Thursday, November 7, 2019

Separation Anxiety

 Publication date edited to reflect time of actual writing. Posted much later on 6/24/22, and lightly edited. 

When I was a kid, maybe 8 or 10 years old, my dad gave me his old microscope from veterinary school. It was stored in a wooden carry case, under a plastic cover stamped with the Kodak logo, and had a box of glass slides and cover slips to go with it. “Be very careful with this,” I was told as he showed me how to put the slides on the stage, how to raise, lower, move and focus everything using the array of knobs and dials. He showed me how each lens had a different level of magnification. “Just don’t ever use this one,” he said, indicating the one marked “oil” (I totally did use that one). 

One of my favorite things to do with the microscope was to go to the creek at the bottom of our street, collect the scummiest, mossiest dreck-water I could find, and take it home to look for stuff - tiny worms, amoebas, paramecia, or even just what moss looked like at several hundred times magnification. I remember seeing these tiny things swimming in and out of their hiding places, eating each other or just generally darting around, and thinking how impossible it seemed that they could be doing all that in between two thin pieces of wet glass that to all appearances were squeezed tightly together. Most of all I was fascinated by the fact that they carried on living their regular lives, never even realizing that they were in this tiny glass sandwich, completely cut off from the creek they came from. They had no connection any longer to the natural world from which they came. Nothing they did would ever effect that world, and nothing that happened to it would ever effect them - ever again.

For those creatures I was observing, the meaning of their lives (insofar as it is possible to imbue the life of a paramecium with anything one could call “meaning”) had utterly shifted, without their knowledge. As a part of the ecosystem of the creek, their albeit unconscious purpose was to remove dead biomass, cycle elements and nutrients, and strengthen the overall fitness of the system - in short, to participate in the ongoing process of life itself. On the stage of my microscope, their purpose was now, basically, for me to see them. They still did all the things they did in the creek - they swam around, ate stuff, presumably excreted stuff, and sometimes made more of themselves. But they were no longer connected to the actual cause and function of their existence. They did all of those things within an absolutely contained .1mm slice of their formerly boundless world, within artificial confines that were created by human beings (most immediately me). The only real selection pressure that now existed for them was whether or not I was bored with looking, at which point I would either wash them down the drain or, more likely, forget about them and let them dry on the slide.

Maybe they taught me something about the natural world, or even just inspired me to care about it at all…but that experience of observing a microcosm on my desk has come back to me more and more lately when I think about our own condition relative to the world from which we came.

Our distant ancestors lived out their lives connected directly to the environment from which they came. They hunted, ate, shat, and mated according to the admittedly unforgiving rules of the natural world. Their purpose, function, and meaning were to continue to do so for as long as possible. The measure of success was whether they did or did not continue. They culled the genetic stock of the plants and animals around them, cycled nutrients through the overall system, and did everything other creatures did, basically. 

But we added some other things in. Awareness. Belief. Value judgement. And most importantly, self-imposed structure.

Think of the clock. The bank account. The screen. 

Every day, I like most people, mistake the created world for the real one. I chase not prey nor forage, but currency. I follow the clock, not the sun and moon. I sleep when it's "late," not when it's dark, and wake to an alarm, not a sunrise. Events in my world are mediated not by my direct observation but by the curated feed of the media I consume via numerous small screens or audio speakers. It's filtered, processed, and produced - and completely second-hand experience. The difference between us and the creatures I watched in the microscope is that the observer of our little closed world - is us ourselves. And so also are we the perpetrators of our own removal from the real world.

We have managed to convince ourselves that we are independent and free of nature. What we really are is cut off from and deprived of it. But we're still subject to it. What good is an economy and a bunch of jobs if the actual environment is turned to crap? "Sure, I have to breathe through a respirator every time I leave the house, and the only thing we all have left to eat is our own dead, but hey, at least I have a paycheck!" Yeah, sounds great.

We have a choice - start paying attention to and rejoining the actual world, or keep believing we live in a special protected bubble of our own making - and wait until we dry out and perish.