Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Spiritual Interlude

Spiritual Interlude (radiant fire sunset mix)

the radiant fire of our annihilation

"It's all mathematics" - Mos Def

Can we just please come out with some DNA error checking nanobots or something? I mean for chrissakes, it's 2011. We've got a black president, asteroids, tablet computers, and photo realistic videogames. At least according to Hollywood, we are living in the future, and I for one find the conspicuous ubiquity of cancer to be completely unacceptable.

It was now over a year ago now that I dealt with my thing. Of course, being a cancer survivor is like being a recovering alcoholic: it's always got that implied suffix "for now." The bastard always comes back like a bad check.

This time it's my aunt on my mother's side: breast & uterine cancer. Two years ago it was my uncle on my dad's side: lung cancer. Last year it was me (pancreatic), five years before that it was a different uncle on my dad's side, and a decade and a half before that it was my Grandmother on my mom's side.

W to the T to the F, and I'll say it again: we live in 2011, it's about time we got to fixing this biological tomfoolery.

I truthfully thought I'd put it behind me. Medically, of course, I have (for now, -- darkly ironic LOL --). But seeing everything happening again with my Aunt, brought me right back to that place I was a little more than a year ago.

So ... here's a song I did like forever ago.
And here's a post from my old blog that I wrote right in the middle of that crap.

-- old post follows --

The View from the Edge of the Abyss
4/20/2010 -- Vanderbilt University Cafeteria

It's a sunny spring day in Nashville. Mid 70's. A light breeze. A little chilly in the shade and a little sweaty in the sun.

I'm strolling leisurely along the mossy brick paths of Vanderbilt University. Hoards of promising young people are hurrying here and there, textbooks and backpacks in hand. They're discussing things that are important to them. French poetry, supreme court decisions, parties, friends, and cell phones are just some of the things I've overheard in the last half hour. The glaringly obvious question I can't avoid keeps gnawing at my mind. What am I doing here?

It's a raw answer to that question. I have cancer, and I've been injected with radioactive octreotide (which is absorbed by the particular type of tumor I have). Three hours from now, a machine will scan my body to insure an even distribution of the particles. Tonight I'll take a laxitive and purge the remaining particles from my body. Tomorrow they'll scan again and see what lights up. With luck, only the one spot we already know about on my pancreas will be visible. Barring that kind of luck ... well ... "we'll see" is the best I can say, but it won't be good.

I find myself standing on the edge of a chasm, and the view is at once both terrifying and breathtaking.

The view of human progress is simply staggering from here. As little a year ago, the technology to even detect this type of tumor at this stage didn't exist. 5 years ago, the surgical techniques that will (with any luck) save my life, were nothing but the twinkle in the eye of a graduate student. 20 years ago CAT and MRI imaging techniques were in their infancy. 50 years ago we were discovering penicillin, the miracle drug. 100 years ago, it was amputation and bloodletting.

Carl Sagan, I think put it best (and I'm paraphrasing): "Humans took a quantum leap when they discovered a way to store information outside the human brain, creating a permanent species-wide memory: the book".

And of course, today I find myself walking amidst the living, breathing embodiment of Sagan's conception. This university has been amassing and distributing the lump sum of human knowledge for 137 years, and that's young for an institution of higher learning, by European standards. It's utterly astounding what we have accomplished by simply writing down good ideas, testing them, keeping the ones that can be proven true, and passing it along.

Jesus is just alright with me, but so is science.
'Specially right now.
If you can dig where I'm coming from.

The thing is, for all the technology and knowledge we have, I'm still staring death in the face. Doing that changes your perspective on a great many things, and forces you to examine what it is that you think we, as humans, really are.

Truthfully, I just don't know anymore. My religion and my culture say that humans have an eternal soul. That when you die, everything that was you (your software as it were) is transferred to the great big database in the sky and in that way, you live forever in heaven (if you played by the rules) or in hell (if you didn't).

For a long time, I just took that for granted, but when you really have to look it in the mirror ... when you have to deal every single day with the fact that *unless something changes you will die very soon* ... well ... that forces a weird sort of objectivism. Here's the thing, there's just zero observable evidence for that, period. There is absolutely nothing in this universe (at least that we are currently capable of observing) that supports that hypothesis, whatsoever.

That's the problem, when you are trying to say to yourself: "well if it's my time it's my time, and I can look forward to the next life maybe". You're forced to confront the brutal fact that in all likelihood, it's just something we *wish was true*. Something we tell ourselves to ease the pain of our own mortality.

They say there are no atheists in foxholes. That is, as the kids say, "complete bullshit".

Finding myself, presently in the proverbial foxhole, or cliff, or chasm's edge (pick your metaphor), I can without a doubt, say that there have definitely been atheists here. I can't imagine a more human reaction, in fact. I can't say necessarily, that I'm one of them, but I have strong doubts that these spiritual things work exactly the way I've been told they do for my entire life.

Mortality is as much a part of being human as anything else, and I want to deal with this like a grownup, you know? So what if all we are is hardware, and when you turn off the switch we're gone? Does that make life less precious, less *sacred*? I don't think so. I think the opposite, in fact.

Just look at us, at all we are as a species.

We are staggeringly beautiful.

Just sitting here in the Vanderbilt cafeteria while writing this, I can observe: Sadness, Love, Compassion, Art, Music, Physical Beauty, Age, Wisdom, and Strength. The list could go on. I can observe people who stand out to me as particular examples of each of these traits, but without trying too hard, you can see each of these in every single human that has ever lived.

Each one of us irreplaceably unique; each one of us undeniably mortal. When the switch goes off, we lose an individual, but the web of humanity remains.

Even if religion has it wrong and there is no such thing as a "soul", we DO live on after death. It might not be "eternal" life, but in a very tangible way. We leave echoes in the human web, that outlive us. I'm sitting right here in one of the greatest accumulation of post-mortem echoes that I've ever seen.

Religion also gets one other thing right. Whether or not there is a literal afterlife, "Heaven" or "Hell" is what we leave behind us. It is the decisions we make, and "playing by the rules" has everything to do with it.

Look at the major religions of the world: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Bhuddism. They are of course, greatly different, but one thing they all have in common: rules to live by. By and large they share this theme: "be nice to people, and try to get along." From there, of course they depart rapidly, and ironically that's been the cause of a lot of war.

And maybe that's one to grow on.

If there is no afterlife, and all this talk of one is essentially a psychologically comforting fabrication, then what we have to live for in the here and now just skyrocketed. War: un-fucking-acceptable. Starvation: when we could fix it so easily? Poverty: why? Hate: who has time for it?

Here's a little story about the Hubble Telescope. They decided to find a patch of apparently empty space and point the telescope at it with the cameras wide open for a period of 10 days. It was an impossibly small section of the sky. What they found? Over 3000 GALAXIES, each containing more stars than there are grains of sand on the beach. This is known as the Hubble Deep Field (if you wanna read about it).

That's how big the universe is.
So, if I could live ten-thousand years, or just one day ... either way, it's a drop in the bucket in the big picture.

What counts is what I leave behind, and ironically ... that's not for me to judge, but for those that come after me.

And that, my friends, is the view from here.
Terrifying, and awe-inspiring all at the same time.

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