Instructions from somewhere
The other night I looked at my kids as I put them to bed. I really saw them. It was one of those moments, all too rare, where the din of thought quiets just enough for truth to present. As if cleaning a dirty window. I looked on Lua, tucked into her “cornucopia” (wrapped in a large blanket, tapered to a triangle at her feet, the opening a bouquet with all her stuffies arranged around her head). We are small but critical parts of an infinite chain. Our actions ripple into the future.
How much did Michelle and I have to do with this girl’s creation? Everything – after all we are her parents. But also nothing. It feels hard to take credit. I did not design the alveoli to support oxygenation; nor did I invent the action potential that enables neural functions like thought and movement; I did not decide that 5 fingers is optimal for a hand design; and never-mind the immune system, too hard. No, I’m merely the executor of instructions.
Not only did I not invent the parts, but even if I did, to claim true ownership would be misguided. Universe is not static. Yet our minds long for unbending certainty. Ownership suggests permanence. But that’s not how things are; the linguistic sloppiness reflects a cultural fiction. No, we are stewards, maybe guardians, but not owners. This may sound like mere semantics but it’s not. Why does it matter? Because the relationship we have with things matters. This small re-frame matters. It makes the prospect of loss easier to process as it (whatever it is) was never ours to own. And appreciation becomes more accessible in that we’re serving something larger than ourselves.
The point? That rational understanding (strict materialism, all is the sum of the parts) without a sense of awe is severely limited. It’s easy to get swept in the rushing waters of reality. Sometimes it’s worth stepping to the side and watching it from the riverbank. To get perspective. It’s humbling to consider myself the steward of these creations. It helps to come to terms with the fact that I do not control the full picture, outcome. That said it’s inspiring to know the degree to which things are controllable. It’s not all a hot chaotic soup of bits and atoms and no rules. Outcomes can be measured, rationally designed, predicted. Think of the complexity involved in a surgical procedure. Or in an endeavor like the Manhattan project. It clearly is possible to understand, to predict and to ship things that work well. Control is possible. But let’s not forget we are all taking the materials we’re handed: whether genes, molecules, atoms, words. We do not create entirely new parts; we remix.
Upside down is also true
Looking upside down at the world, like in a downward dog or headstand, is a pastime that I don’t get to do enough of. Cars pass by, impossibly attached to the road. People walk on the ceiling like bobbing creatures (try it, you’ll notice). It’s thrilling to have one’s notions of gravity disrupted at each moment. In doing this (admittedly) odd practice one gains an appreciation for the simple truth that we are upside down as much as we are right side up. Coming to grips with that fact is not something we’re in the habit of cultivating. On occasion I’ll do the same thing in the gym where I’ll monitor people’s posture and lifting technique, though upside down. It’s amazing how obvious the issues become if you do this – there’s no end of stooping, knee buckling and forward neck lean to be witnessed.
That perspective helps see where things are flawed. This is not a new trick. The old master painters used to do something similar – they would look at the painting in a mirror, to render it backwards, and the mirror would point out exactly where the rendering is broken. This is especially helpful with portraits where a nostril or eyelid being off just a millimeter is the difference between a smiling Mona lisa and a disfigured syphilitic.
Seeing things with fresh perspective has been helpful as I deal with this ambiguity.
Here’s a video from earlier last year doing rocket experiments with the kids. This was really fun teaching the kids about scientific methods (I’m at the table recording our proportions of various ingredients to see what produces the greatest lift – of course they lost interest in that part quickly). Our actions ripple into the future. We do the best we can with what’s in our control. Then we let it go. Rockets!