Every year I want to be able to say something meaningful on my birthday, but find I have less and less time to reflect on it. Why? Because my birthday happens at the end of May, when, as everyone knows, all parochial Hades breaks loose: brides, first communions, confirmation, Mother's Day, Memorial Day, and this year, testifying at a dang trial.
What have I learned this year? Well, I'm still trying to interiorize a lot of things I've learned over the last 3-5 years. The "big two" for me have been important in re-forming my relationship with the rest of the cosmos.
- What isn't my best isn't necessarily bad. It can be OK sometimes just to be OK, especially when everybody else thinks that the not-best thing is better.
- What is my best isn't necessarily good. It's important for me to remember this, so that "I'm sorry" is easier to say. Just because I couldn't do any better doesn't mean I did good. I have to learn to love myself anyway, ameliorate the damage, remember who is God and who isn't, and get along with things.
I think these things have helped me learn to be a little more patient and tolerant of other people, too. It really takes a long time to evolve out of egocentricity for some of us, to just give in to the fact that the world was doing just fine before we came along, and will do just fine when we aren't around any more, and that time is coming sooner rather than later. The collapse of personal time helps us see ourselves more honestly, evaluate our value to the universe with more acumen, moving the decimal of significance a few more zeros to the left.
My mom, I know, has said about herself something that I feel too. Whatever our age is, and that number becomes unbearably large, best expressed in scientific notation (32x7, for instance), our inner self doesn't seem to age. There's a sort of inner mirror in which we (I?) experience ourselves as the same person we were at 12, or 22, or 40, that doesn't really care about which birthday we're passing. This might be a good defense mechanism against getting older, a way of transcending the downward arc of physicality, but for me, especially this year, it's been something I have consciously tried to moderate with a physical reality check. I try to look into that inner mirror and a real one at the same time. In conversations and in reflection, I realize that however 22 or 30 I might feel in there, I'm really in my 60s, and I can't keep acting on the inner mirror or I'm going to end up freaking people out, and be the creepy old guy no one invites to parties or dinner. I don't really want to be 22 or 30 anyway. Somebody pass me a laurel to rest on, and let me finally just be who I am.
I find myself worrying less and less about my children, who all seem to be getting along just fine, thank you, and more and more about my friends and our parents, who are coming up more and more quickly against the limits of our cells' ability to replicate themselves with quality and vigor. An optimist from my youth, I keep hoping that we'll all turn a corner together, and things will get better. Generally, they don't. Instead, I'm grateful for the solidarity we've fostered with each other, the excellence and passion of individuals who refuse to cede the day to negativity and despair and who work patiently for human betterment in every field: politics, medicine, economics, resource management, and the arts.
My daughter wrote today on my Facebook page, "Darling popi! If you had not been born, why then, neither would I!" which makes me think that all of us, especially me, needs to try to be aware of the genetic and evolutionary miracle by which we're gathered around the electrons reading or writing (or oblivious to) these words. One man who put this into words in a way that I would never be able to approach was Bill Bryson in his wonderful book, A Short History of Nearly Everything. I cannot know God's mind in this context, or what it means that "God created the heavens and the earth" and that because of that, here I am. I celebrate the God of the naturally-selected who is also the God of the extinct and consumed, who has placed within us the counter-intuitive idea that "survival of the fittest" is not the law of the land, and who pitched his tent among us to show us exactly what S/He meant by "life more abundantly." Still, I want to leave you with Bryson's words, and thank you for honoring me with your eyes and thoughts today, as we make our way another year around this indistinctive star, in this solar system, on the edge of this ungraspably large galaxy, among more galaxies than we are able to number. Somehow, we found each other. Whether that is luck of the draw or blessing or curse we may not know, but I'm looking forward to the next orbit. Here's Bryson:
I’m delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn’t easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize.
To begin with, for you to be here now, trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once.
To be here now, alive in the 21st century and smart enough to know it, you also had to be the beneficiary of an extraordinary string of biological good fortune. Survival on earth is a surprisingly tricky business. Of the billions and billions of species of living things that have existed since the dawn of time, most, 99.99 percent—are no longer around. Life on earth, you see, is not only brief, but dismayingly tenuous. It is a curious feature of our existence that we come from a planet that is very good at promoting life but even better at extinguishing it.
The average species on Earth lasts for only about 4 million years, so if you wish to be around for billions of years, you must be as fickle as the atoms that made you. You must be prepared to changed everything about yourself—shape, size, color, species affiliation, everything—and to do so repeatedly…To get from “protoplasmal primordial atomic globule” (as the Gilbert and Sullivan song put it) to sentient upright modern human has required you to mutate new traits over and over….So at various periods over the last 3.8 billion years you have abhorred oxygen and then doted on it, grown fins and limbs and jaunty sails, laid eggs, flicked the air with a forked tongue, been sleek, been furry, lived underground and lived in trees, been as big as a deer and as small as a mouse, and a million things more. The tiniest deviation from any of these evolutionary shifts and you might now be licking algae from cave walls, or lolling walruslike on some stony shore or disgorging air through a blowhole in the top of your head before diving sixty feet for a mouthful of delicious sandworms.
You have (also) been extremely – make that miraculously—fortunate in your personal ancestry. Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from it’s life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result—eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly—in you.