Wednesday, December 25, 2013

I'm Made Out of Meat

That title is, of course, an homage to Terry Bisson's classic short story "They're Made Out of Meat." If you haven't read it, click over to his site and do it now. It's less than a thousand words; shouldn't take more than ten minutes. I'll wait.

All done? Good. Let's begin.

I am made out of meat. The "I" writing these words now is a transient thing, a momentary spark of consciousness supported and sustained by a fleshy engine. There is no mind without brain, and the brain does not live without a heart and lungs to feed it oxygen and sense organs to provide stimuli for contemplation. We are all made out of meat, and we can never escape our corporeal prisons.

Sometimes I wonder if our sentience is some weird side effect of evolution, a freakish emergent phenomenon caused by the complexity of being such large, multicellular organisms. Because (per Stephen Hawking) it is not clear that intelligence has any long-term survival value, and being smart enough to wonder about cosmology doesn't mean we can do a damn thing about it.

I suppose that's where this entire train of thought starts, decades ago: with a small boy lying in his bed at night, staring into the darkness--literally--and also figuratively gazing into the abyss of his own inevitable death.

I don't remember precisely how old I was when I first grasped the enormous fact of capital-D Death. That it would take us all, sooner or later; that each of us would cease to exist forever after that--that even the universe itself will, someday, end. I think it took me a little while to really process that, to understand it completely, and when I did, it totally freaked me the fuck out.

To be clear: I wouldn't say I've ever feared death, precisely. More like I still haven't made my peace with the Reaper. And especially when I was younger, the knowledge that I would someday stop just felt like a terrible injustice, like a punishment I didn't deserve. I liked being alive, and why did that have to end someday? It all seemed so unfair.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Get a helmet, kid. And I don't know what I would tell my younger self, if I had the hypothetical opportunity now. Make the most of your time? Don't waste it on things that don't make you happy? I'm not sure younger-me would give much weight to those platitudes, especially in the middle of a nighttime panic attack. I suspect facing death with dignity is one thing we all have to learn the hard way.

Don't worry, this is not something I've kept bottled up for forty years; I have talked about this, with my parents when I was younger, with my wife more recently. They all made reasonable counter-arguments, including possible future prospects for prolonging human lifespans (giving me more time to come to terms with my own mortality, I suppose) and the fact that I simply won't even know when I'm dead, and will therefore be unable to feel anything at all about it, one way or another. What's the point of worrying about something you can't change?

And they're right, of course. It's more productive to worry about things I can affect, like how happy I am with the work I'm doing right now, maintaining my health for the next fifty-plus years of my life, et cetera. But I can't help worrying about more than that. I think about what I'm going to leave behind, and I wonder what people will remember of me, and for how long after I'm gone.

I suppose that's ego, wanting some recognition that extends beyond the grave and beyond my immediate family. But it's also wanting to make a difference in the world, in some miniscule, brief manner--to be a part of the world, to feel connected to the seven billion other lives on this tiny, shining planet.

Even if all we are is meat, at least we can all be meaty together.

Merry Christmas, everyone.


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