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What Are We, Really

BEYOND THE HORIZON
Some ideas seem almost too big to begin to wrap one’s mind around — and almost too scary to even try. But given the choice of putting on blinders to stay comfortable or trying to make sense of what may well be true, it’s our guess that you would choose the latter. Here are some large issues with which we’ll be grappling in future issues — and perhaps a perspective that can shift our fears to gratitude.

LIFE AS A SUPERORGANISM
As Ian Willams writes for our next issue, “In 2002, Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg coined the term “superorganism” to describe the ensemble of human and non-human cells that constitute our body. We consist of about 10 trillion cells. They make up our brain, muscles, bones, blood, and major organs. In addition to these 10 trillion human cells, the average healthy person also carries about 100 trillion non-human cells in the forms of bacteria, fungi, and entire organisms, such as mites, lice, and worms. These passengers are alive; many are capable of an independent existence and yet end up living in and with us. That we carry around 10 times more non-human than human cells pales beside the fact that there are 100 times more microbial genes within us than human genes. In other words, there are 100 times more genes in our metagenome — the set of all genomes in our body — than there are in the human genome within our chromosomes.”

SUGAR IN SPACE
The search for life beyond Earth recently got significantly sweeter, as astronomers happened upon a simple molecule known as glycolaldehyde, a form of sugar. According to Discovery News, what’s interesting about glycolaldehyde is how easily it combines with a three-carbon sugar to produce ribose, the building blocks of DNA and RNA, the nucleic acids that carry genetic information for living things. “Glycolaldehyde is . . . directly linked to the origin of life,” writes astronomer Maria Beltran, with the University of Barcelona’s Department of Astronomy. While glycolaldehyde was found once before, nine years ago, it was in a place where the temperature was near absolute zero. Now, Beltran’s team has found glycolaldehyde in a relatively warm (300 degrees above absolute zero) and dense star-forming region of the Milky Way, where conditions are ripe for the birth of planetary systems.

IS THE UNIVERSE LIVING OR DEAD?
As Duane Elgin writes in his new book The Living Universe -(Barrett-Koehler, April 2009), “How we feel about the surrounding universe has enormous impact on our experience of life. If we think of the universe as dead at the foundations, then feelings of existential alienation, anxiety, dread, and fear are understandable. Why seek communion with the cold indifference of lifeless matter and empty space. If we relax into life, we will simply sink into despair. However, if we live in a living universe, feelings of subtle connection, curiosity, and gratitude are understandable. We are ourselves participants in a cosmic garden of life that the universe has been patiently nurturing over billions of years. A living-universe perspective invites us to shift from indifference, fear, and cynicism to curiosity, love, and awe.”

Letting Go of My Story
A while back I started thinking about what my story was. What do I present to the world to let people know where I’ve been and how I have come to be who I am now? The answer came when I was at a school residency, really enjoying the deep conversations shared with some fellow counseling students. All of the sudden, it struck me how sick I was of hearing myself talk about my failed marriage and the contentious divorce. Gawd, I thought to myself, I’ve become one of those boring people who defines herself by her hardships. It had been an unconscious evolution. I had, I can only guess, meant to convey something along the lines of “I’m a strong person who has triumphed over personal obstacles,” but the more I talked about it, the less triumphant and the more whiny I sounded. What was my payoff? Why did I feel compelled to offer these examples? Why, when I wanted so much to be perceived as a capable, strong woman, did I feel compelled to air a classic “victimization” story?

One of my fellow counseling students offered a theory — that’s what we do! Perhaps my repeated telling of the story was my way of coming to terms with it. The more I told the story, the more it became something I owned, instead of events that had victimized me. In the telling and retelling, I was literally taking the sting out of it. Toward the end, I was telling the story the way I might tell someone about getting a flat tire or bouncing a check; this crappy thing happened . . . and yadda yadda. And at this point, my friend said, “You probably don’t need the story anymore.”

I think she was onto something. Your story is — albeit awful and sad — intrinsically yours. And if you have suffered a loss, then hanging on to the story of it becomes a way of refusing to let any more be taken from you. You own it. You decide with whom and when you’ll tell it. By the same token, you decide when to throw it away because it no longer defines you. For me, it was just a few weeks ago in another essay, when I made yet another reference to my crappy marriage and the pain of my divorce. I was using the story to illustrate a point, but even that made me cringe slightly, and I believe it’s time to let it go for even that.