Mortal Matters and Change

My husband was being a jerk all weekend, so I left to get some things at the store. When I arrived, a gentle older man sat crisscross-applesauce with a strange smile. I thought of how mean Jerry, my husband, had been that morning, and I started to smile like a smile could put a bit more happiness in the world to make up for all the jerks. I realized the older man was returning the smile I had on my face, and I said, how do you do? He said hello, and I turned to buy some candles for my mother’s birthday.

I felt like a real meanie for ignoring him. You know, just looking away from his smile. So I turned back to him. “No,” I said, “how are you. What has brought you to this place in the cold?” Yeah! So this is what I recall him saying.

Humans have done it, my dear. Humans and the love of . . . well, just humans. The sidewalk did but the sidewalk is less at fault. It was humans and not the sidewalk, if we need to make distinctions. Humans, because of the highly entertaining curse of self-awareness, can be a bit judgy. Some would say humans are arrogant.

Surely we are arrogant individually, you see. A human dressed in fine silks and polyester approached me the other day when I was begging for alms.

She said, “You should use your body to be useful and earn your money.”

I said, “Why is the money in your pocket yours and not mine?”

She responded, “For I have earned it though the sweat of my brow. You do nothing and expect reward.”

I showed her the sweat that had beaded on my forehead since our conversation had begun. “Verily, I have labored with you in this moment here in front of this well stocked Target superstore. Behold how I shiver with fear of your fine boots as I imagine them lodged in my ribs or deftly overturning my small collection plate with a swift kick.”

The woman in silk and polyester made a sour expression and turned away. As she walked away and through the automated, sliding doors, her piano scarf fluttered in the rush of heated air escaping from within. The warmth brushed against my cheek, and I was reminded of the cold in my bones as I sat cross-legged – just as I do before you now, young lady. It was clear to me that she was unmoved by my thinking. The woman felt my use of matter was of lesser quality than her use of the matter she had under her control. Was she arrogant? Perhaps. But I am not referring to individual arrogance. This is but a trickling stream by comparison to the bulging deluge of human hubris in judging collections of matter generally. In our hierarchy of beings.

How can we box existence into hierarchies? So arbitrary! So arrogant! Yet, there is a functional hierarchy of being that informs how much respect humans accord phenomena in the world.

Rocks can be stepped on and ground up without remorse.

Trees can be shredded and pulped without a lot of remorse.

Fish, chicken and cattle can be harvested and slaughtered without full remorse.

Monkeys and other non-food animals can be killed but, unless self-preservation is the purpose, dead monkeys deserve some remorse according to human standards.

Some wonderful idiots say eyes are the gateway to the soul. What they likely mean is that we can recognize an independent existence worthy of respect and privilege within the constellation of matter that has irised eyeballs. The evidence?! Ha! Animals with eye movements more like our own tend to be treated better. Humans more easily see them as peers in existence – if not equals. We can see how this standard of evaluating animal worth via the eyes manifests culturally in films and other fantasies that explain how “all dogs go to heaven.” Dead or cold eyes in robots indicate the failure of machines to reproduce humans faithfully. But eyes are only part of the picture. Eyes are the layman’s shortcut to the hierarchy of being!

Sir? Spare a dollar? No?

Anyway, this is the height of arrogance, some would argue. Pigs have said so. An octopus once did too, but he was a rare ocean-bound critic. Cephalopods have little experience with us for humanity’s foibles to be widely understood among them, but that octopus had some clever barbs! I wish I had written them down – but words are only one use of ink I’m sure that wily, many-armed bastard would remind me before jetting off into the murk.

He was right to leave me. I had no business in the worlds of deep water. Still, I wanted to defend us humans. We are just anxious about dying. We are “on edge” as they say. What edge? The edge of existence. A precipice of known and unknown. The sudden sense that we aren’t even on the edge anymore but falling. Falling but with no memory of what slippery cad threw us into this mysterious pit, the bottom of which we cannot see. “You’d be anxious too!” I wanted to yell at the retreating octopus.

My point is this: anxiety has a strange consequence for how we go about labeling the world and distinguishing the configurations of matter around us. That is why the trees call us “the Matter Prone to Worried Pondering.” Evergreens do, at least. Majestic palms call us “Something’s the Matter Matter.” Tropicals think they are funny. They are. I laugh every time I realize there is a banana in my mouth. One can’t have slaughter without a laugh!

Do you have a banana? No? Nevermind. We are talking about nervousness of knowing that there is an end of one’s consciousness. Right? Yes.

Our sense that something’s the matter drives us to strange, sometimes compulsive, behavior. Our obsession with hierarchy is an example.

Morally, we accord the tree more rights and privileges than the stone because it is living -as we define it. We despair at a child smashing a tree more so than that child smashing a stone. The tree has something to lose we can easily recognize: life. But what is life but matter organized into super-reactive form?

Spare a dollar? What? When you come out you will have one? Ok.

He won’t come out with the change he promised, but that is alright. That is alright.

Where was I? Where were you? Trees? Yes. Generally, we accord more privilege to the bird then we do the tree. Why? Trees are less discernibly reactive to the environment than the bird. Birds cease to move when chopped in half. The tree never moved at all, and its signs of life slowly disappear to human eyes. It reacts more slowly to the environment. Is this reason to prefer the tree’s matter be reconfigured than that of the birds?

I propose the thought experiment. Would we accord reactive plants a higher place in our ontologies if they were more often reactive? Sensitive plants or Venus Fly Traps? An easily offended fern?

But the world around us is just states of matter. Some more like us. Some less. Some are very mobile in how they use matter. Some sit in stony silence. Some as noisy as us. When you hit some with your favorite stick, they just take it and don’t respond. When you hit others, they run away or get grumpy.

And we would categorize them. “This one, a tree, just takes the axe blow until it falls down. This one is harder than the axe head and stands firm against the blade. This one coming out of Target sees the axe and runs the other way making baleful noises.” Good information for creating categories of matter in order to feel safer in a world that will ultimately kill you by re-configuring your state of matter.

The best part is that the world we fear so often, its sharp edges, the mugger, the violent spouse, it is just a continuation of us. It is almost as if it calls us to rejoin the so-called inert state of being. “Your reactivity is exhausting. Come back to us and be still.” But the ear is just a metaphor to matter. A device to hear itself. The revelation of spirit unto spirit? Hardly. Revelation of matter unto matter.

Of course, all this anxious pondering took place well before philosophers came up with words like ontology, Dasein, and other fancy phrases for ranking forms of matter. Across many independent cultures, these hierarchies all had a curious similarity: humans were at the top. Cuttlefish be damned!

Spare some change?

I admit it is a little cringy. Humans putting themselves at the top all the time? We can rationalize why. It was only natural that humans found themselves at the top of these efforts to catalog all of matter. By the time humans were creating and exchanging the relevant charts and graphs, we had appeared to conquer the big toothy cats and cephalopods alike.

More or less. We still get chewed up by bears occasionally, but we tend to blame ourselves if we meet misfortune at the hands of the “lesser” beings. A violent bear is unworthy of a declaration of war, for instance. We don’t hold one bear’s eviscerating overreaction to humans camping nearby as a premise to kill other bears that bear hung out with. We reserve that guilty-by-association reasoning for other humans. We stop their reactivity so our own reactivity will triumph! So OUR organization of matter, like deck chairs on the Titanic, will prevail.

So much matter! So many different types of matter! We must categorize. That is a tree. Very nice! Look beneath the tree. That shadow of muscle with its piercing eyes and, wait a moment. Yes, those are flesh-tearing teeth. That is a cat that will eat me. We can imagine them peering into the dark of night and declaring, “Let us distinguish these two forms of matter. Clearly doing so will be helpful.”

Thus primordial categorization surely sprang from the need to eat and not be eaten followed by questions about why we cannot stop matter from changing beneath our feet.

The earliest eyes in evolutionary terms were merely light sensing parts of sea life. It was useful to know where the sun was because that is where there was more plankton or algae or smaller sea life to eat. Darkness meant death. Light meant continued life.

So, as matter that is ever-revising itself into new compositions, we live. To continue living for whatever reason -to have children, to love each other, to eat good food, to watch every installment of the Transformers franchise-  we categorized the matter surrounding us to survive. To go on. To survive. To know Michael Bay’s cinematic moods more intimately . . .

We saw the variety of things in the world and became attentive to other forms of matter. We began the enterprise, like Adam in the garden, of cataloging all the stuff to forms of matter that were also in the business of living.

The more imaginative and self-deprecating cultures created an invisible topmost layer of gods, angels and demons who had helped us with our anxieties as we first began to grapple with loved ones having an expiration date. Gods at the top. Then some angels or other super-powered yet humanoid group with too many eyes or bird wings or vendettas against strong snakes. These below-god-above-humans types are often in obedience to the top of the Being Pyramids we construct in our anxious pondering of the world around us.

“Here is my mother. She is here at my feet by the fire but no longer there. Asleep forever. But I loved her interactivity! Where did they go? Can I meet them again? How can a person, so helpful and comforting -if occasionally a bit bossy- become just plain matter?”

Maybe the functional ontology of humanity is based on, first, the degrees of interactivity with the environment. And, second, the degree of interactivity with humans. Yes, all human moral judgment is based on either the appearance of life (like our own) and then the similarity of that appearance to our own experience of life. Both are based on the “degrees of interaction.”

The first degree of interaction is at the level of matter. All living things are, of course, collections of matter. Why matter seems to have worked itself up so much that it produced life is the biggest mystery and it need not detain us here.

We tend to value more highly and, hence, accord more rights to forms of matter that react to the environment. On this scale, “inanimate” and “animate” are the broadest binary categories. But we can see more fine-grained hierarchical differentiation in human assessment of the phenomenological world.

Stones and hammers, some say, have only being-in-themselves. These things do not interact with the world. Some would point out that they make no choices in the course of being. Slime molds and lichen react to the world, growing in favorable conditions and bending toward light as a food source, but these hardly constitute “choices” in the human sense. Wolves and birds do make choices as they weigh courses of action. The wolf may want to invade the chicken coop, but she also knows the farmer will kill her. Wolves and birds choose according to self-preservation. Elephants and dolphins perhaps occupy an additional strata of choice-making when interacting with the environment. More complex social capacities in these species have greater choice in how they interact. Dolphins at play. Octopuses that reach out to human divers with curiosity. These beings make increasingly complex choices that go beyond life and death decisions. They thus enter a different ethical category.

So, we can create an ontology according to the degree and quality of choices each species appears capable of making. You and I here today can do this! We can also see these choices as a mere byproduct of increased interactivity with the environment. I propose, umph . . .

Suddenly, the man flinched. He quickened his speaking pace, the words spilling out at an incredible speed, but he was unable to finish. I looked up to the storefront having forgotten where I was. A blond woman in nice boots marched out of the Target with a teenaged store employee sheepishly following her. When I turned back, the man was gone, vanished like a ghost.

The store employee nodded, and I looked that way across the parking lot and saw him. The man was running with his small plate, some coins bouncing on the pavement in his wake. He clutched at his loose-waisted pants, a bit of his butt was showing.

“Was he bothering you, too?” the woman asked, her shopping bag clutched close to her side.

“Yes,” I said.

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