. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, after all, and the whole tends to have a spirit that we can’t find so easily in the parts.
Dismember a human body and you may, through study, gain a great understanding of the individual pieces: this leg, this hand, this finger, this foot, this stomach, and so on. But you won’t understand the person you’ve dismembered. You’ll get no sense of their spirit or personality, of the impossible complexity of their personality and consciousness, of their unique traits and experiences. And, perhaps more importantly, you’ll kill that person by dismantling them, by breaking them down into separate pieces. You can only break down the whole a bit before it dies.
What’s ironic is that this sort of scientific reductionism—upon which so much of our hubris is based—has also provided many accountings of the world’s mystery and magic. I remember, years ago, reading Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos and being enchanted by his recounting of certain scientific experiments involving quantum mechanics. These experiments documented physical activities at the smallest scales of matter that behaved counter-intuitively to how we understand the world. Reading about quantum entanglement and the quantum eraser experiment brought me a sort of giddy joy. Here, in the midst of scientific reductionism, was an assertion of mystery. While, yes, these experiments and their results were based in mathematical and scientific theory, their counter-intuitive and, frankly, bizarre results when compared to our normal, every day experience with the world was a reminder of how much mystery surrounds us.
We are in great need of a recognition of that mystery. We’ve fallen into the habit of daily going out into the world and working to destroy it. We have given up the idea of learning to live well on this earth, given up spending our lives in the never ending effort of doing good work, and instead have turned our lives into the never ending pursuit of arbitrary wealth and luxury. We seek out comfort and gratification without regard for what it means for the rest of the world, our fellow creatures, or even our own health and well-being. We do this with the backing of vast amounts of energy, resources and money—far beyond what our forebears ever had available to them. With this historically unique backing, we have engaged in historically unique destruction. We have damaged the world on a scale previously unknown, previously incomprehensible. And we do it most of the time without even a recognition or realization of the consequences of our actions. We are children—grossly immature, horrifically arrogant, and clueless on both counts.
But, as children mature, so can we. Much of that maturity can be derived from a connection to the broader world and the other creatures who live in it. As we grow older, we tend to better understand others as unique individuals, with their own internal lives and realities. While we may not fully know those internal lives as we do our own, we can still recognize that they exist and that, therefore, this other person is prone to the same emotional realities, the same human failings, the same sort of hopes and desires, the same complexities that we are. In other words, we begin to realize that they are wholes, rather than mechanistic collections of fingers and toes, hands and feet, arms and legs, torso and head. We therefore bear responsibility for treating them as such and dealing with them in a kind and caring manner. We may not always succeed in this responsibility, but our understanding of it and our attempts to fulfill it is the measure of our maturity.
We cannot reserve that sort of maturity only for other human beings, though. We must also provide it to the uncountable other creatures that live with us in this world: animal, plant, fungi, soil—hell, even the stones, the solid ground we walk upon. This is harder, and it’s easier to stray from this ideal, and more understandable when we do. Yet it’s important that we afford all creatures this respect, and take upon us the responsibility of treating them with care and kindness, because otherwise we too easily will find ourselves destroying them for our own easy comfort and casual desires. And in their destruction, so we begin our own.
Also, though, in connecting with these other creatures, we connect to the mystery of the world. We begin to see our own limitations and understand the full breadth of consciousness and individuality these other creatures hold. Animals are no more machines than we are. In the last few days, I’ve worked around, interacted with or seen cows, sheep, baby lambs, calves, dogs, cats, wild turkeys, elk, chickens, ducks, pigs, donkeys, goats and raccoons. You can’t tell me that the cow that kept approaching me and licking my rain pants had no different a personality (or no personality at all) than the one who kept her distance, or the one who would come cautiously close and then back up when I reached out to her, or the cow whom would go running and kicking in a fit of activity, seemingly unprovoked but almost certainly provoked in some manner or another. You can’t tell me that the hundred or so baby lambs running around Meadow Harvest right now aren’t unique and individual creatures, that they don’t experience this new world with joy and confusion and the occasional bit of fear or caution, that they don’t love the cold air and the intermittent sunshine, bounding through the wet grass and drinking milk from their mothers. I’ve watched them. I’ve held them and fed them. They’re every bit a living, conscious creature as I am.
Interacting with them serves me on two levels. First of all, it helps to remind me that the world is full of creatures that deserve the chance to live well, and that my desires for comfort and gratification don’t supercede their right to the possibility of such a life. That helps ratchet down my arrogance by reminding me that I share this world with billions, trillions of other creatures and that I have a responsibility to all of them, that I can’t willfully damage our world or live my life without concern for what kind of work I’m doing, how I live, and what damage or good I do. Second, it helps connect me to the mystery of this world. Seeing all these other creatures, living, engaging this earth in much the same way I engage it, very much conscious in the way I am conscious, is a reminder of just how magical a place this is. Often times, as well, these creatures engage in unexpected behavior, or take me by surprise in some way or another, much as in the way I wrote about last summer, in what I now am considering the first Encounters post. This, too, is a reminder of the world’s magic. It’s a reminder of my place in this existence, and how small it is, and how it stands as just one amongst billions of places, occupied by billions of creatures.
I suppose, then, that this is a third level of benefit from these sorts of interactions. This is the benefit in being reminded that, while I am unique, I am not Unique. I am not, as a human being, better than the other creatures in this world. I am not more highly evolved. I am not morally superior, or closer to god, or more deserving of good, or endowed with some sort of right to dominate the earth. I am not above reproach. I am one of many, sharing this planet, and at my best I’m engaging its mystery in the same way that all these other creatures engage it. At my best, I’m able to lose myself in the brilliance of this existence, to step for a moment outside the convoluted and exhausting machinations of my turbulent mind and find myself, for one transcendent moment, immersed in this incredible and beautiful, heartening world—and in awe of it.
The Encounters series of posts will be about this awe. It will be a cataloguing of such moments when I found myself connected to another creature in this world, engaged or surprised or in conversation, snapped out of myself and my self-absorption and reminded of the larger world around me. It will be about mystery and magic and beauty, and the intention of this series is to help shed us of our arrogance and hubris, and to remind us of our incredible world and bring us back into it. We are a species on this planet, much as any other species, and in many ways we are a profoundly immature one. We have much to learn from our fellow creatures. I hope to discover some of those lessons in future entries.