Imbolc Valentine Moon
So here’s my summary of the last 17 days. I got ill. My doc thought it was influenza A. That lasted 10 days, then I got really sick. The pneumonia is clearing. I have more energy each day, though I’m still weak. Eating and sleeping. Still the main activities.
All these mortality signals keep whizzing by. The third phase is an existentialist phase no matter your theological orientation. Somewhere in the no longer so distant future is a personal and permanent extinction event. Made me read the news of Opportunity with a pang I might not have otherwise felt.
The struggle we have over these deep questions in our own day to day has gotten interlaced with our creations. It seems like taffy or a Chinese finger puzzle. The more we try to answer them the tighter the puzzle grips our finger. And when a plucky, brave, dogged machine just keeps on ticking, year after year, moving and sensing and communicating, all on a planet not our own, we see its slow, but confident progress, its unwillingness to stop until the last trickle of current ran from its batteries, as life itself. Until we say it out loud. Do we put quotations marks around death? What do we do with the emotions we feel for something made of silicon and metal?
“Our beloved Opportunity remained silent,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said Wednesday… Her power dropped to a trickle, and she was last heard from on June 10…Keri Bean was among those who helped send that last radio signal. Losing Opportunity, she says, is like a death in the family…But at least it was Mars that killed her — it wasn’t the rover failing or something else. It was Mars. And I feel like that’s really the only appropriate death for her at this point.” NPR
It’s possible that we’ve been making a category mistake all along about death. We assume that we are individuals, clothed in an impenetrable skin with a mind mysterious and often hidden even from its self. What if that is too narrow? Way too narrow. What if we are also those things in which we invest our life? That is, I am not only the meat sack that turned 72 yesterday, but I am also Kate, our house, the dogs, even our Rav4. I’m not making a weird boundary issues statement here. I’m trying to point to what Buber calls the I-thou*. Buber saw the I-thou as a relationship with another that is permeable. I love this idea, but want to say that we can extend it, in some instances, even into the realm of what Buber calls I-it relationships.
Those instances are not as few as we might think. Yes, family. Yes, friends. Yes, members of a community important to us. Yes. But also the dog who sleeps in your bed. The tree you care for each spring and fall. The flowers that you plant. And, yes, the machines that extend your self into the wider world. These machines, like Opportunity, do function independently from us, are definitely an it in the usual understanding of the term, but perhaps we misunderstand the distance, the separateness. “Our beloved Opportunity remained silent.” “Like a death in the family.”
Opportunity was not only the physical entity on Mars. It was also a literal physical extension of those who made it, those who guided it, interacted with it, and gathered its data. It was like a hand or an eye, an arm or a leg, not separate, though able to operate independently. As such Opportunity’s death was just that, a death, the loss of an I-thou relationship.
How do these relationships happen? I believe this quote says it very well:
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” chewy.com
*Buber’s main proposition is that we may address existence in two ways:
- The attitude of the “I” towards an “It”, towards an object that is separate in itself, which we either use or experience.
- The attitude of the “I” towards “Thou”, in a relationship in which the other is not separated by discrete bounds.
One of the major themes of the book is that human life finds its meaningfulness in relationships. In Buber’s view, all of our relationships bring us ultimately into relationship with God, who is the Eternal Thou. wiki