One of my favorite thoughts developed in me when I wrote a condolence card for a colleague whose mother had died. What do you say to someone whom you barely know about his mother’s death? Why say anything and not send a preprinted card? But I detest the sending of artificial or borrowed emotions in preprinted cards. I think it is a sign of disrespect for oneself and the recipient. It shows an inexcusable lack of effort and imagination at a moment when you purportedly want to show you care. While I wanted to keep the card to my colleague short, I wanted to write something original and meaningful. But I could not think of what to write. Since I did not know anything about his mother, I would have to express something general about mothers. I thought of mothers taking care of their children, loving them unconditionally, and giving unselfishly to raise them. As I started to write about that, I realized that I could not assume that my colleague’s mother had sufficiently displayed such qualities, particularly since he had turned out to be a very cold and inconsiderate person. Maybe I would rub salt into wounds of his childhood? That risk about killed the whole venture. It was hard anyway to care for such a person or his mother who maybe contributed to making him insufferable. Maybe I would just tell him that I was very sorry for his loss. Convention would be served by that gesture. I was already about to place my stationary back into the drawer when I thought that I did not have to be insensitive just because he was. I could not help feeling sorry for him. So I kept thinking about what I could write, wondering whether there was something meaningful of universal truth I could say to him.
As I deconstructed the function of a mother into its elements, it finally dawned on me. I thought of what a mother is in its most fundamental definition. It is an iteration of a species that in turn brings forth another copy of that species. That did not sound very inspiring or consoling. Yet then I realized that our mothers are the last link in an unbroken line of mothers going back to the beginning of life, billions of years. One continuous, uninterrupted sequence of life and possibly many millions of years of love and caring in beings that had developed the necessary mental capacity. I had never before given that stunning fact consideration. Of course, one learns about how life developed. But I had never felt a personal relationship with all my ancestors as forebears in a continuous chain. I had never contemplated the fragility and complexity that made it possible for me to exist. I imagined myself in the role of a guardian, trying to secure my existence throughout this vast sequence of life. I pictured the pains and fears I would have had to endure, the maneuvers I would have had to undertake to ensure the sequence leading to my existence. I understood that this sequence was embedded in a massive number of conditions and movements. Alone the odds that the human species evolved seemed staggering. Even if one assumed that the universe would bring forth occasions in which natural substances and laws would have to start and develop life, its proceedings seemed to have been uncertain. Even if the development of humanity started at a single point, the development of life that led to that point and of humanity thereafter leading to a single person involved many interweaving, combining, and separating events. Any event in the sequence could be viewed that way. I pictured cataclysms, starvation, accidents, illnesses, fights, wars, exposure to nature, competition, and any other number of seemingly inconsequential circumstances that could have changed or stopped the trajectory toward my existence. I began to grasp how slim the chances of individual existence were going only a generation back and that these chances become infinitesimal as one looks further back.
I proceeded to write a heartfelt condolence letter about this. I thought telling my colleague about this insight would be a great way to lessen his pain and pick up his mood. I thought it would cheer him up to know how very special it is that we exist, how fortunate we are, how thankful, how happy we could be that we are here. I never heard any response from him and, I guess, I should not have expected one either. He took a few days off and then came back and behaved as his old unpleasant self as if nothing had happened. However, my realization of privilege and grace in the fact of my and our existence stayed with me. As I embedded this realization further in my mind, a new horizon of understanding began to develop. I began to form the concept that the result of an unbroken chain of life leading to my existence demanded that I act in accordance with it. It seemed to imply a responsibility to continue the line unbroken. Did I have the personal obligation to produce and raise progeny? Or was my responsibility more general. Did I have an obligation to assure that my species survived? Did I have a similar responsibility to related species? Was my obligation universal to the progression of life? After some consideration, much of which developed while I was writing my book on happiness, I concluded that we must not let specific ancestry separate us. Our unbroken line to a common origin should humble and unite us. It does not indicate special, separate personal destiny. We may be special as a species that has adapted well to its challenges and grown with them. However, this reference to superior merit becomes less convincing if we try to individualize our view because coincidence independent of merit seems to play a big part in the particularities of our existence. Our particular heritage also loses importance given that there are billions of very similarly equipped humans. We share the overwhelming part of our ancestry directly with other humans, making us all very close relatives. Only a very recent, minute bit differentiates us. Our emergence, our worth, and our responsibility must be understood in that context. Our responsibility is then to all of humanity. The divisiveness of myopic concentration on immediate ancestry and of denying our close relatedness with all other humans and the connected responsibility causes unwarranted infighting and senseless damage. It threatens the development and survival of our species. Even if we were dedicated to continuing parochial ancestry, discriminatory conflict would counteract the chances of that strategy. Our best option to continue our ancestry in all respects is to advance humanity.
That, however, is only possible if we pay tribute to the system that has allowed us and humanity to emerge and develop. We must keep and possibly enhance that system to the extent it serves humanity. An exploration of the system reveals that it contains an elaborate and largely interdependent network of species and inanimate factors. Humans may be related to many, maybe all species by common ancestry. This relatedness may cause a sense of affinity. It may give rise to considerations and emotions that, although weakened by developmental distance, may be similar to attitudes toward humanity. Beyond common ancestry, we may deem ourselves connected to all life by our essential commonality with it and its development. We may feel responsible to honor and carry on its traditions and progress. Even if we regard life and the environment in which it is embedded under purely utilitarian considerations, we must be interested in their protection and advancement for our individual sake and the benefit of humanity.
The responsibility resulting from these considerations might be unwelcome because it requires us to adjust our objectives. We have to be administrators and guardians of humanity, of life, and of nature in general. It seems tempting to deny this duty or its scope. After all, our ancestors acted mostly haphazardly and without our awareness, and humanity blossomed. Yet, our situation is different because we cumulatively exert more influence over our circumstances than our ancestors. We hold it in our grasp to wipe out our species and most or even all life in our realm by our inadequacies. Even if we abstain from willful damage, we are so deeply disturbing the world that failing to counteract our infractions might have similar effects. To take charge, we may have to view ourselves as a link in an unbroken chain going back to the beginning of life for whose perpetuation we must do our part.
© 2013-2018 BY MARTIN JANELLO