October 19, 2012
The Lonely Atom
The designs of the universe are unknown to us, but we do know that to think with lucidity and to act with fairness is to aid those designs (which shall never be revealed to us).--Jorge Luis Borges
Driving back from the landfill along a semi-country road thickly lined with trees on both sides, with randomly spaced clusters of industrial buildings providing relief from the beauty of the landscape. I am dazzled by the sheer profligacy of nature. Thousands of leaves form an autumnal portrait in green, yellow and red that will endure until the first frost, when the leaves will drop to the ground and become a sturdy quilt, warming the roots as they slumber until the new spring reawakens them.
Each leaf consists of billions of atoms of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen and assorted minerals. I think how lucky to be an atom that gets to spend a season on a tree, shape-shifting from bud to leaf, from green to orange or red or yellow. I pass by a storage building clad in a dull brown vinyl. Those atoms are locked in that ugliness for hundreds of years, until nature finally grants them a conditional release. What prior existence determined their fate? Why does one atom get to be in a tree leaf and another imprisoned in vinyl?
A million years from now every atom will have been reshuffled countless times. Nature persists by letting atoms consort in predictable ways, allowing them to make alliances to hold together against the pitiless onslaught of time ... a resistance, if you will, to the endless cycle of creation and destruction. Form asserts itself over and over. Particles self-organize into structures and organisms. Something there is that encourages this persistence out of chaos.
An individual atom has no sense of belonging to a whole. It is a part that has clicked into place, self-organizing a whole that will be much more than its parts. Like the atom, I have no true sense of the vast machine of which I am but a part. On the scale of the universe, I am a sub-atomic particle that evanesces in and out of existence a thousand times in the blink of God's eye.
Simple observation tells me that all is in endless movement towards formation and reformation. Atoms like to be in mixed company. They don't want to be alone if they don't have to be. The purpose of all this shape-shifting is far beyond my capacity to grasp ... unknown and perhaps unknowable. I sense a road being taken. I just don't know where it is going, but I am happy to be along for the ride in this unique and transient assemblage of atoms known as me.
A decade or so from now, the atoms that pump my blood and fill my mind with dreams will go their separate ways. What did it all mean? Haven't a clue. I do believe that I have a role in the scheme of things. It's not for me to understand the lines I have been given, merely to give as good a reading as I can while I strut my hour upon the stage. Perhaps it is indeed "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." I prefer to think not. And in that thought, I find a tendril of belief poking through the winter's leaves, reaching upward toward the new season.