Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Battle of Life

When I was 18 or 19 years old I read the Bhagavad Gita.  It’s an ancient Indian spiritual story that is a conversation between Arjuna, a prince, and Krishna, a god, about whether Arjuna should participate in a great battle. Arjuna doesn’t want to do it. He says he would rather die. Krishna tells him he must fight.   I didn’t understand why Krishna said this. I was against war. I saw it as stupid, horrible and wasteful.  I read it again when I was in my mid-thirties and still didn’t get it. I still thought that war shouldn’t be, that fighting was wrong, that participating in battles was not spiritual.

In my late fifties I moved from the city out into the wild. My wife and I live at a remote biological field station in the central Arizona highlands.  Our neighbors are thousands of species of plants and animals. It is very beautiful. At first glance it looks so peaceful - everything living together in harmony. When you look closer it becomes obvious that it’s a battle at every level.  Everything in nature is fighting for its existence as a species. The field of grass gently waving in the breeze in front of our house consists of a dozen or more different species fighting each other for limited water, sun and nutrients. The rabbit that just ran across our meadow evolved to more efficiently evade coyotes and mountain lions and the lions have evolved to more efficiently catch and eat rabbits.

In our guts, communities of microbes are at war with each other. Some help us digest our food and others keep them in check so they don’t take over. White blood cells course through our veins looking for intruding bacteria and viruses. Invading microbes are constantly adapting to better enter and live our bodies. The ability to respond to a million different threats resides in our genes.

We just had a scientist out here that specializes in studying adaptive mechanisms in a species of wild tobacco. In the leaves are structures called phytochromes that detect a certain frequency of light that means that it is in the shadow of a taller plant. This detection triggers the plant to grow taller so it can out-compete the other plant for light. Another mechanism in the roots somehow knows when another plant is too close to it. This triggers faster root growth to compete with its neighbor. There are hundreds of mechanisms like this in every living thing.  I think I am finally beginning to understand what the Gita was talking about. The battle described in the book is a metaphor for life.

Not only is life a battle, it’s not fair at all. Individual animals and plants vary in their ability to survive and adapt. We humans are the same. We each are born with unfair advantages and disadvantages and events and random circumstances during our lives can kill us, weaken us or even make us stronger and more able to survive. We are genetically designed to try to compensate for disadvantages, threats, etc. by strengthening defenses and offenses and/or by enhancing undamaged systems to compensate for the damaged ones. These are the strategies and tactics of war.

By now you might be pretty unhappy with what I have been saying. It really sounds pretty terrible. Peace is impossible. Life is not fair. The best we can hope for is to fight battle after battle until we inevitably lose and die.

The survival of individuals has never been the goal of life. It’s always been about survival of the species. The Gita poses all this in spiritual terms but you don’t need to believe in any god, reincarnation, or an afterlife to change your perspective. To participate in the conflict, not for our individual selves, but for each other is probably the only way to achieve a modicum of personal peace and equilibrium.

I believe it was Joseph Campbell who said, “When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.This is not just some spiritual mumbo jumbo. There is a biological imperative behind it. It turns out that the battle can be glorious and fulfilling when done for a good cause. Being involved in something larger than oneself can be awesome, even if it doesn't even work out. I guess we are just wired that way.

We, as a species, can survive and thrive more successfully working together than working alone or at odds with each other. It’s not all terrible drudgery and war. Between and even during our battles we can enjoy each others' company, share stories, have some fun, and help each other out. What other choice do we have?