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A Loyalty To Life

When we look into the night sky at the stars and the dusty, gaseous interstellar nebula’s between them thousands or millions of light years away, we are witnessing the process of our own birth. These distant objects are our ancestors. It is almost incomprehensible that these seemingly lifeless specks and clouds of cosmic dust could spawn any sort of life, especially life that has the insight and intelligence to contemplate and investigate its own existence. But here we are, the result of billions of years of time and a series of events so chemically complex it is taking us many years to sort out how it all happened. We have plenty to learn about how elements formed from atoms inside the hot, high-pressure crucibles of stars became our flesh and blood, our brains, our minds, and our consciousness. And given our innate curiosity and desire to learn about ourselves and our environment, our quest has been and continues to be a profound pleasure. Learning and discovering are our passions.

For many people, the science of studying the universe and all of nature within it, is as unfaltering, enduring, and steadfast as any religion; it is the religion of learning who we are and acquiring the wisdom we must have in order to bring all of the billions of ourselves together into a cooperative and productive global community. In his book, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Scottish philosopher David Hume said this about the importance of science and learning: “The sweetest and most inoffensive path of life leads through the avenues of science and learning; and whoever can either remove any obstruction in his way, or open any new prospect, ought to be esteemed a benefactor of mankind.”

Hume continues in that vein when he says: “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” In other words, before you profess to know or believe anything, check the evidence your belief is based on. Philosopher George Santayana expresses the view that humanity’s ongoing quest to comprehend the universe with facts grounded in evidence was all the religion he needed: “My religion is true piety toward the universe and denies only gods fashioned by men in their own image to be servants of their own human interests.” The numerous gods that humanity has fashioned and claimed to be supernatural merely reflect what each particular culture deemed important at the time. The gamut ranged from gods of war and vengeance to gods of peace and morality, each one reflecting the goals and aspirations of the people who created it and worshiped it.

Hume, Santayana and others deny the need for a divinity outside of ourselves. Writer Joseph Campbell expressed this point of view when he wrote: “All the gods, all the heavens, all the hells are within you.” Physicist Steven Wineberg carried the idea further when he said: “It is more noble and more admirable to give point to our lives rather than to accept it from some external force.” In the judgment of these and other people who have given serious thought to the subject, our life-giving universe and our complex humanity are the entities worthy of our study and our devotion.

All life, especially human life, is a wondrous thing. The wonder of human life was expressed eloquently by astronomer Carl Sagan is his book Cosmos when he wrote: “We have begun to contemplate our origins: star stuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion-billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that cosmos, ancient and vast from which we spring.”

Human life itself is the thing worthy of our loyalty and our devotion. Our ancestors were not wise to give their minds over to imagined beings. But they had no science to give them answers to their most profound questions. Now we understand that being cognizant of the process of going from inorganic chemicals to Homo sapiens conscious of ourselves and of our relationship with others of our species is enough to warrant our awe and respect. We all came up together through the perils of evolution. We are one humanity, one species. Although we share a common primate ancestry, we have tended to dwell too often on our differences rather than our similarities. History has shown that we build and prosper when we work together as one people; we destroy and suffer when we allow unwarranted impulses to replace rational judgements.

Being loyal to “the species and the planet” implies respecting the needs of each other as well as taking good care of our Earth, our only source of the food we eat and the air we breathe. The well-being of each one of us and the well-being of our planet are interlocked. Without humanity Earth continues just fine, but without the succor of our Earth, humanity ceases. To put it succinctly, we humans need the Earth a lot more than the Earth needs us. When we take care of Earth, we take care of ourselves.

We also need each other. Most of us love and respect the lives of others and hope that our neighbors will love and respect us. But that seems to be very difficult in our current time of social, political, and military factionalism. Hate is easy, respect and cooperation require effort. We cannot continue to allow easy greed and paranoia to take the place of human symbiosis in which each person is sincerely concerned about making a contribution to the well being of all others. This does not require a complete change of consciousness or mind-set, but a discarding of the attitudes that keep us fearful and antagonistic toward each other.

Biologist and anthropologist Stephen Jay Gould made a good point when he wrote: “We need a version of the most useful and ancient moral principle of all – the precept developed in one form or another by nearly every culture because it acts, in its legitimate appeal to self-interest, as a doctrine of stability based upon mutual respect. No one has ever improved upon the golden rule.”

Yet in spite of the eternal truth of the ‘golden rule’, there have always been those who see human life as an expendable commodity. We see it in the news every day. If a weaker group gets in the way of the desires of a dominant group, people can be eliminated. Through this behavior, we are constantly reminded that we are still a young and immature species that has not yet mastered the use of the mental capabilities it has. Many of us continue to act like mindless schoolyard bullies who, instead of our minds and our sense of rationality, still use our brawn and our weapons to define who we are.

Are we not aware of what we have learned in our millions of years of evolution? From our animal ancestors we learned the survival techniques that brought us through the perils of evolving from animals that defended themselves with claws and sharp teeth to a species that had to learn to defend itself with cunning and brain power. It is important that each of us be aware that our evolution continues, and as we mature in our humanity, we are learning from each other that we must sort through the survival practices of our past. We learned to fight when threatened as well as to cooperate when the opportunity presented itself. Those behaviors were important to us in our past and still govern our interactions.

Now is the time in our evolution to look carefully at those behaviors we learned in the past and do our best to eliminate the ones that continue to keep us fearful and anxious while nurturing the ones that allow us to live in peaceful, symbiotic, cooperative societies. The cooperative spirit is in us; it has always been there from the beginning of evolution. It is how single celled microbes evolved into multi-celled plants and animals. It is how Homo sapiens built cities and civilizations. Symbiotic cooperation needs to be elevated in our thinking and dissonance reduced to the unacceptable.

There are now too many of us and we are too well armed to continue being belligerent sword rattlers and acting like pouting three-year-old’s who lost our bubble gum and want somebody else’s. We must put aside our childish cultural, societal, and political differences and allow ourselves to evolve into mature, rational, and cooperative citizens of the world, not narrowly attached to any one nation or set of cultural mores. We must always be aware that this small Earth is our home, and all that we can ever hope to have for many years to come is our Earth and each other. It is time we stopped living like a bickering, dysfunctional family.

Does a population of 8 billion and enough weapons to kill each other several times over, put us at a crossroads that we have never experienced before? Can we get through our growing pains without mass starvation or destroying each other? We need to mature fast before someone, by accident or intentionally, commits an act that starts nuclear missiles flying killing millions of people outright as well as destroying the means of sustaining the survivors. Has the level of distrust and even hatred between social groups and political entities reached a point where further conflict is inevitable? Are we going to allow greed and self-indulgence to continue controlling the behavior of some of our leaders? Let us hope that inside us there enough human dignity, intelligence, and compassion to negotiate and cooperate our way through this time of peril.

If you must believe in something beyond yourself, believe that deep within each of us we have the wisdom we need to solve our problem without aggression. It is not mystical or something supernatural, but just a down to Earth belief in the human potential to use the knowledge we have acquired in our history and then take it a step further by raising our moral and ethical behavior to a level that will take all of us safely into our future.

In our nascent years, while we were learning to fashion sticks and stones into tools to be used as weapons of conflict, we were also creating a sense of morality to counter the use of those deadly weapons. At the same time we were falling victim to the violent side of human nature we were also beginning to become aware that there is a side of our nature that cares for others and has no desire to kill our fellow humans or cause them distress in any way.

Perhaps this morality of caring stemmed from the millions of years of animals, especially mammals and birds, caring for their young from birth until they were mature enough to fend for themselves. These animals were driven by an inexplicable instinct to have their species survive through their offspring. They could not explain it. But the concept of caring proved to be essential to the perpetuation of the species. Over many years, the idea of caring for others grew beyond blood relations until as one psychologist put it: “A shellfish ape invented a new moral code.” Humans inherited that moral code and now need to refine it into behavior that puts peaceful cooperation over aggression and benevolence over self-indulgence.

What we today label cooperation, forgiveness, altruism, and other types of pro-social behavior was to our early human ancestors simply the behavior of caring that developed through natural selection as the kind of social interaction that was best to perpetuate the species. It became obvious that aggression was counter to species survival and that symbiotic cooperation helped the species to flourish. It was true a million years ago and it is true today: human aggression is counter to human survival.

So, it could be argued that, in spite of our aggressive nature, we were wise enough early in our evolution to figure out how to interact in ways that would benefit both the individual and the group. The concept has many names today in the various fields of study such as psychology, medicine, sociality, and others, but it all comes down to having a respect for life and an innate loyalty to the idea of doing what you can to perpetuate life by being open, kind, and cooperative with others.

But today, where is our loyalty to life? Where is our respect for each other as the children of billions of years of evolution… an evolution that was so random that it could more than likely never happen exactly the same way again? Just how special are we? As far as we have been able to tell from our studies of our solar system and for many light years beyond, we are unique creatures and lucky to be here.

Would it then be asking too much of each one of us to show our appreciation for our lives and the lives of others by just being a bit kinder to our fellow travelers as each of us pursues happiness on our perilous human journey? Writer Aldus Huxley put the situation this way: “It’s a little embarrassing that after 45 years of research and study, the best advice I can give people is to be a little kinder to each other.”

Most rational people would agree with Huxley that being kinder to each other is a good thing. Our history teaches us, however, that we are often very unkind to each other. Human history is the saga of one war or military conquest after another. In our crowded world there is an armed conflict going on somewhere nearly every hour of every day. We are constantly hearing of wars and rumors of wars, generally brought on by someone’s greed and vaingloriousness. Must we continue being a belligerent species?

It is the same old tragic story. History is full of egotistical politicians and militarists who think they have a better idea on how they want their country or neighboring countries to run, and they go to great lengths to impose their will on others. All they need is a few mindless sycophants to follow them around like lost puppies and carry out their orders in hopes of sharing the spoils of those who are victimized. When these pathological egotists become aggressive, the motivations are always the same: selfishness, greed, and lust for power; only the countries and the names of the leaders change. We have seen it happen many times, and the result is inevitably the same: these people push, push, push until they are forced to stop. And, unfortunately, until they are stopped, innocent people are killed and property is needlessly destroyed.

The cycle continues, and we cannot seem to get ourselves under control enough to stop it. One answer is that our leaders must show greater maturity. They must not allow their minds to be controlled by greed and the lust for power. The citizens of every nation want to believe that their leaders are mature and rational men and women who try hard to make the right decisions when faced with a problem. Yet, history shows us that up to this point many of our politicians and military leaders keep making the same mistakes over and over again, just as they have for many centuries. Most of them cannot get passed the age-old desire for prestige, for admiration, and for getting their way even if it creates serious problems for others.

Will we ever get to the point that we can pledge to each other that we will do nothing to cause harm, mental or physical, to one another? Even though many of us feel as if the challenge we face is so large and our behavior patterns so ingrained that we can never change, reflect for a minute on some advice William Shakespeare gave us in his play Measure For Measure: “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we might oft win, by fearing the attempt.” Civilization was built by humans who put their fears and doubts behind them and went to work solving the problems in front of them.  When we put our minds to it, and our doubts behind us, we will be able to solve the problem of human violence and aggression. Does it sound too simple?

When enough of us believe, in spite of the seemingly insurmountable odds we face, that we humans can achieve a world of peace and cooperation, we are well on our way to having the problem solved. It is not an impossible goal and it will require each one of us, no matter who we are or where we are, to put our mind and heart to the task. Or put another way by writer Oscar Wilde: “For what is mind but motion in the intellectual sphere? The essence of thought, as the essence of life, is growth.” The mind and the consciousness of each one of us must continue to stay in motion and keep growing until we humans defeat our fears, our aggression, and our greedy obsession with power.

We know what we need to do. Let us, all of us, set our minds on peace instead of conflict, trust instead of baseless suspicion, cooperation instead of factionalism, an open hand instead of a closed fist. Yet, we continue to ignore the fact that the aggressive side of our nature is taking us to the brink of existential danger. Contemplate for a moment this statement by Benjamin Franklin: “You will observe with concern how long a useful truth may be known and exist before it is generally received and practiced on.”

Yes, the word truth is batted around today to the point that the concept has become almost meaningless. Yet, we know that the truth of being loyal to the human relationships that foster life and prosperity for everyone is a truth we can all agree with. It is up to us receive this truth in our minds, our hearts, our, conscience, and our consciousness and put it into practice.

Our journey from the ‘big bang’ until now has been an unlikely odyssey. All of us are amazed at the phenomenal series of events which in the 13.8-billion-year history of our universe produced us. Time will tell if we are alone in the universe or just another example of introspective carbon-based life. But today, the goal is for each one of us to keep ourselves alive and well and allow others of our species to do the same. We humans have so much to celebrate such as our accomplishments in medicine, science, technology and social justice that it would be the essence of insanity to allow a few out-of-control egos to destroy what humanity has worked so hard and so long to build.   Yet, our fears, our anxiety, our suspicions, our greed, our obsession with weapons and killing hang over us like a storm cloud. Shakespeare gave us food for thought in his play “All’s Well That Ends Well”, when he has the Countess of Rousillon advise her son Bertram to: “Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” As we become more loyal to life, we will come to our senses and realize that we have no legitimate reason to continue fighting each other. Let us hope it is soon.

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