Forget life after death – the bigger question is: do you believe in life before death? As absurd as the question seems, the evidence would suggest that most of us don’t, at least not fully. And that may be the root cause of the most pressing challenges humanity faces.
The question first came to me about a year ago when I was working with a coalition of nature museums, helping them craft a powerful manifesto about the contribution they wanted to make to the world. In our discussions, it became clear that the scientists and administrators were uncomfortable talking about the concept of “life,” preferring to refer exclusively to the tangible aspects of “nature.” As I understood the issue, the concept of “life” fell into the realm of religion, not science. We could talk about characteristics of “aliveness,” but not about an animating and integrative essence that made them possible.
This took me by surprise. These were biologists, after all, engaged in “the study of life.” And yet the concept of “life” was off-limits.
As I reflected on their reasoning, it occurred to me that, in our collective rejection of the often implausible explanations offered by religion, we have inadvertently rejected the concept of “life” itself. The mechanistic worldview of our day teaches us that being alive means going through the physical motions of consumption, competition and reproduction. And life – distinct from these physical characteristics of aliveness – does not really feature in the guiding story of our times.
Maybe there’s a good reason for this. After all, if it’s not physical then it’s just debatable philosophy, right?
Possibly. But what if there’s a connection between our rejection of the concept of life and our diminishing ability to support life sustainably? What if there’s a link between viewing ourselves as isolated, competing metabolism machines and our growing discontent – “the disenchantment of the world,” as sociologist Max Weber called it? And would we live our lives differently if we re-embraced the idea that all living beings are animated by something that could be called life? What would be the significance for us as we go about our days?
At a general level, I believe that we would open ourselves to what author Thomas Moore calls “The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life.” We’ve been trained to view life’s characteristic patterns as if they are the basic workings of a machine. But even viewed through the skeptical lens of a scientist, those patterns are amazing. Life has manifested in nearly infinitely diverse forms: that’s incredible! From that diversity, it creates new, emergent forms of life, like you and me and coral reefs and rainforests: unbelievable! It knits everything together in dynamic, continuously responsive relationship: how beautiful! We are integral, inseparable parts of this unfolding, creative process, as our bodies create themselves out of elements from the living Earth: wow!
If more of us really, truly got this – if we grasped the full implications of what it means to be alive, animated moment-to-moment by creative, adaptive, self-directed life – here’s what I think we would do differently:
- We would spend more time being grateful and amazed at the infinite majesty of all life. Every day. I mean, really see the glory of life all around us in all its elegant complexity, and be joyfully reverent.
- We would spend more time in wonder and awe that we’re inseparable from that infinite majesty. We would look in the mirror and be reverent and amazed.
- We would look at everyone around us – even an annoying co-worker, even a sworn enemy – and be reverent, grateful and amazed. Each of us is no less complex, valuable and miraculous than the rainforest and the coral reef. And though we are distinct, we cannot truly be considered separate.
- We would take better care of our bodies. They consist of common chemical elements that would cost only a few dollars at a hardware store, and yet they move! They think! They feel! And they are the vessels for our best contributions to the whole of life.
- We would act more consistently as caring stewards of our larger body — the Earth and all its inhabitants. We would care for every aspect of it as we would a beloved elderly relative – with gentle respect and accommodation.
- As we recognize that aliveness is a journey of connection, learning, adaptation and emergence, we would replace fear with fascination, judgment with compassion. We would recognize how much is beyond our control. And we would also recognize our active and intentional participation in the grand creative dance of life.
- We would play more, especially at work. Play is a defining characteristic of mammals. It is how we learn and innovate. It is our nature and our joy. And it is a sign of our coherence with all of life.
- We would spend less time competing and comparing ourselves with others and more time exploring and honoring our unique gifts and contributions to the whole of life.
- As we recognize that we exist and evolve only in relationship, we would spend more time learning ways to be in positive relationship with others, starting by understanding our own needs and emotions.
- We would approach work as a means to honor life, ever seeking ways to make life-enabling contributions. As Khalil Gibran said, “Work is love made visible” – love for self and for the whole of life.
- We would stand for something larger than ourselves and dedicate our lives to it relentlessly, refusing to waste our aliveness on anything less than heroic.
- We would craft our organizations as the fertile ground for our rich collaboration, for our highest contributions, and for the life within us to flourish.
- We would spend more time in nature, often in calm communion with all life. We would practice quieting our minds and listening for what is needed, what is ours to contribute. We would know that the collective intelligence of the whole of life is available to us if we seek it, because we are each part of that unbroken whole.
In the movie Avatar, the extraterrestrial Nav’i princess disparagingly says that the visiting humans “see nothing” within the lush ecosystem of her planet. It seems that this is too often true in our own world, as we refuse to see the wonder of life that resides in and around us. In failing to recognize, honor and steward life, we also fail to create the fertile conditions for it to flourish. Environmental and social crisis is forcing us to change our ways, but I believe that we must also truly “see” life if we hope to create the full set of conditions necessary to sustain it. Fortunately, the more science discovers about life, the harder it becomes to overlook the marvel that life is.
Let the re-enchantment begin!