Remembrance of things past1 is the special province of the aged, for whom the long shadow of the past looms over the present and the ever-shortening future. Everything conspires to remind: face in the mirror, alien; daily routines, upended; places, bulldozed; useful things, obsolete; friends, family, and acquaintances who peopled our world, sick, dying, dead. Our attempts to freeze time—photographs, videos, recordings—fade, as do our memories. Despite our efforts to stop time, the loves and friendships, the hardships and tragedies, the triumphs and defeats, the jubilations and heartbreaks, the full pulsing, throbbing experiences of life—are gone.
We hold close our mementos and memories, trying to salvage fragments of a world being submerged by the in-rushing tide of time. We are denizens of Atlantis, that mythic lost world that sunk beneath the sea, leaving no trace. But not yet. This moment, right now, is our time. Hold it close.
1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows
Of a thousand years of joys and sorrows Not a trace can be found
You who are living, live the best life you can Don’t count on earth to preserve memory
The cosmos is a source of wonderment and deep mystery that rouses visions of possible celestial beings. Humans have gazed at the heavens and envisioned life beyond our earthly horizon since the first stirrings of civilization in Mesopotamia. The earliest form of this has been the worship of deities; sun gods, planet goddesses, heavenly personages, and divine beings. We are familiar with “the man in the moon”, green martins, and a host of space aliens portrayed in movies, books, comics, and television programs.
Recently, in the last 100 years or so, we have become concerned about detecting, confirming, and contacting alien space life. UFO sightings, a subject of considerable controversy, might suggest they are already here, among us. Major efforts costing millions of dollars, including the Alien Telescope Array, search the cosmos for signals of extraterrestrial intelligence. Space probes have been sent to the moon, Mars, Venus, as well as Jupiter and Saturn’s moons, scouring for the slightest hints of life. We have even sent a space craft with images and presumed universal codes about our earthly existence into the deep unknown beyond our solar system; a message in a bottle tossed into the vast sea, announcing: “We are here!”
The chill of cosmic isolation, the yearning for companionship amidst the vast darkness of infinite space motivates the question that often accompanies these efforts: “Are we alone in the cosmos?” Our anxiety about being alone is accompanied by fear of what we might find, or what might find us. We have only developed the scientific capacities to seriously pursue these inquires in the last 50 years or so; a mere eye-blink in cosmological time. Any space alien capable of discovering us, communicating with us, or visiting us will likely be much more technologically advanced.
Will they be nice to us? Might we become their pet? Will we be exterminated as a troublesome varmint? Devoured for a snack? Hunted for sport? Killed for kicks? Our imaginings of space aliens are filled with these fears, with the amusing premise that our cosmic Stone Age weapons and technology can defend us against aliens who have traversed unfathomable distances using unimaginably sophisticated means.
Obviously, we have no idea what space aliens might look like, should they exist, so they provide a blank screen where we project our primal anxieties. The images and stories we conjure bring us face to face, not with aliens, but with ourselves. We can learn much about ourselves through these projections. The most common images are mutant humanoids: ET and Yoda-like figures that can be wise and friendly, or more disturbingly formed humanoids that aim to destroy humanity. The default image is “something like us”, because, after all, this is what intelligent life must look like.
And then there are the horror films and stories seeking to evoke our deepest terror. These are not humanoids; they are creatures of our nightmares, often insectoids, with little outward resemblance to ourselves. Their mere form announces their malevolence, for anything this utterly foreign can only be a mortal threat.
Aliens Have Landed
We scour sky, expectant and fearful, searching for intelligent life to assuage our cosmic loneliness. Ironically, we fail to lower our gaze to our own planet. Intelligent life has landed. Millions of years ago. It swarms in our midst. Perhaps the most alien life forms among us are cephalopods; octopus, cuttlefish, and squid. No other animals have evolved as early from the all the rest of the Animal Kingdom as these creatures. Our common ancestor with cephalopods is the flatworm, from which we diverged over 600 million years ago. Unlike most other complex animals, octopuses do not have a central nervous system (CNS). Their information network is distributed along its 8 arms. Alien, indeed. And, by all evidence, very intelligent.
A crude way to assess how alien other earthlings are to us is by how distant our evolutionary ancestors are and by how they gather, organize, and use information critical to their survival. Insects also are very evolutionary distant from us; our last common ancestor is about 400 million years ago. Insects comprise the largest biomass of terrestrial animals consisting of over 30 million species. While they do have a CNS, it is quite primitive, giving rise to strange forms that can easily evoke horror.
A host of other dazzlingly bizarre creatures, also evolutionarily distant, throng our planet. The oceans, lakes, ponds, and waterways surge with over a 30,000 species of fish, many exotic and other-worldly. Birds, distant relatives to dinosaurs, fill the sky with their dazzling array of colors and songs.1 Fish, and especially birds, have sophisticated central nervous systems and our shared ancestry with both is about 300 million year ago. While strange, they possess a vague resemblance to us that octopuses and insects do not.
Closer to home, closer to us, less evolutionarily alien, are mammals. While mammalian forms can be very different, from giraffes, to elephants, to tigers, we do share much in common with them; we are in the same biological family. We ride them for pleasure and transport, harness them to accomplish difficult tasks, hunt them for sport, food, and trophies attesting to our power, harvest them for food, wear their skins and furs for protection and fashion, train them to be our eyes and ears, even invite a select few into our homes for companionship, claiming some to be “our best friend.”
Intelligent humanoid life forms also share our terrestrial home. We have biological brethren, primates, which consist of around 200 species, including gorillas, orangutans, bonobos, and gibbons. We share 98% of our DNA with our closest relative, chimpanzees. They look much more like us than most alien humanoid images we have contrived, act uncannily like us, and we have even been able to communicate with some—they learned forms of human communication (e.g., sign languages); we have not learned theirs (who is more intelligent here?). We have hunted and hounded almost all to near extinction. And, to save them from ourselves, we encaged them in in zoos; jail-mates with a host of others in the Animal Kingdom we have pushed to near extinction.
If space aliens were to visit our planet, there is no reason why they would be more interested in us than, say, elephants, horses, crabs, or octopuses. If they examined earth from a dispassionate perspective, why shouldn’t they view us as a pestilence; a plague that has visited death, torture, and destruction on all the other earthly inhabitants? We have, after all, caused the extinction of many hundreds of species. Currently one in four mammals, one in eight birds, one in three amphibians, and one in three conifers and similar plants are at risk for extinction because of our actions. Almost no forms of plants or animals have escaped our ruinous hand.2
We fear space aliens might try to exterminate us, hunt us, devour us, “domesticate” us, murder us for profit or thrill. These fears spring from the fear that they might be too much like us. If aliens are “intelligent” in the same manner we credit ourselves, then they might well treat us precisely as we have treated our fellow beings with whom we share this planet. Blind, groping creatures, we experience existential angst about our presumed cosmic solitary existence, while annihilating untold billions of fellow earthlings. A mirror, not a telescope is needed discover alien visitors: We are the aliens on this planet. Frightful aliens. The monsters that haunt our worst nightmares are us.
My first, almost reflexive, old-doggie response to this cliché is to disagree. “What do you mean!? How old is old? 50? 65? 80? Some can be demented at 60 years and others, at 80, can be sharper than many 20-year-old’s.” Once my indignation subsides, I am painfully aware of the daily reminders of the inescapable reality that the body ages, the mind slackens, and energy wanes. Information goes in, but doesn’t stick. Recall is diminished as I root around for a familiar name, word, or past event. Attention wanders. Complex reasoning is a trial with failure a common outcome; even no-so-complex reasoning sometimes befuddles. Focus is fragmented: “What was I just doing?” “Why was I doing it?” “Where did I put it?”1
Dementia. I have witnessed family members, friends, and acquaintances fall to this dreaded outcome. The tragedy is twofold, afflicting both the sufferer as well as their family and caretakers. Dementia is one of my biggest fears and, I know, also is for many others of my generation. Diminishing capacities are not only a source of concern, in themselves, but another, more general level of anxiety pervades: “Is this a sign of dementia?”
Research on the normative patterns of cognitive decline with age helps, somewhat, to normalize what I am experiencing. Normal declines include: information processing speed and reaction times; keeping multiple thoughts in mind at the same time; memory of recent events; remembering to do things in the future; screening out distracting information, multitasking, sustaining attention; recalling words, names, places; thinking abstractly, making complex decisions, reasoning, solving new problems, and regulating behavior.2
Quite a comprehensive list! Should I be relieved that these are “normal?” It certainly suggests that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. Well, let’s look at some things that remain relatively stable or improve with age: Vocabulary and comprehension of language remain stable. Procedural memory, which is how to do things, like ride a bike, ice skate, swim, drive a car, also remains stable. Older adults have a lifetime of stored information to draw on when making decisions and responding to problems and situations. They also are quicker to recover from negative experiences, less reactive to stressful interpersonal encounters, more positive in their outlook, and, surprisingly, happier.3
So, when the elderly get in a car accident, which is much more likely, they will be able to talk about it fluently and be less emotionally reactive. They retain the ability to drive, but their mental and physical reaction times are slower, they forget where they are going, get confused, distracted, lose their attentional focus, and have diminished perceptual acuity making driving at night, in the rain, snow, etc., challenging. This is hardly reassuring. And it does not make me happier…
Old Tricks, New Tricks
The diminishment of my facilities poses a new challenge: How do I manage to continue effectively performing old, necessary tasks? Answer: New tricks must be learned. Most advice about coping with aging focuses on diet, exercise, and activities. Much less is offered about specific behavioral strategies to deal with everyday tasks that have become more challenging because of cognitive decline. Here are some that I have discovered.
“Houston, we have a problem.” The first, necessary, and most important step is to admit there is a problem. Nothing can happen until this admission is made. This can be difficult, for it means admitting that I am old, vulnerable, no longer as capable, and on the noticeable downward slide into the grave. Yikes!4
Speed Kills. This phrase has been used in reference to auto safety. It also applies, metaphorically, to the elderly. Diminished processing speed and attentional focus, greater distractibility, attenuated multitasking capabilities, etc., etc., can create serious problems when performing even routine tasks at the formerly habituated speed. I chant to myself, “Speed Kills” to slow myself down when, for example, paying the bills, collecting my belongings at the gym as I prepare to leave, or trying to save time by doing two things at once. Chanting is especially important while driving when “Speed Kills” is not metaphorical. The challenge, of course, it to remember to chant…
Remember You Won’t Remember. I know I will not remember. When I do remember that I must mail a letter, write a bill, etc., I arrange the environment to remind me: The letter goes in front of the door exiting the house, the checkbook is placed in my shoes, etc. Also, yellow sticky notes placed in unusual and unavoidable spots. ”In place of memories, memorandums.”5
New Tricks for New Tricks
Believe that old dogs can do new tricks. It is easy to get discouraged in the face ever diminishing abilities and conclude, “I’m too old” or “Why bother.” One of the biggest obstacles to learning new tricks is thinking, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” You can. It just takes more time, requires more repetition, more written notes to aid memory and focus, more practice, and more patience.
Adjust expectations. I will not write a novel in a new language, become a concert pianist or an IT expert. Time and ability impose limits. But I can, if I chose, learn a new language, acquire skills at the piano, or setup my own blog site. New tricks are possible within the compass of my energy, abilities, and interests.
Seek joy. I have less energy to sustain prolonged, intense tasks. This means it is absolutely essential that the new tricks I undertake, tricks not necessary for my welfare and health, bring me joy. Joy is my “Geiger counter” to detect those tricks that are worthy of my precious, dwindling, and ever more limited energy. Joy creates energy, passion, engagement in the world. Joy is what keeps me motivated to keep at it, to seek mastery—but at a level that does not seriously diminish joy.
Coordinating activities to maximize joy. I simply cannot sustain focused energy as I once could. Furthermore, if I attempt complex tasks when my energy is low, problems, frustration, and mistakes abound. Not much joy in that. So, I try to match my tricks with my schedule; difficult ones in the morning, and reserve the afternoons and evenings for less taxing and more entertaining activities, like reading novels, listening to baseball games, talking with friends.
One Big New Trick for an Old Dog
The new tricks above involve developing specific cognitive and behavioral strategies to cope with the loss of old tricks. A completely new challenge also arises that requires a new trick: The trick of making peace with old age. This is unlike other tricks; it does not entail learning new skills, acquiring more know-how, or improving proficiency. It requires a new attitude towards oneself, one’s life, one’s past, one’s future. It involves acceptance.
Acceptance is not surrender. Surrender is passive. Acceptance is much harder— it calls us to actively embrace our plight. This challenge encompasses humility, forgiveness, and gratitude; to live vitally in the face of impending demise. I have witnessed family, friends, and acquaintances grow old and have learned from each. Some I admire greatly, and they have tutored me how to approach my end. Others offer a cautionary note to the dangers, traps, and pitfalls that I could so easily succumb.
So, can you teach an old dog new tricks? Depends on the dog.
The name of the author is the first to go followed obediently by the title, the plot, the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain, to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag, and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps, the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember it is not poised on the tip of your tongue, not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall, well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.
No wonder you rise in the middle of the night to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war. No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted out of a love poem that you used to know by heart. —Billy Collins
Wrinkles. When I look into the mirror I see accordion folded eyelids, furrows, north-to-south, in my cheeks, baggie eyes, sagging mouth, lined forehead, and spots of brown, large and small, splattered across my face. 74 years of life displayed on my face.
Rebecca is the daughter of a neighbor who, when she was young, I would meet as she walked her dog in our neighborhood. She always was a sunbeam; engaging, mature beyond her years, thoughtful, and I delighted in our chance meetings. Rebecca’s life took her to Columbia University, where she received a degree in English, which was followed by a Master’s degree at Oxford, a Ph.D. at Berkeley, and then a position at Princeton. Obviously brilliant. But much more than that. She was kind, made life-friends at every stop, and possessed a generous spirit and a deep commitment to education.
Rebecca died, this August, of a rare cancer. She was 37 years old.1
Wrinkles. I gaze into the mirror and I see wrinkles. No longer smooth-faced, filled with youthful promise, but old.
Richard was my best friend in high school and college. We were joined at the hip; he was the yin to my yang. We lived together for several years and joyfully participated in many youthful antics that are the source of fond memories. Richard had no enemies. He was affable, smart, funny, and unpretentious. He conferred humorous nick-names on me that many of our friends adopted. In our later years he still referred to me by one of his favorites: Bag.
Richard died 9 years ago. He has missed the last 9 years of his daughter’s growth into adulthood.
Wrinkles. I peer into the mirror and see wrinkles. Time’s signature on my body, alerting me to the time, past.
Bill was my best friend for 50 years. He was a pilot in the Korean war, a flight instructor for the Air Force, an accomplished classical musician, and returned to school to complete a Ph.D. in psychology at 48 years of age. His father died when he was 14 and he had a special sensitivity and understanding of the struggles of youth. He touched the lives of several generations of young people, both aspiring pilots and troubled college students. We spent many, many hours in conversation for many, many years. He changed my life. Profoundly. He is grafted onto my very being.
Bill died 3 years ago.
Wrinkles. I examine myself in the mirror and see wrinkles. Creases of laughter, grief, worry, joy carved into my skin.
Roland graced my life with his friendship for over 35 years. He was a Marine lieutenant for 2 tours of combat duty in Viet Nam, returned and acquired a Ph.D. in French philosophy, and became a widely published professor. We shared much: Firstborn sons, born into blue-collar families, surviving in rather rough neighborhoods, and the first to attend college of anyone in our extended families. And we loved baseball. We sought wisdom, solace, and understanding to life’s dilemmas and challenges by reading, discussing, and arguing our way through the works of some of the West’s greatest thinkers. We also were both haunted by death.
Roland died last year.
Three dear friends and a remarkable young woman. Dead. Gone. Forever.
Wrinkles. I contemplate my image in the mirror. I am grateful for having lived long enough to have known these fellow travelers, and to have my face etched with wrinkles. And, as my journey’s end rushes toward me, I am comforted by my wrinkles.
Shakespeare Sonnet 73
That time of year thou mayst in me behold When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. In me thou see’st the twilight of such day As after sunset fadeth in the west, Which by and by black night doth take away, Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest. In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire That on the ashes of his youth doth lie, As the death-bed whereon it must expire, Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by. This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong, To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
Planet Earth has never bothered to speak—until now. What follows is an unedited transcription of Planet Earth’s remarks to this reporter.
I am Planet Earth. I am sure you have seen pictures of me, which have, lately, been accompanied by your pleas to save me. I am bloody sick of all the posters and dire warnings about my fate by you trumpeting, self-absorbed critters presuming to speak for me when, of course, it is, as usual, all about you. So, here is my response, although I do not expect any of you to listen, or care, especially as I am not going to bolster your hollow sense of self-importance.
Let me begin by saying that the pictures you have seen of me are only a snapshot of my life, and a very brief moment at that. I would like to share the history of my earlier life as well my thoughts about my future so you will know, really, who I am and not presume to speak for me.
My life began over 4 ½ billion years ago. That’s billion. I know it is hard, if not impossible, for you creatures of not-even-an-eyeblink to grasp, but it is important for you to appreciate the entire arc of my life before you make claims on my behalf.
The first billion years I lived a simple but volatile life. I began as a molten ball of metals and minerals, bombarded by asteroids and cosmic debris large and small, and even experienced a cataclysmic collision with another planet. All this added to my mass and girth. I was roiling with volcanic activity, enveloped in mixture of gasses (none that you would find pleasant), formed a crust, and water condensed on my surface. Above is a simulated picture. Obviously, no actual pictures exist, but you get the picture. During this time single-celled life, anaerobes, appeared and thrived in the methane, ammonia, water vapor, neon, and carbon dioxide gaseous haze that surrounded me.
After about a billion years or so, cyanobacteria appeared. These are also single-celled life forms, but unlike the anaerobes, they rely on the novel process of using energy from the sun to synthesize water and carbon dioxide to create carbohydrates; a process called photosynthesis. Oxygen is a waste product. The oxygen produced was mostly absorbed in my oceans, seabed rock, and land surfaces. I experienced a relatively steady atmospheric state for the next 2 billion years where anaerobes continued to flourish; oxygen did not constitute an appreciable part of my atmosphere.
Take note: This very brief account covers 2/3 of my existence. What follows in a more detailed description of the next 1/3. Should you be keeping score (and you should), you, homo sapiens, have been around for .02% of this remaining 1/3.
Oxygen Holocaust! Oxygen Catastrophe! The Great Oxidation Event (GOE)! “The greatest pollution crisis!” These terms and phrases describe what occurred about 1.5 billion years ago, when the oxygen content of my atmosphere rose from .0001% to 3%—a 30,000 fold increase. Sunlight and oxygen were lethal to almost all the existing life forms and I became enveloped in a bubble of poisonous gas: oxygen.1
Terms like “Oxygen Catastrophe” and reference to oxygen as a poisonous gas call your attention to your use of words that you think are “objective.” Words like “pollution,” which doesn’t really mean anything to me; it is a self-serving value-loaded assessment, like “weeds” and “disease,” and the best one: “invasive species.” “Invasive?!” As if there are boundaries, like your imaginary, militantly enforced political boundaries, that have been breached by “alien” species, often imported by you, requiring extermination because they disrupt your sense of order. Want to know the most “invasive” of species on the planet at this moment? Look in the mirror.2
The oxygen content continued to increase, giving rise to radically new forms of life. Multi-celled life began around 1.5 billion years ago in this hyper-oxygenated atmosphere, but the bizarre menagerie of clinging, crawling, burrowing, flapping, splashing, slithering creatures didn’t make their appearance for another 750 million years. One of the hallmarks of these creatures is they are fragile; they don’t last long. Slight changes in my temperature or atmosphere, relative to what I have experienced, result in wholesale extinctions. 444 million years ago, glaciers amassed at my poles; 85% of the species died. Life reformed, rejuvenated, then 60 million years later enormous volcanic eruptions caused oxygen concentration to plummet; 75% of the species died.
Once again, life reformed, rejuvenated, and once again, after a period of stability, massive volcanic eruptions raised sea and soil temperatures by 25 to 34 degrees, the sea surface temperature at my equator reached 104 degrees, oxygen levels plunged, and the atmosphere filled with methane and other greenhouse gasses; 96% of all marine species perished and 75% of land species died.
Do you see a pattern? Let me continue, just so you get the full scope of my quite recent experience with oxygenated life.
After many millions of years, life regenerated only to be mostly destroyed around 200 million years ago by, you guessed it, another round of huge volcanic explosions. Carbon dioxide levels quadrupled, temperatures rose by 5 to 11 degrees, and many species perished. The next round of extinction was precipitated by a novel cause: an asteroid crashed into my surface raising the dust and killing 76% of all species.
A period of relative stability gives rise to new species. My environment changes, most species die. Stability is achieved for a while, novel species arise by adapting to the new conditions. Things change. They die. Repeat. What has remained stable during this oxygenated stage is not species, but the predictable cycle that leads to their routine rise and fall.
Narcissism. You only see a very small sliver of Planet Earth’s existence—that which directly applies to you. The stability you think you see is self-serving. Your time horizon, while conceptually encompassing, is woefully blinkered and overwhelmed by your own needs, your own concerns, your own dread and panic. But this is your biological destiny. All life is about self-preservation, is “narcissistic” about its own interests, its own importance; driven, determined, desperate to preserve its own life. You are trapped by your own biology. I understand. But your grandiosity is particularly grandiose. That too is your birthright, born, as you are, with a head size so huge you cannot even support it for the first 6 months of life. This should have been a warning to you; a clue of your inability to manage your own brain and, ultimately, to be destroyed by it.
But you have distinguished yourself. Every other species has perished because the environment changed beyond their ability to cope. You have, yourselves, changed the environment that will end up killing you. That is a first. Something that sets you apart. God-like, if you will, which is a term you like to apply to yourselves. Congratulate yourselves—this, too, is one of your biological instincts.
I am rather young, not even middle aged, as I have another 7 billion years ahead of me. My existence has been marked by dramatic, abrupt, tumultous change, often precipitated by unexpected events and surprising developments. I know my future will continue to be riotously volatile and cataclysmic. This does not surprise me—it is the cosmic order. Look up. Look around. Steady states are brief (cosmically speaking). You are simply an insignificant dust mote. Even to me, an only slightly less insignificant pile of cosmic debris, your presence does not comprise an hour’s worth of my time, using your temporal metric.
So, you see, you are not saving me, Planet Earth. It is not my termination that looms—it is yours. And, to put my attitude toward your ending in terms you can understand: “I don’t give a shit.” When you finally leave, which will be much sooner than you think, if I happen to notice, my response will be: “Adios.”
The sun has been a source of veneration, worship, and deification throughout human history. The pantheon of sun gods is extensive and spans cultures, continents, and times: The Egyptian sun gods, Ra, and the oldest know monotheistic god, Aten; Inca, Mayan, and Aztec sun temples and rituals of human sacrifice to the sun, giver of life; North American tribes sacred sun dances; the Hindu sun goddess, Surya, creator of the universe and the source of all life; Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu, the great divinity illuminating the heavens; the Greek sun gods, Helios and Apollo; the Druids of England and their Stonehenge, built as part of their solstice worship; the Sun Day worship of Christians, which was legislated by the Roman emperor, and pagan-turned-Christian, Constantine, in honor of the Sun, which he called “Unconquered Sun, my companion”.2
We modern, indoor-dwelling sophisticates who possess more “advanced” religious beliefs, or whose world has been desacralized by a secular worldview, typically view such obsessions as pagan sacrilege, or as historical curiosities. But, yet, perhaps, might the sun still be fervently worshiped by us, although shrouded from our awareness by our smug sense of superiority? Might we be unenlightened?
Burn, Baby, Burn
Manure, peat, and coal. Trees, whale oil, and petroleum. Animal bones, natural gas, and corn. Such a bizarre diversity of things, yet they all are united by one essential fact: All have been used by humans to keep us warm and light the darkness. We have survived, and thrived, at the sacrificial altar of these “burnables”. It is difficult to imagine how, or even if, human life would be possible without them.
The common element of all these “burnables” is that they are composed of organic material; once a part of life in some form. This is obviously so for many “burnables”, like peat, trees, and whale oil. Less obvious are coal, petroleum, and natural gas; all perished life that has been compressed in the earth for millions of years.
The reason why we burn life in its various of forms is: energy. We all know intuitively what energy is. We feel it in our body, we “have energy” do something; to push, pull, lift, twist, throw—to do work. The remarkable transformation of human life wrought by the Industrial Revolution was launched by the discovery of the physical laws governing energy, force, and work. These terms have very precise meanings and measurable values, and we have invented many clever ways to put energy to work.
The most important form of energy that, literally, drives our modern life is heat. Heat, derived from “burnables”, combust in engines that propel us and ignite in furnaces that heat us. Furnaces also generate electricity that lights the night, animates the machines of our modern world, allows commerce and communication across the globe at the speed of light, gives life to our digital world—and so much more.
Where does all this “burnable” energy come from? Plants. And where do plants get their energy? The sun. Plant photosynthesis converts solar energy into potential energy that is stored chemically in the molecular bonds of glucose. Carbon dioxide and water are combined to create these sugars, and oxygen is released in the process. Plants then “burn” this stored energy to grow, flower, and develop seeds. Humans, and all other animals, survive by devouring plants and other animals, converting the stored energy in other living forms into their own chemical “batteries” that store energy to be used for growing, “flowering”, and “seeding”.
The heat and light created by “burnables”, such as coal, petroleum and natural gas, is the captured energy from the sun radiated millions of years ago, stored in compressed organic matter, released into intense flame. The sun—rekindled in our furnaces.
The Cost of “Burnables”
All the energy and work fueled by these furnaces is purchased at a steep cost: Exhaust. Deadly exhaust. The process that converted carbon dioxide into glucose and released oxygen is reversed; oxygen is consumed and carbon dioxide is released. The released carbon dioxide that we send into the sky is trapped in the atmosphere, covering it like a blanket, preventing the sun’s energy from escaping the atmosphere, heating the planet. Ironically, and tragically, our obsessions with “burnable” furnaces has led to our frying ourselves, and many other fellow organisms that share the planet with us.
Our voracious need for energy, as heat and light, has ravaged the planet. Vast areas have been denuded and polluted, millions of species killed or hunted to near extinction, entire mountain ranges reduced to rubble or riddled with miles of toxic tunnels. The benefits, however, have been great. Our modern life, with all the comforts of home, a cornucopia of food, life-saving medical treatments, and unimaginable goods and entertainments are the bounty of our quest for heat and light.
We moderns are the most fanatical worshipers of the sun. Almost everyone across the entire planet kneels to the sacrificial sun alters, dreads even a momentary halt in the offerings, and pursues “burnables” with fanatical religious fervor. Prior, “primitive”, sun worshipers were but simple beginners. We are appalled by the images and revulsed at the thought of the human sacrifices of the Aztecs, standing at the top of their sun temple, holding up the beating heart of a just-sacrificed victim to the sun. Yet we are oblivious to the colossal planetary destruction of life, human and otherwise, wrought by our own, much more ruinous sun worship practices.
We are on a trajectory akin to Icarus who was given wings of feathers and wax but warned to not fly too close to the sun. Icarus, however, did not heed the warning. He rose into the sun, his wings melted—and he tumbled to his death.
We, too, are being warned of the self-immolating consequences of our “burnable” sacrifices; that we are “flying too close to the sun”. Will we heed the warning? Does Icarus’ fate await?3
Hello, sun in my face. Hello, you who make the morning and spread it over the fields and into the faces of the tulips and the nodding morning glories, and into the windows of, even, the miserable and crotchety–
best preacher that ever was, dear star, that just happens to be where you are in the universe to keep us from ever-darkness, to ease us with warm touching, to hold us in the great hands of light– good morning, good morning, good morning.
Watch, now, how I start the day in happiness, in kindness.
What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know. St. Augustine
We typically segment time into three clearly demarked, independent parts. Past: over, done, gone. Present: now, ephemeral, ever-evaporating. Future: yet to be, a horizon beyond the rim of the present. This makes much intuitive sense, and presumes an objective river of time that carries us along in its current, a stream parceled into a regular metronome of moments, pacing off seconds, minutes, hours… We thus can situate ourselves within the surge of time: it is now January 1, 2020, at 10:31.09 AM. Which, of course, is immediately consigned to the past as the present rushes into the future. The flux of time is thus given some measure of order, stability and control.
Physics of Time
This ordering, however intuitively obvious and useful, does not snare time. Modern physics offers a very detailed understanding of the remarkable and bizarre features of time as a physical phenomenon. In the smallest of durations, in the quantum zone inhabited by subatomic and virtual particles, time becomes unmeasurable and merges with mass and energy. What does this even mean? When considering cosmic time of vast dimensions, time and space are welded, and in the proximity of entities of unimaginably huge masses, a time horizon appears beyond which time disappears down a black (rabbit) hole. And everything, including time, began with the Big Bang1. No metronome of regular moments here.
Psychology of Time
The physics of time does not exhaust time’s possibilities. Psychological time, our personal experience of it, is as powerful, meaningful, and complex. Here, too, time manifests itself in multiple guises. Our experience of duration is intimately entangled with our encounter with the world. Searing, inescapable pain creates an eternity of seconds. Joy and surprise can halt time. Boredom, pleasure, play—indeed, the entire range of our emotional life—all have their unique temporality.
Furthermore, while segmenting time into independent zones of “past, present, future” helps order and understand our experience of time, these zones also interpenetrate, mutually influencing each other.
Future present tense: My goals, expectations, wishes, desires, hopes, and fears—how I thrust myself into the future—all these focus and structure my attention in the present. What captures my interests, what priorities I give to my immediate efforts are shaped by the gravitational pull of the future. As I change my goals, aspirations, and expectations, I change my life as lived in the present.
Future past tense: This same tug of future’s influence extends into the past. How I construct and understand my past is shaped by what I expect, hope, fear. The past, while over, does not sit inertly in my life. What facts do I remember? What meaning and value do I attribute to them? What is forgotten? Our memory is not a photographic plate impassively recording events as they scroll by. It is an active process influenced by attention and expectations, thereby under constant reconstruction and renovation.
Past present future tense: The past reaches into the present and shapes our anticipations of the future. What we have experienced organizes how we act and respond in the present and guides our expectations for the future. Our experiences in childhood, our prior traumas, trials and triumphs, our relationships of significance with others, and much else in the past have enduring influence on our present and future. Habit and memory are powerful ways the past grips the present and reaches into the future.2
Present past future tense: The grip of the past and the pull of the future meet in the present; it is a temporal vortex not only influenced by past and future, but exerts its own power, “on the fly”, on the past (testing, reinforcing, revising, altering, and creating new habits and memory) as well as the future (testing, abandoning, revising, renewing, and forging new expectations and anticipations).
The very foundation, structure and texture of our lives turn on these dynamic temporal relationships. This is underscored when we try to understand, manage, and change our lives. Temporality is the central focus of all therapy, or any agent of personal change, regardless of its form, offering us different ways to understand our past, comport in the present, and anticipate the future. We change the past by changing our present and future. We change our future by changing our present and past. And so on. They are all dynamically connected. The most final and dramatic way to escape when the weight and pain of these temporal dynamics becomes unbearable is to end time; to commit suicide.
Being and Non-Being
Death, and the decision to choose death through suicide, underscores that we are not just in time, not just an object sailing along in the river of time, but composed of time; a song. We can experience ourselves as a biological entity, as a “human being”, a noun, but we also are “be-ings”, verbs, gerunds of temporality and tense whose plight is shadowed by non-being, death. We are embodied time; a paradox, a befuddlement, an enigma.
We may understand some of the ways time manifests itself that St. Augustine did not. The vexation of time, however, remains, for it is integral to the unfathomable mystery that is our being.
What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.