I promised my best friend a couple weeks ago that I’d stop posting on Facebook and get back to writing fiction. And then something happened, and I felt I had to write about it, but I just couldn’t, and instead I did the last two posts to approach what I had to write about.
And it didn’t help.
Two weeks ago, we had a tragedy in town that has upset me like few others that haven’t affected me personally, though it’s a near miss, given that my sister has been close to the people involved. To get some relief from contemplating it, I watched the documentary My Octopus Teacher, and I saw some things clearly that had been only on the periphery of my thought and understanding for most of my life.
The octopus is a very strange product of evolution, an exception that proves general rules. Most creatures with a wide-dispersal strategy for reproduction have a small energy budget for intelligence: fish, mosquitoes, snails. Intelligence is so costly that it’s generally associated with modest broods and parental care of offspring. But nature loaded the octopus with intelligence and amazing dexterity and camouflage ability, along with a short life and no parental support after birth. The male dies after mating. The female dies a short time after hatching her eggs, which can number in the hundreds of thousands.
While most predators teach their young to hunt, among other survival skills, the world itself teaches the octopus, and it’s an instruction marked by huge attrition. Those that survive to maturity are intelligent, playful innocents. And even for them, life is a game that’s soon over, with no transmission of knowledge, and little companionship. You might say, they’re just animals, and oblivious, and the idea of their intelligence and innocence is a silly projection.
I can’t answer with confidence. It’s clear for the filmmaker who spent every day of a year with an octopus, the creature was sentient. His tears at the end of the movie are disturbing. We can scarcely enter his experience, even though he’s done a good job of sharing it, and he has far more authority than anyone else over it. If he is right to cry over his octopus, which he is according to my reckoning, then he’s revealed a larger and stranger world than the one that most of us inhabit. Can you really empathize with an octopus and meet it where it lives? That’s not really the point, is it? He encountered more of himself in the octopus than he had anticipated. He unlocked more of his own potential, and shared some of it. (“Humans are the only animals that matter,” a conservative friend said to me, and this is true, and that which _matters to us_, matters, especially if it challenges us to grow. So conservation is our duty. We are impoverished if we shirk it.)
I promised in an earlier post to explain how the theory of evolution underlies my own sense of meaning, where for many people it threatens to smash their faith. On one level, I really don’t have a choice. There’s no doubting the model. It’s ironclad. There are people who reject it, and there are people who understand it. That may seem dogmatic if you’ve been taught there’s any real controversy, but no, if you have, you’ve been misled, and when I make this binary pronouncement, it’s just the same thing one might observe about physics, or math, or chemistry.
Evolution is a fact, and a challenge for anyone looking to nature for the intervention of God. Christians hold that God gave us freewill, and beyond that we have nature through which we glimpse the lineaments of supernature and by which God directs us toward meaning. He dishes out his miracles sparingly, but he does intercede… or so goes the teaching.
I don’t know. I suspect all texts regarding miracles are figurative. A world that has such wondrous and tragic creatures as the octopus must be one where nature is free to probe out any possibility, any beautiful or horrible thing that might offer a chance at survival or express the shaping force of pain and death. Evolution is biology groping into any conceivable niche, creating new niches, parasitizing, seducing, dominating, cooperating. What is human love and pain and search for meaning to this blind, amoral process?
Well, meaning is central to our survival, physically and emotionally. How can a meaningless process give rise to a human creature — and maybe other creatures — with needs like that? Because it can, that’s why. It was possible, and it happened, and it is preeminent. And its manifest possibility is the thin wedge between a vast, uncaring universe, and one that’s filled with terrible purpose.
So this is lesson one: nature is free to realize its possibilities. Don’t look there for God’s mercy or lack thereof, unless you are really prepared for a challenge that will take you into your own depths, outside any help from other people, and from which you may not return with anything like your old faith. My once-Catholic fishing buddy — my father’s childhood friend — who was a medic in Vietnam was basically done with churchgoing after the war: “There was no God in charge of what was happening there,” he said.
My own father expressed regret a couple of times that he had not undergone the rite of passage that our mutual friend had. Shortly after Dad died, I said to our friend, “I told him he was crazy to regret not going to war. What do you think?”
“Well, Robert, your old man said the same thing to me when I got back.”
He laughed. “I told him he was crazy.”
Which brings me to lesson two, that puzzling line from The Lord’s Prayer “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” How strange. God does not lead us into temptation, according to any teaching of the Church I know of, but these are supposed to be the words of Christ Himself.
I now read it thusly: “Do not saddle me with such challenges that I cannot keep my faith. In humility I accept that some things may be beyond me. (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?)” Three young ladies died suddenly in a car crash the week before last, and one of them I had seen often, though I didn’t really know her. I’d met her at my sister’s probably at least once, certainly at the lunch table at the high school where I play games and discuss computer programming with students, probably walking with one of the young ladies in town I knew to be her friend, my niece maybe, or my neighbor’s daughter. I recognized her picture in the paper, but could not exactly place her. Rather than making her death impersonal, though, the uncertainty of how I recognize her has made her loss ubiquitous: she had been part of this town’s welcoming environment and, like all the most important things, easy to take for granted. I don’t know why contemplating her is so poignant for me. I only have guesses: my heart goes out to her mother, who, like me, raised a one-and-only and invests all her love in her, and so I easily inhabit the idea of her loss. Or maybe it’s the young woman herself, who, it turns out, valued writing as I do, and was a very talented essayist. Or maybe it’s sympathy for my sister, who must feel this even more keenly.
Before leading Kaddish for the dead, the rabbi at the young lady’s outdoor memorial observed, “God has a lot to answer for.” And this is wise and appropriate. Her mother implored us not to forget her daughter, and I won’t. At some level, my fixation on her is my own choice; to let go of it too soon would be to abdicate the responsibility — the dreadful honor — of acknowledging a world that’s bigger than me, where I simply do not have control.
Evolution is a fact. Immortal young people, the children of too many of my friends and acquaintances, die suddenly. A tough free-diver is moved to tears by a dead octopus. And no trite sayings or memes will address this terrible burden we each have, to make sense of it without pretending it’s something it’s not. No amount of philosophical or political argument will let us escape our reckoning. I’ve distracted myself too much with Facebook, to avoid confrontation with meaning. Don’t be like me. Don’t tempt meaning to pursue you while you waste your time in senseless logical argument. A meaningful life is not comfortable for long. A grownup holds not just to faith but to honest doubt.
Okay, Rob, I’m done.