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Friday, October 05, 2007

Grasping at universal connections while hanging onto my ego

Waves of conflicting ideas and sensations have been crashing around my head lately as it's been drenched by a wide-ranging cascade of stimuli:In order to impose meaning on this stream of possibly random inputs, my utterly confused consciousness has unsurprisingly distilled these droplets of social, political and philosophical thought down to a bridging metaphor informed by a misty recollection of an old film's final frames.

I haven't seen it since I was a kid, but the poetic ending of the 1957 science fiction classic The Incredible Shrinking Man found a lasting home in the recesses of my imagination. The synopsis of the story sounds more appropriate to comic-book-hero myth making than existential musing, but profundity can often be found in the seemingly mundane. Filmed at the height of the Cold War, it offers an interesting glimpse into the American psyche of that era, but it also delves into a more generalized human contradiction: the apparently conflicting desires for individual freedom and social belonging.

Exposed on the open sea to a wandering fog of pesticide, Scott Carey, the movie title's subject, finds his DNA hacked and his comfy middle class world undone. Rapidly losing physical stature and social significance, his mind must make sense of his reduced role as man and human being. Unexpectedly, at the moment all of the trappings of life in 1950s America have fallen away like scales from his eyes, shrunken to the size of an atom and peering into the vastness of the universe to which he has become more particularly linked, Carey reaches the following insightful conclusion:
I was continuing to shrink, to become... what? The infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the man of the future? If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world.
Freed from the outwardly imposed social demands we think inevitably define us as individuals, we're often more easily able to see the more fundamental connections to each other and every other piece of the cosmic puzzle. Janis Joplin intoned the prophetic wisdom "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," and it's that bottomed out perspective that allows us to recognize Lear-like the folly of old ways.

Standing atop Fortune's ever-spinning wheel should give anyone pause, as the inevitable next direction is always back down toward the bottom. Self-proclaimed the world's only "super power" and its current flavor of empire, the United States is in that unenviable position. The high-walled dams we've erected to protect our privileged status will eventually be worn down by the tidal forces leveling the international economy, and when that day comes our ship of state will fall to meet the world's other boats raised up.

In many ways the fear of that unavoidable decline is painting the national psyche in panicked tones. A retreat to the nationalism of bygone eras was a predictable response, with its attendant passions for war and xenophobia. It's a regressive decision that will ultimately prove both futile and self defeating. Feeling unfairly besieged and at risk, we've renounced the cherished principles that best defined us. Armed, enfortressed and obscured, we've ignored the greater social movement toward openness, connection and transparency.

Holding on to old forms in the face of inescapable change is not a uniquely American failing, however, and in some parts of the world they lag behind even the previous century's standards of human rights. Burma is one such holdout, and all Americans should be able to identify with the struggle of its people to win the most basic democratic freedoms. The wonders of new technology are making it harder for repressive regimes to hide behind the cover of isolationism. Through the Internet the cause of a Buddhist monk in remote southeast Asia can more immediately become known to the entire world.

With science giving us opportunities each day to become more aware of our most basic commonalities, what keeps us trapped in the cozy corners of our well partitioned selves? It's much easier to operate in a universe with well-defined borders and clear-cut divisions, no matter how conceptually artificial, because it's the best way to maintain a sense of purpose and self-importance.

When faced with the overwhelming prospect of being a tiny speck on the infinite spectrum of time and space, it's hard to avoid feelings of awe-filled paralysis. If our lifetimes are just a blink of God's eye in the grand scheme of the universe, why bother? Others can answer that question more eloquently than I, but I choose to look at it from a different angle. If I'm connected to everyone and everything, how can I not make sure that I love, honor and respect all that I come into contact with?

From space dust we came, and into space dust we shall return. It's a sentiment that echoes the mantra of most religious teachings, but with the advances in science it's also a proposition that becomes more marvelous by the light year. It should remind us of the wondrousness of the creation to which we are inextricably connected, while dashing away the pretense of self-importance that lies behind most of our ego-feeding misbehaviors. We are the blessed particles of universe given consciousness to sense and know the marvels of our selves.
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