Saturday, November 27, 2010

Thanksgiving thoughts

My friend RJ Evans has written a wonderful essay, indicating that rather than expressing our gratitude to a non-existent deity, much of our gratitude should be directed to our fellow human beings. I agree completely with RJ's notion about this. I can begin by offering similar thanks to my wife, whose beauty and love have been the rock-solid core of my life for more than 35 years now. And thanks to the rest of my family (beginning with my mother and father), to the many friends along my path who have have added so much that is good to my life, and to my professional colleagues and mentors.

Through an accident of birth, I was born in a nation where I benefited from the economic prosperity provided by loving parents so that I could pursue my dreams. The nation into which I was born has granted me more freedom and prosperity (by means of those freedoms) than can be found in most countries around the planet, thanks to the wisdom and foresight of those who created this nation. There can be no doubt that I have many people to thank for what has been a very happy and fulfilling life. If I'm run over by a truck tomorrow, it will have been all of you who made my time on Earth so delightful. I offer my gratitude to you all.

But ... there's a missing element here. Through some mysterious accident over which none of us had any control whatsoever, we came into existence through a serious of "miracles" that we simply don't understand. Science has shed light on the process, but much remains unknown and could remain so for a long time. Somehow, a universe was created billions of years ago. Within this universe, stars formed, organized themselves into galaxies - many of those stars blew up in gargantuan explosions that seeded the universe with the heavier elements that today form the matter from which we and our Earth have been made.

On this Earth, that matter organized itself into life somehow, which then evolved over billions of years to create us and the environment which makes our lives possible. Within the Earth's environment, I've been fortunate enough to have the means to travel and to chase storms. By this means, I've experienced many times the wonder and awe of the natural world around me in ways that transcend mere words, transporting me into a place where I can lose my self and feel deep in my mind that wordless joy at knowing I'm a part of something that surpasses all understanding.

As Robinson Jeffers has put it:

Then what is the answer?— Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know that great civilizations have broken down into violence,
and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose
the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted
and not wish for evil; and not be duped
By dreams of universal justice or happiness.
These dreams will not be fulfilled.
To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear
the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing and man dissevered from the earth and stars
and his history... for contemplation or in fact...
Often appears atrociously ugly.
Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things,
the divine beauty of the universe.
Love that, not man apart from that,
or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken.

Many people choose to create an anthropomorphic entity - a deity - to whom they attribute all the wonder around them. Many people choose to let a self-appointed clergy tell them how to worship this deity. Many people choose to become slaves to a religion, which can manifest itself in terribly cruel ways - justifying their excesses, their violence to others, their lies, their contradictions on the basis of those evils being the will of this imagined deity. They then express their gratitude for their many blessings to this deity. I choose not to follow this path.

But then, to whom should I be grateful for the many blessings provided by the universe in which it's been my good fortune to be born? I don't believe there's any being to whom I need to express my thanks. I don't believe the universe knows or cares about what I think, but to be allowed to glimpse the majesty and power begs for a target for my gratitude. The very indifference of the universe to me and my petty concerns seems to fill this disembodied spirit with something I admire. The universe has been about its "business" for billions of years before me. That "business" will continue for billions of years after me. Further, I don't feel any need to ascertain any personal meaning in the business of the universe - for me it's enough to know that I'm a player in something that I'll never understand. A part of the whole, not me apart from that whole.

What amazes me is that through processes I can't begin to fathom, I've been granted a brief time when I've become conscious that I'm a part of this majestic drama. We humans are only infinitesimal specks within this grand tapestry, but somehow, for no evident reason, we've been given the privilege of awareness of our connection to this vast process, and the curiosity to seek an understanding of it. We are self-aware matter - and I feel a deep gratitude for being given this existence. The fact that I can't express this gratitude to some being is irrelevant. But I'm grateful, nevertheless.


El Gran Rogelio said...

Chuck, for once I'll be *relatively* brief and share your well-stated gratitude for every one of those human and natural aspects you mentioned. For all that and only one more, I too am thankful, every day.

"We humans are only infinitesimal specks within this grand tapestry, but somehow, for no evident reason, we've been given the privilege of awareness of our connection to this vast process, and the curiosity to seek an understanding of it."

Well stated! The reason, however, is quite evident to me, not in tangible nor material form, but in spirit immeasurable by beaker or scale or even time, undefined by mere words, equations or numerical models. The "proof" lies not in resolved theorems but in small part within the very grandeur, majesty, and mere multidecadal windows of human sentience of which you speak. They are, including our very lives, infinitely small and ephemeral glimpses of something so inconceivably vast and powerful that attempts at definition or understanding cannot ever succeed representatively. Witnessing the tiniest specks of this as we do, evokes yearning for more, longer, grander, bigger.

In that vein, I am thankful for one more aspect, the biggest of all: He who transcends brain chemistry, doubters and denial, free-will choices to the contrary, space and time itself, even matter and energy, who gets my gratitude for all that wonder and majesty, large and small, human and not, living and inanimate, universal at every scale. And yes, gratitude for you.

Chuck Doswell said...


You express gratitude to your chosen deity if you wish, of course.

Given that some people have been offended by the tone of RJ's editorial ... I strongly prefer they discuss it directly with RJ, not me. Don't confuse respect for someone as a human being with respect for someone's beliefs!

John Huntington said...

I just came across your site after following a link from Jon Davies' excellent blog, and I'm very happy to see a non-believer openly expressing their feelings about this touchy issue!

I find it hard to believe that anyone who observes the natural world carefully can believe in some deity, and I think that many choose keep their thoughts on this issue to themselves, which is unfortunate.

Thanks, and keep up the great work!