Monday, February 26, 2007

Concerning Existence

Thrust into the maelstrom of living. Inserted into my mother’s womb. Spawned on the bedrock of her uterus. Made to grow there as a result of the serendipitous convergence of resident egg and itinerant sperm. Carrying genes from both parents: yet another human hybrid among the millions born on the very day of my arrival. Plummeting into the human world under the supposedly watchful eye of a doctor probably bored with yet another birth in a city teaming with citizens on the brink of conception. Ready with his forceps at the portal of mother’s sex. Ready to draw out another life reluctant to make the journey unattended. The month: October, the day: the 18th, the year: 1944 and the place a working class neighborhood on Bathgate Avenue in the Bronx: a menagerie of dispositions, international in scope but decidedly provincial in attitude.

Life is a lottery: the numbers drawn from both genes and circumstance. Some of us win on all counts: great genes and an exceptional environment where the developing individual can reach the fullest potential. Others score on one count or the other: either awesome genes or an exceptional environment. The least fortunate fare poorly in regards to both.

The transient experience of living is brief by design, for humans are crafted by nature to create more of their own kind only to have their constituent molecules ultimately disrupted and recombined into new configurations so that all of life might prosper. We are subject to the laws of physics and the precepts of biology in spite of what new age dogma might suggest. Try as we might to defy gravity, no matter what new worlds humans might inhabit in the distant future, gravity will still rule. Regardless of how arrogance, disguised as wisdom, might suggest otherwise, our existence remains dependent upon the steady output of heat by the star we call our sun. Regardless of how tenacious our grip might be upon our possessions, ownership remains a convenient illusion that will evaporate when death overtakes us. We are born naked and that is how we will leave the world notwithstanding how many trinkets we may have adorned ourselves within a lifetime. The Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, driven by a grand delusion, had their followers erect fabulous tombs to house their treasures to be enjoyed in the afterlife, only to have them looted or collect dust in modern museums. Their gods failed them miserably, but somehow the followers of contemporary religions expect their rewards after death to remain intact.

I was catapulted into existence just as the Second Great Slaughter of the twentieth century was drawing to a ruinous close. The human conflagration that swept the world left fifty million dead. By chance, Italians like me on the European continent were on the losing side with much of their country devastated and Mussolini’s lifeless body left hanging upside down at a gas station. I was born in America and therefore was on the winning side. America gleefully took the high moral ground, as it continues to do today, even though it had dropped fearsome nuclear weapons on essentially civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki leaving carnage like never before experienced in the entire human history of warfare. It did this not simply to accelerate the ending of the war but also to show its utter contempt for the enemy and to make it clear to all future adversaries that it would go to any length to secure its ends. The nation has consistently pursued this kind of policy regarding international affairs ever since. It is a ruthless State not unlike that of ancient Rome.

My father worked for the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the war, and was not drafted much to the chagrin of the married women in our tenement whose husbands were overseas. The old neighborhood was filled with five story tenements housing people from around the world: Germans and Italians, Greeks and Puerto Ricans, Irish and Gypsies, Turks and Jews. It was crowded and noisy, chaotic and turbulent, yet it manifested a vitality that embraced the necessity for tolerance of all manner of human behavior. This kind of human diversity had a profound effect on the way I came to view life, for I realized at a very young age that there are many ways to live a life. Within this setting, I witnessed the end of the war and the beginning of the short-lived and overly exaggerated plastic prosperity that was heralded as the great ascendance of the American middle class. We took on the burgeoning new technology with great excitement. I was there at the twin births of the portable radio and the television: it was the beginning of a new age of telecommunications.
I was present when rock-n-roll became the medium for adolescents to challenge the status quo. I hung out in my best friend’s basement listening to Steve Taylor of the Fugs sing “Big Brown River” on his Hi-Fi. I can still vividly remember the beginning lyrics of this song: “I've been swimming in this river of shit
more than 20 years and I'm gettin' tired of it.” In the end, the potential for radio and television to be a medium for creative ideas and programming was never realized, for the public airways were ultimately co-opted by powerful corporate interests for their use in the inexorable movement towards an economy based on mass consumption.

The newly energized Republic became bloated on its own dollars, believing in its own invincibility, yet the nation felt grievously threatened by the growth and spread of Communism throughout the world. Communism was anti-capitalist and owed its advancement to the abuses of the capitalist system in many parts of the globe. White colonialism had been seriously weakened by the Great War, and the scars left by unfettered mercantile interests had made many of the poor peoples hungry for change. The successful Communist Chinese revolution and Stalin’s expansionist successes were blows to America’s newly found power.

When the Soviet Union successfully tested the nuclear weapons in the 50’s, hysteria became the national watchword. In school, we practiced responding to a nuclear attack by squirming under our desks, a joke of the highest order. We were given dog tags with our names and addressed emblazoned on the metal plates. I wore that plate around my neck with pride: I thought it was the coolest thing, entirely ignorant of its real purpose.

To further feed the growing hysteria, Senator McCarthy began his diatribes concerning the countless numbers of the communists that had supposedly infiltrated the government. This presumed threat had no real basis in fact: it was entirely manufactured. Many in the entertainment industry were also targeted. From this, the infamous black lists were created. This fear, finely honed by government propaganda, was effectively used to control the population. Fear and its bedfellow, hysteria, makes the population vulnerable to the dictates of the powerful; it makes the people too willing to relinquish their own power in exchange for what they are lead to believe is their enhanced safety.

Capital was busy building its machinery and required unobstructed access to resources both material and human. It required an uninterrupted supply of energy to feed itself. To do this, freedom needed to be curtailed, and democracy re-defined to fit these goals. Such is the nature of power. It is the way of human history and the rise of civilization for power to be concentrated into the hands of the few. Invariably, these oligarchs wreck havoc upon the lives of the many they supposedly represent. These excesses generally lead to the dissolution of empires.
My years to roams the planet are few. I have little time to appreciate and understand the wondrous intricacies and contradictions of living as a human being straddling the 20th and 21st centuries. I will live and die within an instant of geologic time. I have witnessed the parade and fanfare of twelve American presidents: the true representatives of those who hoard, control and distribute capital. I can offer testimonial regarding numerous wars fought for the sake of unbridled power. They are too numerous to mention and are all well documented in depressing detail. Many millions of innocent lives have been sacrificed so that capitalism might continue to thrive.

The world has become captive to and victimized by the relentless, ravenous engine of capitalism: a system that is lauded for its great success, but that has, in fact, sewn poisons into the very fabric of the sea, land and air. Capitalism requires that the individual be a reliable unit of consumption and that consumers all retain loyalty to the products that are the avenue for their personal fulfillment. The system requires conformity and a pliable public that will respond predictably to whatever is produced even if the product is known to be deleterious to human health such as tobacco. Furthermore, the system reinforces the notion that the self is at the supreme center of human endeavor. The system requires an essentially materialist view of existence and promotes the idea that acquisition is the indispensable corollary to human happiness. Without these precepts embedded in the psyche, the very essence of capitalism would flounder and collapse.

When my generation was growing up, we were not as inundated with advertisements and bombarded by an incessant media constantly informing us of what was desirable and what was not. At that time, mass media was an evolving entity, not yet firmly planted in the public domain. There were no cell phones or pagers. The portable radio had only recently been born. There were no computers, CDs or I-Pods. The clothes were basic. Adolescence had not yet become a vast billion dollar market.
Beneath all the high tech exuberance of the modern age, humans are essentially the same: imperfect creatures born into a world not of their own making, victims of whatever history has gone before and unwitting participants in whatever events that happen to be unfolding. Human existence is forever challenged by the discrepancy between thought and action and the internal conflicts that naturally arise between the intellect and the emotions.

In their short history, humans have always lived in a precarious balance with nature. Since the dawn of the industrial age, earth’s natural environment has suffered. The human intellect seems unable and unwilling to grasp the seriousness of its responsibility as the chief caretakers of the planet. The relentless plundering of the earth’s natural resources and poisoning of the ecosystem will inevitably lead to a disaster of terrible proportions. All this is known; the science is there, yet the madness continues and at an accelerated rate.

All these realities lead me to wonder: what is the point of my existence. What purpose does the existence of the entire species serve? Does it, if fact, serve any? I have come to conclude that as an individual member of the species, my role is not only to use my intellect to try to understand human existence, but to help in some small way to perfect the species by using reason to tame and constrain the emotions. Reason applied on an individual basis can, in my judgment, help move the species away from war, which has repeatedly eroded and reversed human progress, and lead the species into the enlightenment that only peace can influence.

Each individual represents a new and as of yet untested combination of genetic information. If the human kind manages to avert a catastrophic collapse of the biosphere, there is possibly some five billion years left in the solar lifetime for the species to evolve. Who can say where this evolution might lead.

One could argue, as many do, that the progress of the species is being directed by a grand strategy implemented by some all powerful benevolent being. I see no tangible evidence to support such an idea. The standard argument for the existence of god is the need for a first cause from which the creation of the universe unfolds. But, this does not answer the dilemma regarding the appearance of matter from apparent nothingness. George Bernard Shaw, an avowed and unrepentant atheist, said, “If god created heaven and earth then who created god?” This is a very insightful statement, for if the answer to this question is that god always was, then one could just as easily say that matter always was. In my judgment, this latter idea better fits the facts, for the movement of the universe through time and human history on the planet earth can more accurately be explained using the laws of physics and biology then they can be by divine intervention. Furthermore, I have little reason to believe that the evolution of the human species will necessarily proceed in a direction of more harmonious relationships or peaceful co-existence. In my more pessimistic moments, it appears that the human kind is becoming more deranged and self-destructive.

Much of the basis for spiritual beliefs and precepts implies or overtly states that there exists a mind or soul that although dependent upon the organic human brain is separate from it. All the notions of parapsychology, mysticism and the supernatural depend upon this construct. Here again, I don’t accept this supposition. The accumulated neurological evidence strongly suggests that all higher order human faculties including thought, personality, imagination and creativity emanate from the organic brain, and, as such, are dependent upon cellular and biochemical activity.

Anyone who has an elderly parent suffering from Alzheimer’s disease will attest to the gradual and inexorable deterioration of all aspects of human-ness that parallels the onslaught of the disease. Thought, imagination and the personality are not a product of an act of special creation that endowed humans with their higher faculties, but rather are a natural product of the activity of the human brain. These capabilities do not reside solely in homo sapiens as studies of apes and chimpanzees have shown.

With the emergence of string theory as a possible unifying cosmological principle, some physicists are maintaining that we live in a universe with many more dimensions than the three we are accustomed to. This kind of speculation like the assertion of the existence of an after life is impossible to verify. This kind of thinking, in my opinion, stems from the human desire to believe in the mysterious in the realm of existence. I propose that our senses do provide us with a reasonably accurate picture of reality. They are limited in what they can detect, but science and technology has extended the range of our senses considerably through technology. I maintain that there are no supernatural apparitions, no humans that can defy gravity, no sorcery, no time travelers, no ancient souls trapped in contemporary bodies. Furthermore, I suggest that all of reality is within the scope of human understanding and will ultimately be explained provided human do not self-destruct in the interim. Mysteries and miracles exist only as long as there is not the understanding to explain them. Lightening, volcanoes and solar eclipses are some examples of natural events that once were presumed to be the result of the arbitrary work of the deities only because ignorance of the real nature of these occurrences left room for fear and superstition to take hold. I do admit to the possibility, however, that the human brain is not sufficiently intelligent to comprehend some aspects of reality, but ignorance is not sufficient grounds for invoking supernatural forces. It is far better to admit our limitations and simply acknowledge that we do not know.

Death is the natural conclusion of what begins for all of us as birth. I can not exactly pinpoint the age at which I became conscious of my own self as a separate being or what age I became aware of the reality of my own death or the death of my parents. I can remember my son’s distress when he came up to me and my wife and asked us if it was true that we were both going to die. At that point in his young life, we were the center of his universe and it scarred him to realize that one day he would be without us.

The idea of the final and irrevocable dissolution of the self is difficult to comprehend, since living is so present to the human consciousness. Although it is rarely discussed, death’s reality has shaped human thought and beliefs over the span of human evolution. The shadow of death, in my opinion, fuels ambition, shapes beliefs and exerts a profound effect on behavior. The idea of the death of the individual is so personally abhorrent that its denial is embedded in the fabric of most religious belief whether it is embodied in the concept of heaven as in the Christian and Islamic religions or in the concept of reincarnation as in Hinduism.
If there is any immortality, it lies in the realm of our molecules and our genes. Even this is a relative immortality, since the longevity of the human genome is, of course, dependent upon the longevity of the species. The molecules and atoms that comprise our bodies will continue to exist only as long as matter exists.
One hundred years from the date of this writing, the overwhelming majority of those humans that currently populate this planet will be gone: their molecules re-assembled and effectively re-cycled within the biomass of the planet that functions as an entity in its own right. This birth, death and re-birth can be envisioned on a cosmic scale as stars and galaxies die and this dissolution leads to the reconstitution of new stars and galaxies from the same materials.

I was in the hospital with my father when he died. I watched him as he gave up his final gasps and the idea of himself ceased to be though the memory of who he was continued to live in those who knew him. Of course, half of my DNA, my inheritance, my strengths and weaknesses of both body and mind came from him, and he derived half of his own inheritance from his father. This went on through the generations leading inevitably to the very beginning of the species.

The forward movement of the species through future generations represents a largely unknown terrain. There are many possible futures that remain ahead: some, unfortunately, more likely than others. But, where human events have not yet unfolded, there is hope. Even blind optimism may prove propitious.
My children, now young adults, have already made choices that will accentuate certain future possibilities and discourage others. In spite of all the planning and preparation for future, life can inject the unexpected, the traumatic, and the joyous without apparent warning.

Built into the fabric of humanity is a hunger for intimate association with others, a need for cooperative effort and a longing for peace. Other aspects of the human character, however, include a tendency to be distrustful of individuals outside of the accepted group, a fear of change, a belligerence and hatred of that which is feared and not understood and gravitation towards power. It is the outcome of the internal struggle between these polar influences that defines an individual existence and ultimately the character of civilization.

It is the blind striving for power and dominance that has accelerated the rise and subsequent fall of many civilizations throughout human history. Paradoxically, it is this same striving that has inspired the progressive growth of technology. The challenges of human societies in regards to the future are formidable. The great task that lies ahead, if the species is to survive on the planet rich with the diversity of life, is to find peaceful solutions to the problems that are the mainspring of conflict: problems such as accessibility to sources of energy, arable land and water, severe inequities in the distribution of wealth and cultural and religious differences. In addition to making progress in these areas, it is of the utmost consequence to take immediate action to halt the continued degradation of the natural environment and institute practices to rebuild the ecosystem made fragile by relentless human activity that has, heretofore, been oblivious of the consequences of this behavior. Without striving towards these goals and acting appropriately, the future for the species will prove to be a dismal one. Humans no longer have the luxury of time, and complacency is no longer a viable option. Lofty beliefs in the wondrous and benevolent oversight of a creator can not save us from our own blindness, nor can patriotic fervor that exceeds the bounds of reason protect us from our own collective stupidity.

I began the journey of existence at the moment of conception and was catapulted into the world of humans in the midst of a very tumultuous century. A broad spectrum of possibilities, strengths and frailties is woven into the fabric of my being. These aspects together with the external environment of my growing up and the personal choices I have made along the way have helped shape my own particular destiny. Sixty years have passed by my window. I have experienced the range of emotions that all humans understand. I have felt joy and sadness, success and disappointment, optimism and despair, peace and turmoil, fear and tranquility, happiness and depression. I have struggled with my intellect to grasp the meaning of what I feel and the nature of the physical world around me. I have come to certain conclusions, as I have already expressed, others I can merely speculate upon and still others that lie firmly beyond my grasp.

It has been and continues to be a very interesting journey. I have had the privilege to have met some wonderful individuals who have helped me hone my understanding of life and my appreciation of the beautiful. Despite the frantic and almost hysterical activity of the human species, the natural world of the planet earth remains wondrously alive and dynamic. The world is replete with the wondrous diversity of life, form and color. Human civilization as exemplified by the city is not yet dead and still offers promise and new possibilities for the future. It is my wish to leave the kind of legacy that adds some small contribution to the positive evolution of the species.


No comments: