We are bacteria, star stuff

Human beings are an interesting mix of over-riding arrogance and woe-is-me inferiority.

We oscillate between the two, often managing to be both at the same time. And we have so much to feel arrogant and inferior about.

Our ancestors are bacteria, the stuff that can make us sick, for which we wash our hands and take billions of dollars worth of drugs. Ten per cent of our body weight is bacteria.

“We still share 50 per cent of our genes with fungi. In early gestation, a human embryo is all but impossible to distinguish from that of a pig, ox, or rabbit,” K.C. Cole writes in Mind over Matter.

“Our most profound thoughts are nothing but neurotransmitters blinking messages to each other inside our brains.

“In fact, cognitive scientists, following Freud, tell us that only a very small percentage of our thoughts ever surface to the level of consciousness — meaning that most of the time, we don’t even know what we think.”

That isn’t a surprise. We all know people who do strange things that don’t make sense to them or us. But if we really think about it, we know we don’t know what we think much of the time.

We don’t know why we do what we do, why we behave one way one day and the opposite the next. We don’t know why we get angry for no apparent reason, why we suffer from the Monday blues and the February blahs.

At times our thoughts are hijacked by who knows what and when we finally come back to ourselves, we have no idea what we were thinking about or how long we were gone.

We have opinions about everything, want everyone else to share them and will browbeat someone with a contrary paradigm into submission.

That thinking allows us to consider it our right to eradicate 99 per cent of the species that have ever lived, yet wonder if we deserve the good things that come our way. We’re a curious mix of Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear.

“Life is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel,” said Horace Walpole, the fourth earl of Oxford.

When we look beyond our all-consuming concern with the minutiae of our lives we are struck by the fact that we live on an island in a cosmic sea stretching to infinity.

Everything on this island is related. Everything descended from one common ancestor, that first mixture of amino acids startled into life by a bolt out of the blue, by lightning.

Life split after Luca, our last universal common ancestor, a single cell that lived about 3.5 billion years ago. But even though life got creative, productive and imaginative after that, every living thing is still kin.

“The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree,” Charles Darwin wrote in 1859.

“As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.”

Of course, we have much to be arrogant about as well. If we can go way back, we are star stuff, which is much more enchanting than being bacteria.

We can time travel even further and realize that most of the stuff that make us came into being 13.8 billion years ago during the big bang.

The rest was created in stars. The iron in our blood and the gold in our teeth were forged in the progenitor of our sun and our solar system. When it died in a cataclysmic explosion, it spewed the heavy metals throughout the heavens.

Like Earth, we, too, are island universes. Each of our 30 trillion plus cells is a galaxy made up of solar systems of atoms, which have the equivalent of a sun and encircling planets.

We stand mid-way between the infinitely large and the infinitely small, the linchpin that gives thought form, that part of life that allows it to appreciate itself. Meister Eckhart said that the eye with which we see God is the eye with which God sees us.

No matter how we trace our lineage or how far we go back, we find we are all related, children of one mother.

“No matter the languages we speak or the colour of our skin, we share ancestors who planted rice on the banks of the Yangtze, who first domesticated horses on the steppes of the Ukraine, who hunted giant sloths in the forests of North and South America, and who labored to build the Great Pyramid of Khufu,” said Yale University professor Joseph T. Chang. 

We have both feet firmly planted on Earth, but with outstretched arms reach for the stars, pulling heaven and earth into our obit.

Only when we realize where we came from and who we are can we claim our own inner territory and develop the equanimity to accept what is. Then we can understand — right down to the cellular level where our bacteria dwell — the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer.

God grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change;

courage to change the things I can;

and wisdom to know the difference.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Ross Freake, a former managing editor of The Daily Courier, has worked at 11 newspapers from St. John's to Kamloops. He is the author of three books and the editor and ghost writer of many others.

He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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