Moths About The Porch Light - That Which We Already Know

Chapter 3 of That Which We Already Know continues below...

Chapter 3 - The Journey Home (first continuation)

Earlier in this chapter I spoke of how we “recover” from our fall from grace by acclimating to our sense of separation, at times so completely that we never even realize anything is wrong for the remainder of our days. We fill our lives with work and play and family and friends – perhaps quite contentedly so – without ever realizing that something is off-kilter. Others of us, however, do realize that something is amiss. Siddhartha Gautama, for instance, was abiding in the lap of luxury when he realized that he’d been living as if he were sleepwalking through his days – unmindful of his fall. Eventually, however, he woke up to his separation so completely that people began to refer to him as the Buddha, the Awakened One. Jesus was awake as well, and all too aware of our separation. Whether by divine birth or by some other prayerful process, he was awakened to something that he and his followers spoke of in the language of their culture as the kingdom of God – that place of truest life from which most people had become separated.

At this point I suspect that such talk of separation will either resonate with you or it won’t. If someone is asleep and wishes to remain so, there is little anyone else can do about it. The rest of us, however, having opened up our eyes just a little bit and begun to feel the need to yawn and stretch, know that eerie sense of having had a bad dream that we just can’t shake off even in the brightest daylight.

Perhaps we feel as though life is passing us by. Mired in duties and responsibilities, we stumble from one day to another to another – disconnected from our activity. Sure, there are joys along the way, but they rush past so quickly that it seems we only really savor them in hindsight. Perhaps the promise of life never did materialize. We didn’t end up going to the school that we thought we’d attend, for instance, or if we did we then found out that it didn’t actually open up doors to the great career that we’d always envisioned for ourselves. And so we feel as though some truer version of who we are must be carrying on in a parallel universe somewhere while we, the less-loved, less-lucky, and less-talented stepchild, continue on in this one. Even darker is the possibility that we just can’t seem to get beyond the utter meaningless of our day to day existence. We feel separated from life itself – any life. What does this flurry of activity that we call human existence amount to in the great by and by, anyway? What is all of this leading up to? Why do anything at all with our time and energy and resources when everything seems so utterly hopeless?

But then again, maybe life is going quite well for us. Maybe we have meaningful work that rewards us well and affords us plenty of free time to spend with family and friends. We’ve managed to create at least some reasonable approximation of the lives of the rich and famous that we read about in magazines. And yet we just can’t shake the feeling that above all else we’ve been lucky – so far – and that our good fortune could change at any moment if we were to lose our job, for instance, or if some accident or illness were to befall us or one of our loved ones. The specter lurking over the horizon that everything we’ve come to know or love or work for could be taken away from us in the very next moment gnaws away at whatever sense of wellbeing we might otherwise enjoy – thereby prompting us to live an internal life that is separate from the one that others see. We live in relative paradise, and yet we live in fear; and all the while the clock keeps ticking on our lives.

In its most general sense, human anxiety such as that described above has been with us ever since the fall – ever since the emergence of self-awareness somewhere in the pre-dawn darkness of prehistoric time. We modern technological humans are simply the first to harbor expectations that life should be free of such concerns. Whereas we used to only have enough to eat when the hunt went well or when the rains made possible a bountiful harvest, we now expect to always have enough money in our wallets with which to buy whatever we desire at the local supermarket. Whereas we used to have to settle for whatever work was available in the nearby towns and fields, we now expect to be able to do whatever we want in order to make a living, and go to the ends of the earth in order to do it. Whereas we used to have to work long and hard every day of our lives, we now have the expectation of being able to get home from our nine-to-five job with enough energy to go to the gym or out on the town. Whereas we used to have to accept that people get sick and die from illnesses that we just don’t understand, we now expect there will be a cure for every diagnosis that we or someone we love might be given. Thus, there is a tacit assumption in our modern technological world that we will live meaningfully, healthfully, enjoyably, happily. And so we can now add the alluring but ultimately incorrect expectation that life should be carefree and easy to the list of everything else that might make us anxious in the wake of the fall.

Modern technological civilization has advanced to the point that we might dream of a truly utopian existence here on earth, or feel that it is within our reach right now if we could only calibrate all of our machines and processes appropriately. Unfortunately, though, just as technology has advanced to the point where we might fancy such a possibility, the byproducts and unintended consequences of the creation and propagation of the proto-utopian civilization in which we presently live are undermining whatever gains technology might have afforded us. Toxic environmental pollutants make disease all the more prevalent even as we should be able to cure them. Nuclear technology threatens to annihilate all life on earth even as it should be providing us with energy that’s “too cheap to meter”. Fossil fuel use is warming the planet, thereby threatening our very existence even as it should be providing us with much desired freedom and leisure.  Advances in information technology are making us slaves plugged into an endlessly upgrading world of products and platforms even as they should be making our lives so much more rich and efficient.

When I think about the trust that we modern humans place in technology – the blind adherence with which we seem to follow the path of technological advancement – I can’t help but think of moths circling the scorching hot bulb of a porch light on a summer’s eve. You see, evolution provided the moth with the instinct to seek out the light, for the sake of navigation and for the sake of finding the warmth of the sun in which to dry its wings for flight. But an evolutionary solution millions of years in the making intended to help the moth survive was disrupted in an instant by the invention of the electric light. Suddenly, with respect to evolutionary time, the world was filled with millions upon millions of false suns – promising life, but providing only disorientation and scorching heat instead.

We humans, likewise, have evolved a dependence on technology. For the most part it hasn’t let us down before. It’s allowed us to hunt big game animals for food and clothing. It’s allowed us to farm and preserve what we grow for long periods of time. It’s allowed us to build machines to increase our production output and bring abundance to more and more of us. It’s allowed us to cure disease and repair the injured. Given all it has done for us, how could we not be predisposed to seek out answers to our problems in the promise of technological advancement?

“You are free to eat from any tree in the garden,” our mythical forebears were told, “but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” Perhaps the advancement of technology more than any other human pursuit tests the limits of our ability to discern good and evil. So alluring is the power that it yields, and so difficult is it to foresee the ultimate consequences of its use. If only we could just “wake up” and learn to distinguish when we’re using technology to good ends and when we’re setting ourselves up to fall prey to a falling domino-like sequence of unintended consequences. This is our life after the fall. This is the Garden of Eden after we’ve eaten of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. This is the end result of our ever-increasing self-awareness – the one who knows becoming the one who knows that he knows.

Image References

Moths and porch light image courtesy of Helen Cocker via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank


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