Tuesday, January 20, 2009


I was thinking today about nature and civilization, and how arbitrary the line between them can be. Everything ultimately was produced by natural forces, right? So is it just the act of laying human hands on something that makes it an artifact of civilization? This was touched on briefly in His Dark Materials. Perhaps a more significant distinction is our expectation of things, depending on whether we call them natural or man-made. We expect natural things (trees, forests, mountains, cockroaches) to change. They gradually come into existence, then just as gradually die away. Generally, both of these processes are happening at the same time, so like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, it's hard to say whether something is coming or going. Adding to the complexity, things in the natural world are in a constant state of becoming something else. A mountain is constantly being eroded by wind and water, and what was once mountain is now silt; and what was once silt is now river bed or flood plain soil. Animals are constantly playing host to myriad bacteria and fungi, which, far from parasitic, are necessary parts of the larger animal's existence. Where do I end, and the flora in my gut begin? It's hard to say. In nature, everything is constantly in flux, and nothing is well defined.

On the other hand, we seem to expect man-made things to exhibit a bit more consistency. Once something is made, we expect it to last. But that's nonsense, isn't it? It's a basic tenet of Buddhism (and the second law of thermodynamics) that everything falls apart. Doesn't matter if I made it, you made it, Flying Spaghetti Monster made it, or it came into existence on its own. It will, eventually, return to its most basic components. All work we do sometimes seems like a struggle against acceptance of this basic, undeniable fact.

I've forgotten where I was going with this... oh yes. In his speech this afternoon, President Obama talked about how it's time for us to take responsibility and fix what's broken. I know he's right, but I'm embarrassed to admit that part of me would rather look for excuses. "It's all going to fall apart anyway, so why bother?" Well... here's why. It's not about the end result. It's not even remotely about the end result. It's about the work itself. Honest work undertaken with whole hearted intention and awareness (tapas and svadhyaya for all you yogis out there) creates its own reward (isvarapranidhana), regardless of what the material consequences may be. Of course whatever we build is going to fall apart in the end. If it didn't, it would rob us of the opportunity to rebuild it yet again.

Speaking of fixing what's broken, I finally initiated email correspondence with my father in November. At first, I just wanted to thank him for letting me (and my sister and brother) know about his health issues, and wish him a speedy recovery. But we've kept emailing back and forth. We haven't touched on any of the big issues that divided us for years. We've really only talked about movies, actually. But, well, I had to start the rebuilding process somewhere.


Pamela said...

much too required thinking post this for...

Pamela said...

Oh, oops, scanned the last thing. Good for you for being an adult adn contacting your father.