We are living in a time of fundamental change, making it necessary to reassess who we are, what we value, why we make certain choices. What we are confronted with is disturbing, even alarming, its scale and scope extending to universal dimensions.
Days before I wrote this, the Perseverance Rover landed on Mars, sending images and sounds from a distant planet that alter our sense of our place in our solar system. Here on Earth a global pandemic had caused over two and a half million deaths worldwide, a fifth of them in our country. Politically, the democracy that once distinguished us had been at severe risk, and its restoration is still under challenge. Much of this century's entertainment focuses on the chaotic and the apocalyptic, abundant depictions of our civilizations, our cultures, our very existence facing willful degradation and potential extinction. The helplessness of the people of Texas confronted with freezing weather, inoperable power, and inaccessible water sources provides a concentrated image of where we are on a larger scale. The cumulative effect of all this has been to awaken awareness of our irrelevance to the universe.
But recognizing our irrelevance to the universe shouldn't encourage indifference to the lives we're actually living or the places we experience them. Many of us can't help sharing their thoughts about what they've realized. Any number of encouraging posts by people on Facebook emphasize how to recognize who we are and where we are and how to adjust positively to that knowledge. My friend Lisa Hadden recently posted a passage from Lyrical Zen titled "Ancestral Mathematics." It listed the number of ancestors, from 2 parents, 4 grandparents, and 8 great-grandparents on up to 2,048 ninth great-grandparents and, by the 12th generation, a total of 4,094 ancestors over the last 400 years necessary for any of us to exist. To be alive today means that your lineage never terminated from the earliest homo sapiens in your genealogy until now.
I'm a grandfather; I'm aware that my lineage has extended beyond me. Once there was me, then I became one of two ancestors, and now I'm one of four ancestors my descendants can trace. Making it into the group of eight great-grandparents is remotely possible, but probably no further. By then, each younger generation of my lineage will have generated even younger generations, offspring I may never have knowledge of. That's the way life works. The great-grandparents I met as a toddler left only the slightest, foggiest impression on me; likely I made little on them. By the time I came along, I was only the newest of their great-grandchildren, and they saw me seldom before they left existence. In the course of daily living, we seldom consider how transitory existence is for everyone, even when we acknowledge those in generations before ours who are no longer with us or those friends and prominent strangers we were once familiar with who have now "departed"—have "passed," as funeral directors politely term it. My grandparents gone, my parents gone, recently my sister and my brother gone, one of my closest friends gone. Over the past 400 years more than four thousand ancestors gone.
That "Ancestral Mathematics" post, after enumerating generations past, asks readers, "Think for a moment – How many struggles? How many battles? How many difficulties? How much sadness? How much happiness? How many love stories? How many expressions of hope for the future? – did your ancestors have to undergo for you to exist in this present moment?" The questions are not ones we can readily answer, although family records sometimes may hint at some of them, but we recognize the issues being raised. How much happiness? How much sadness? What and whom did they love and who loved them? What did they hope for and what hopes were realized? We can't always say but we certainly believe that these were what they experienced. How different could they have been from us?
The questions we might ask of our ancestors are ones it would be fair for our descendants to ask of us. They are questions we might ask of ourselves. What consolations did we find as we waited for the apocalypse? What happiness did we find in the world we lived in? What did we do to make a better world for those for whom we would be ancestors? What hopes did we try to fulfill and how well did we realize them? What struggles, battles, difficulties will we have left our descendants to face? When the time comes that none of our descendants will ever have been in the world when we were, what will we hope they might still carry on from us? How much more at peace with themselves do we hope they'll be?