What Would That Be Like?

“What Would That Be Like?” Bob Ryder

From Psalm 139
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.

Sometimes when I let my imagination wander, I think about what it might have been like to live at other times in history.  Stories about time travel are always in vogue, from Jules Verne’s “The Time Machine” to movies like “Back to the Future” and “The Terminator” to name but a few, and they prompt me to consider what moments in history I might visit if such a thing were possible.  Maybe I’d go back and fight for American independence in the Revolutionary War, or glimpse the dawn of human civilization as early humans figured out the beginnings of agriculture and started developing relationships with the wolves that would evolve into dogs.

Of course, it’s just fantasy.  Everything we know about physics indicates time is a one way phenomenon.  Going back to the past is an impossibility, even with a flux capacitor and 1.21 gigawatts of electricity.  Exploring the future might be possible if we could travel at something close to light speed for a bit (a mere 88 MPH wouldn’t do it), or if we could figure a way to hover near the event horizon of a black hole.  The physics of relativity would result in time progressing more slowly for us than for the rest of the universe, and we’d come out of the journey perhaps having spent only a few minutes or hours while history would have advanced decades or centuries.  It would certainly be an adventure, but again there’d be no returning to the present from which we’d begun.  Friends and family and everything else about our current lives would be lost downstream to the irreversible passage of time.

The point of speculating about this is to raise the subject of curiosity once more.  For the past month or so we’ve explored the theme “What does it mean to be a people of curiosity?”  As the topic suggests, inclinations such as curiosity and imagination, being inquisitive and cultivating our talents for science are spiritual virtues. The author of the Psalm e heard a moment ago is practicing that sort of curiosity and imagination.  He considers his origins, the meaning and purpose of his life, the eternal nature of his relationship with the sacred manifest in every detail of his existence even before he can guess at what will happen to him next.  He’s wondering about the particulars of his finite life and experiencing a sense of awe at having a place in the Universe.

Giving some free range our imagination to explore thoughts about traveling to distance places or other moments in history, pondering the contributions we might make in the time and place to which we’re given, wondering how magnets work or how magicians fool our senses, taking an interest in the music or poetry of another culture, learning how compounding interest works, trying to build a better mouse trap – pondering such things isn’t just an indulgence in day-dreaming.  It can be the catalyst for evaluating the realities of our own circumstances and comparing them with the how things might be different, perhaps how they ought to be different.  As Susan shared last week quoting Michel Foucault, “Curiosity is a vice that has been stigmatized in turn by Christianity, by philosophy, and even by a certain conception of science. Curiosity [is seen as] futility. The word, however, pleases me. To me it suggests something altogether different: it evokes ‘concern’; it evokes the care one takes for what exists and could exist…”

Obviously, fantasizing can sometimes be a distraction from more important things we ought to be doing in the moment.  There’s nothing intrinsically virtuous about getting lost in our thoughts when our attention should be on more urgent tasks at hand.  But imagining – when circumstances permit – the risks and possibilities of realities beyond our current experience is more than just an amusement, it’s a survival skill and the fertile ground for creativity that has contributed to all of human progress.  It lets us consider both how to stay alive and why to stay alive, and what’s potentially more important than just staying alive for its own sake.  It’s healthy and necessary to give our minds occasional time-off from the stress of routine problems and responsibilities to consider what might be plausible even if it isn’t realistic just yet.

Fortunately, even though we’ll never travel back to interesting moments in history, and very likely never to parts of the universe beyond our own solar system, one of the benefits of living at the present moment is that we have access to so much of the information accumulated over the course of human history.  Scientists and scholars, technicians and artist have joined their talents to make virtual representations of what it would be like to dive into the atmosphere of Jupiter or Neptune.  They can reverse engineer the fossil record to create compelling estimations of what dinosaurs looked like and how they behaved.  We can watch animated time lapse chronicles of our evolution from shrew-like mammals to the earliest primates to modern home sapiens.  The internet allows easy public access to YouTube presentations, TED Talks and many university lectures and scholarly papers on everything from astrophysics to music theory and Shakespeare to laity-accessible explanations of quantum physics and string theory.

Aren’t you curious?  What intrigues you to think outside the limits of what you already know?  What makes you wonder?  What gives you a sense of awe to explore the meaning of your existence within the grand scheme of things.  There’s a quote attributed to a wealthy entrepreneur (I can’t pin down precisely who), that says, “Every great investment starts with three words – ‘huh, that’s weird.”  What questions do you have?  What would you like to know more about to get a better sense of perspective about the when and where and why of your life in relation to the other people and animals and plants, in relation to other planets and stars and galaxies?

  • How do effective social protests work?
  • What’s up with that giant red spot on Jupiter?
  • What happens to us after we die? Is there such a thing as a soul? How could we know?
  • Why is it so hard to make batteries hold more charge?
  • What makes Octopi so smart?

Researching this reflection, I did a Google search for each of those questions.  It has never been easier to become informed about so many things. Here are a few a lines from the Wikipedia Article about Octopuses <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cephalopod_intelligence>…

Cephalopods are active predators. Their need to locate and capture their prey has likely been the driving evolutionary force behind the development of their intelligence.

Crabs, the staple food source of most octopus species, present significant challenges with their powerful pincers and their potential to exhaust the cephalopod’s respiration system from a prolonged pursuit. In the face of these challenges, octopuses will instead seek out lobster traps and steal the bait inside. They are also known to climb aboard fishing boats and hide in the containers that hold dead or dying crabs.

Captive cephalopods have also been known to climb out of their tanks, maneuver a distance of the lab floor, enter another aquarium to feed on the crabs, and return to their own aquariums.

Cephalopods can solve complex puzzles requiring pushing or pulling actions, and can also unscrew the lids of containers and open the latches on acrylic boxes in order to obtain the food inside. They can also remember solutions to puzzles and learn to solve the same puzzle presented in different configurations.

Captive octopi require stimulation or they will become lethargic; this typically takes the form of a variety of toys and puzzles. At an aquarium in Coburg, Germany, an octopus named Otto was known to juggle his fellow tank-mates around, as well as throw rocks to smash the aquarium glass. On more than one occasion, Otto even caused short circuits by crawling out of his tank and shooting a jet of water at the overhead lamp.

Now you might or might not find cephalopod intelligence intriguing, and that’s fine.  We don’t all need to take an interest in the same things.  But we do benefit from expanding our mental horizons, and we allow ourselves to wallow in the ruts of our comfort zones to our detriment.  The important thing isn’t especially whether we’re informed or naive.  What matters is whether we’re curious or ignorant.  We need to ask “What do I know, and what don’t I know yet that could open up new possibilities for myself and those around me?

Cultivating our curiosity leads to a sense of humility for coming to realize how minute each of us is within the scope of humanity, and even more so compared with the whole of life on earth, how infinitesimally small the earth is within the grandeur of the Universe. Curiosity can be the prompt that nudges us to look beyond our limited self-concerns to larger and larger layers of reality of which we are only an infinitesimally small part.  It promotes a sense of wonder at the vastness of the physical world, of human and non-human experience. It can be the vaccination against arrogance a remedy for anthropocentrism, racism and misogyny.

Curiosity can help us realize how powerful we can be, and how important it is to be responsible with that power – how much one person can change the world for good or for ill. Think of all of the lives and generations saved by the work of someone like Madame Curie – and consider all of the lives and generations lost at the hands of someone like Hitler.

What makes you curious to understand more of your place in the world?  What do you want to know?  What do you want to do?  Who do you want to be?  I’ll complete my thoughts with this poem by Robert Frost…

A Considerable Speck – Robert Frost

A speck that would have been beneath my sight

On any but a paper sheet so white

Set off across what I had written there.

And I had idly poised my pen in air

To stop it with a period of ink

When something strange about it made me think,

This was no dust speck by my breathing blown,

But unmistakably a living mite

With inclinations it could call its own.

It paused as with suspicion of my pen,

And then came racing wildly on again

To where my manuscript was not yet dry;

Then paused again and either drank or smelt–

With loathing, for again it turned to fly.

Plainly with an intelligence I dealt.

It seemed too tiny to have room for feet,

Yet must have had a set of them complete

To express how much it didn’t want to die.

It ran with terror and with cunning crept.

It faltered: I could see it hesitate;

Then in the middle of the open sheet

Cower down in desperation to accept

Whatever I accorded it of fate.

I have none of the tenderer-than-thou

Collectivistic regimenting love

With which the modern world is being swept.

But this poor microscopic item now!

Since it was nothing I knew evil of

I let it lie there till I hope it slept.

I have a mind myself and recognize

Mind when I meet with it in any guise

No one can know how glad I am to find

On any sheet the least display of mind.