Sunday, September 12, 2010

Make the world a better place...

Our strength as a species lies in our ability to cooperate with one another, kind of the ultimate herd. Through shared memories, perceptions, and imaginings, we are able to accomplish an unprecedented level of control over our environment.

Evolution has endowed me with a strong will to survive and procreate (my sense of self, my ego). Our ability to communicate with one another has provided me with a tool to cooperate, allowing me to be part of a bigger whole, a diminishing slice of a growing pie (social good, the survival and success of my community beyond my lifetime).

Implicit in my definition of "make the world a better place" is the statement's point of view, which is not from the point of view of the individual, but that of the community. With this perspective there may be reasons for me to sacrifice my own life, and the future of my gene pattern, by dying before I've had a chance to have children or had an opportunity to pass on my beliefs.

There are many conflicts between my ego and my commitment to make the world a better place when it comes to decisions I make. For example:

- Resources I expend on my children versus other people's children;

- How much I may want to spend to save my own (older) life versus contributing to the betterment of other (younger) people's lives;

- Consuming goods that I enjoy when I know it may have a negative effect on future generations.

These decisions are the proper domains of laws, justice, and the government, protectors and keepers of the balance between the uneven forces of the individual versus the community.

What's the use (a story)...

Riding my bike to another day at college, my hands grew numb in the early morning chill. The roads were dry, for a change, but the October night had settled a frost on the golf greens I passed along the was. I steamed around the curve and up the hill towards the music practice rooms. I had made it a discipline to practice and compose music every morning from 6:30 to 8:30, before my first class.

When the old residence-turned-music-department came into view, I remembered the advice from my piano teacher, "Warm your hands in a basin of hot water before you play." I coasted uphill to a stop and swung my right leg back and over the rear tire – the final movement of our early morning pas de deux. It was then, after I had finished my ritual ride, that I noticed something different. I blinked my eyes to squeeze out the wind-driven tears.

I was drawn, now walking my bike, to see what was only a shadow in the predawn light. There, at the end of the main entrance path, hanging in an old elm, was a large sack.

I was reminded of my hiking trips with my father in the Sierras. If we camped below 7,000 feet, we had to protect our backpacks from the bears. "Hang them from a branch that isn't strong enough to support a bear," he said, "high enough and far enough away from the trunk that they can't reach it."

As I got closer to the elm, I slowed. The sack twisted in the wind, revealing two legs.

"Oh my God!" I blurted, then immediately vomited my meager breakfast. I heaved again, then spit the foul-tasting stomach acid onto the neatly tended grass. I looked around, embarrassed at having thrown up, and found another observer. He was old. I knew him. I had seen him riding his mower on warm spring days, filling the air with the lush scent of fresh-cut grass. A body was hanging from one of his trees.

His reaction was more pragmatic than mine, and I might have stood there thinking for a good deal longer, had he not run forward. I jerked my bike aside and joined him, reaching up, only able to grasp the feet and calves. The body was lifeless, and bent like a wet spaghetti no matter how hard we wished it lifted.

I looked up at the twisted neck, its bluish head stretched and angled unnaturally. There was no sign of life, not even a sign of recent life.

"Stay here while I get help," the old man said.

I was later to learn that the gardener was a World War II veteran; that he had seen combat duty in the Pacific at the end of the war. This wasn't the first time he had found a body hanging from a rope. Not so for me. I couldn't stop staring at the face. I winced at the thought of the force that broke his neck. Slowly, I realized I might know this fellow. I started to shake. I wasn't sure if I recognized him or not. I thought he might be in my Humanities class.


The days after the hanging were heavy and dark. Very little was said about the death. The college already had a reputation for suicides and the publicity was kept to a minimum. There was only a small article in the student paper. Years later, I would struggle to remember the young man's name, and would search for several hours in the archives to find that three-inch column.

At the time, I wasn't touched by the death of someone so young and promising, so much of his life before him, given up in a moment of confusion. Or so it seems to me now, as I read of the untimely deaths of recent alumni. Fifty-six years old, I read obituaries and worry what my death will be like, what my obituary will say. Will my life add up to three inches, six inches, a whole page?

Such foolish thoughts. Even the best of us is soon forgotten, the subject of a PBS special, then, as the years pass, only a footnote in a thesis. But in truth, how many of the billions that have died will be remembered in 100 years? Name 10 people who were born between 100 and 200 years ago that had a real impact on who you are today...