It’s a tricky thing, living. Being alive. Being aware of being alive. We don’t think about it as being hard, at least not most of the time. (Probably because the alternative to the multiple challenges of being alive are even more repellent to the mind).
But the raw fact is that none of us asked for any of this. How could we? We are the (current) end products of a ginormous random chemistry experiment that just happened to produce living cells as an un-planned consequence of the death of stars and the elemental debris they spewed into space.
That is, of course, quite a condensed version of what we now know happened “out there” that lead to us living “here”, but it gnaws at the bone of contention any of us could have with life in general. We the living were each conceived, born, and brought up with sufficient success to be sitting here now contemplating our existence. The more extreme oddity of us humans (an oddity which we share to a substantial degree with the other higher primates and some mammals) is that our brains took a rather dramatic evolutionary turn a couple million years ago which led to us stumbling upon verbal language which, in the end, most likely led to everything else that we think of as our uniquely human accomplishments.
The fact of our existence as walking, talking, engineering and social people has led countless of our number to reach the (baseless) conclusion that we are the highest aim of some vast intelligence that made everything that there is just to tickle our fancy in a way that would result in eternal gratitude to Him who made it so. The sheer absurdity of this idea is only matched by the screaming improbability that you and I should have come to be as we are at all!
But we are here, and that, in the end, may be the most difficult reality to accept.
We disregard the forms of life that last only a day, a week, or a year. Flies and ants are nothing to us. Pets who stick around for a decade or so we hold to ourselves as companions as long as they endure, then we deeply mourn their loss. Friends and family we have with us for what seems like a very long time indeed. Until, that is, they begin to succumb to the biology of aging. At first it’s our parents that die, but then the older friends (who weren’t all that old when we first acquired them) begin to age, and our sense of plenty that we felt about our youthful time is vanquished by a palpable, approaching mortality.
It’s happened to me more than once, where I will still stop still in the midst of swirling humanity and notice the people driving in their cars or standing in line at the grocery store around me, going about their business as if the only thing to do is to be busy at our work, or buying food or driving to the store. We could just as easily be the ants on an anthill, or the bees building a hive, or beavers engineering a damn or elk rutting in the fall woods.
For it is all exactly the same. We are animals in the same way that all others are: discrete biological ticking clocks, fraught with flaws and potentials for the illnesses or diseases or health and resilience that make some clocks tick faster (or slower) than others.
It is only because we are clearly smarter than the other animals that we allow ourselves an elevated position above the dirty fray of life. A position, I would argue, that we neither deserve nor, in truth, occupy.
The best we humans can do is to make the most of our lives. To our credit, many humans have done just that, and have found a certain poetry in our shared fate. There is a pathos — a certain aching beauty — in the courage that we humans often find to both accept our fate and then turn our finite energies toward making the short lives of our fellow humans better.
It is a discouraging fact, however, that a good many humans are going about their lives with a less-than-admirable level of awareness. I can’t really begrudge them that, on a personal level. But the tragedy comes when the follies of human hubris and inflated self-importance leads people to inflict un-needed pain, suffering and even death upon their fellow hominids.
That’s why I continue to feel it important to preach the reality of who and what we are (based upon the scientific knowledge we currently possess). I think humanism is the philosophical bedrock of the best human ethos. I think religious opportunists borrow this naturally-evolved human ethic in and then attribute it to an external deity for the crass purpose of building a brand and promoting it for tribal and (let’s be honest) commercial purposes.
We are short-lived organisms. We are more complex than most other life on the planet (almost all of which is on the scale of bacteria — the larger the animal, the fewer in number), but that doesn’t give us any special privilege when it comes to the challenges and ultimate outcomes of life. We are each a temporary assembly of elements and energy, made up of as much bacteria as anything else. We are built of compounds that were formed in the crucible of condensing — then exploding — stars, fueled by the life that grows as a result of the nuclear heat of our sun. We have the most complex and interesting brains ever seen on this planet in all of it’s eons of supporting life. We are social animals that love each other, can stand in awe of a sunset or melt at the kiss of a lover.
In short, there are compensations for the ceaseless challenge of living, made all the more beautiful by their rarity. The common is never what we hold to be precious. Yet in our daily experience we are literally enveloped by life, without and within. It is all around us from the day we are born until the day we die. We’ve always known that it was life’s fragility — it’s temporal nature — that made it precious. But now, thanks to science, we know just how uncommon life such as we know it is in the universe, as well as how many microscopic lives are the vital basis of our own. More reasons why this complicated, challenging act of living — for all of its difficulties — means so very, very much to us.