LIFE IS BIG. LIFE IS SMALL

No Snowflakes Are the Same from The Washington Post, December 8, 2022

Many of life’s most dramatic changes happen so gradually, they often go un-noticed. I wonder whether such a failure of awareness is due simply to being poorly attuned to one’s world or a function of the snail’s pace of these changes. Perhaps the universe is charitable allowing us to incrementally adjust to dramatic change rendering it all more bearable. Only on occasion does a certain experience capture our attention in such a manner that we are startled awake to briefly glimpse the enormity of the changes we have undergone. Certainly, we have learned the value of managing our awareness of change. Hyperawareness is bound to leave one dizzied by the swirl of changes we are swept up in. One can’t help but ponder whether the so-called examined life is a little too much like politics (read: sausage making) and it’s just not in our interest to watch it too carefully. I mean, maybe we need to ignore most of it.  Think, for example, of one of the countless time-lapse videos you have seen say, on some nature show. A subject is photographed at designated intervals and the individual frames are threaded together and shown in rapid succession. It creates the impression of time passing at an artificially rapid pace offering us a front-row seat on extraordinary change. In seconds days become nights, seasons pass into season, plants sprout from seeds, blooms and die; a baby becomes a toddler, an adolescent, an adult, a senior, and then dust. A lot goes on in the time between the beginnings and endings of these powerful time-lapse demonstrations. A lot goes on in the course of a lifetime. In fact, maybe the right question to consider is what exactly a life is other than a series of changes to which we are forever adjusting.

One of the myths circulated in my youth was that a drowning person sees their entire life pass before them moments prior to death. Hmmm. Shall we imagine this experience as a kind of time-lapse rendering of the events and changes that make up a life? It is curious that we should be intrigued by the notion of observing all that change in the course of life’s final moments. I wonder if there is anything redemptive about simply observing all that change. I don’t recall whether these tales of drowning and a quick but comprehensive look at one’s entire life included gleaning any final lessons or discovering any meaning in all that change. Was it just a time-lapse sequence without a narrative interpretation? Who came up with this idea, anyway? There seems to me, little solace in simply having to review one’s life in its entirety before drowning.

But the idea of a life review is not uniquely ascribed to drowning victims. It’s a pretty popular end of life theme that’s found expression in all manner of genres. I suspect this is, at least partially true because there is a general recognition, we don’t do a very good job of attending to the changes we make as we make them, so we never really seem to have a handle on just who we are and what we ‘re about. So, to neaten it all up we imagine the opportunity to write an epilogue to our life where we view it in its entirety and draw some conclusions from the sum of our shapeshifting along this evolutionary path. Our epilogue considers weighty questions like, “Did anything really happen here? Was any of it of consequence? Did any of this really matter?”

At some point in elementary school, I recall being instructed to plant a bean in a dixie cup filled with soil. Our class assignment was to bring home our newly planted bean and observe what happens. I am struck now by how closely I attended the evolution of this bean from seed to bean stalk. I was mesmerized when the waxy pale stalk first pushed itself above the soil line. Each day I inspected the cup which sat on the windowsill behind the kitchen sink. I marked its progress until the stalk, now green, sprouted leaves and stood tall. I suppose the exercise is nearly perfect for any age group since beans germinate and grow quickly demanding relatively little patience to witness the miracle of this transformation. Taken as a whole, this act of creation is extraordinary. But like all creative activity it is infinitely more nuanced than a simple single word summation. It is painstakingly detailed and iterative and most importantly, incomplete. It is equally painstakingly small when viewed in the context of the universe. Both the minuteness and the magnitude of a life renders summation impossible. Truly there is no moment when we can sum it all up because it is finished or because it has fulfilled its purpose and become what it was intended to be. Of course we prefer to view the world with distinct beginnings and endings. Everything begins. Everything ends. We learn to write introductory paragraphs, tell our story, then, bring it to a close with conclusive statements. It’s hard to see it any other way, I suppose. We want to believe each of us has a distinct beginning and ending with a story woven in between these two markers. What can be said, what shall we think about it all when we can step back and take stock of all that has happened between these two markers when the truth is we were largely unaware? Relatively little of all that has passed caught our attention. We had no idea so much was happening.

There is no satisfactory summation because life is both infinitely small and infinitely large and we are ill-equipped to see either completely. So, we must be content to merely speculate regarding conclusions about it all recognizing the inevitable flaws in our summations. We will always miss the exquisite detail of the changes that create us. We will always miss the vastness of the bigger story of which we are only a small part. All we have are brief pauses…interruptions, as it were, along becoming’s path to form woefully inadequate impressions about this life.

Life is big. Life is small. How can we possibly take the measure of a life’s value in the context of a universe that is infinite? How can we not assign value to a life in a universe where even the microscopically small is so exquisitely crafted?

“The Pillars of Creation” Photographed by the Webb Telescope

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