“The only joy in the world is to begin.”Cesare Pavese
Some news this week. I finally got vaccinated (for Covid 19).
While this certainly doesn’t feel revolutionary- I’m far from the only one getting vaccinated, and as the vaccine rollout continues to ramp up in my hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba it should become more and more common of a story- there were some realities that flowed from this experience for me personally that I think have been worth some further reflection.
First off, while I haven’t struggled with the idea of getting vaccinated, as someone with an anxiety disorder I have struggled with much of the conversation surrounding the vaccinations. If my anxiety has already been quite high over the reality of Covid, reading all of the divisive opinions surrounding the vaccines and its potential dangers had managed to cast the whole ordeal in a degree of uncertainty. I didn’t realize how much so until the evening before my appointment. I had a panic attack. I know that I had a panic attack because I must have spent a good 3-4 hours that night obsessively reading through all these differing opinions, my hand hovering over the “cancel appointment” button a couple of times in that process.
One note about my anxiety struggles. Years ago I recognized that I have Orthorexia. Orthorexia is, simply put, a form of OCD that revolves around healthy eating, including the compulsive obsession with researching and reading medical information and the overwhelming fear not necessarily of germs (I’m not a germaphobe) but of potential toxins and unknowns present in the environment and the things I use and consume. This is why I had to make a very hard and fast rule for myself a while back not to read and research things that can trigger these obsessions, becuase once I go down this endless pit of information it is very difficult for me to pull myself out. At the peak of my struggle I had binders and rooms filled with articles and information which often created the extenuating problem of having all of this information now floating around in my head 24-7 with nowhere to go, wreaking havoc on my mental health and well being.
Factor that then into this evening of obsessive reading and I could immediately feel all of those old anxieties rushing back to the surface.
Fast forward: I forced myself to go, I got the jab, came home and wrote a post on my facebook wall in a bout of sleeplessness about how the anxieties of the night before had now transmorphed (is that a word? I feel like it is) into a whole different kind of anxiety given that the vaccine was actually now inside my body for better or for worse. The point of my post was simply to say that while many online seemed to be overly joyous and happy about getting the jab (and rightly so), my experience was a bit more complicated. Turns out I’m not alone. I don’t think I have had more comments or responses than I have had to that post, with many informing me that I put into words something they were afraid to say out loud, many now looking at or in the middle of getting the jab but with similar reservations and anxieties in tow. There is just enough unknowns surrounding the vaccine and its rollout to leave a clear window open for speculation, and that speculation has been enough to leave many well meaning individuals genuinely uneasy.
So where has this been driving my thoughts this week? In a couple directions. First, I found myself wondering about the nature of this speculation. What is it about the vaccine that is making so many either anxious or joyous? While many have been tending to dismiss others concerns over the vaccine with ready-made accuastions of anti-science and anti-vaxxer motivations, what surfaced for me in my own thinking and in hearing the genuine concerns of others is that the conversation is actually much more complex than this. Yes, for some there is a preconcieved agenda that arrives ripe with misinformation and rampant conspiracy theories. We should be wary of this and all do our due diligence. But one of the things I have appreciated about some of the voices I have heard questioning the vaccine rollout is their desire and their willingness to table certain questions others are ignoring or not deeming necessary to ask. Of pertinance to my own struggle and reflection is the question of the vaccine’s genetic makeup and its relationship to the larger field of medical advancement and progress. I’m reminded of an interview with Director James Gray where he discusses his powerful and poignant film Ad Astra. In this interview he discusses the themes of the film and suggests that we as a modern society, living in an age of such rapid progression and change, stand in real danger of arriving at the future without the ability to answer the most necessary moral questions that can help us make sense of the future, and perhaps with little awareness or ability to even ask the necessary questions to begin with. To be sure, using RNA genetic code to develop a new kind of vaccine is far from the the only development of its kind in the field. The vaccine is a small slice of a very large pie that is very likely the future of much technological advancement, and it is evidence of work that has been going on for a while and that is very much present in many areas of medicine and science today. That a vaccine though can bring the word “genetic” to the forefront of the popular consciousness does shed some light on an interesting aspect of the larger conversation regarding a development that is much further along than even the most educated would care to admit or tend to address. This general unawareness of the conversation bears weight for the moral questions that necessarily follow such a vision of progress and the future.
For example, how precisely do we define “life”. Many might be suprised to realize that there is no real consensus on what that defintion is, and that this has real world implications for the different fields interested in the sciences and technologies that will be the driving force of future development (see Carl Zimmer’s book Life’s Edge). Similarly, consider the recent conversation with Jill Tarter on the On Being podcast, the inspiration for Jodie Foster’s character in the film Contact and the founder (or one of the founders) of SETI, which is engaged in the ongoing search for civilizational intelligence (Episode 868). What comes to light through her and others research within the SETI program, which, although is more concerned for the long future of humanity than the here and now, is asking similar quesitons about what progress actually means, is the similarly evasive question of what it means to be human, or to borrow her word an “earthling”. She makes the case that it is through imaginging other life out there (and in imagining its possible discovery) that this can then turn a mirror back on us, showing us how it is that we, in our current form, are all the same. We are all what we would define as “earthlings”. What that means though and why it holds importance both in the long history of evolution and the imagining of a long future remains largely undefined in her view. Or at best highly simplified and assumed.
Even less defined for her is why, in the necessary pursuit of space exploration and given the demonstrated finiteness of our earth, the current climate changes we observe in this present age and which have being tradtionally susbcribed to humanities ongoing abuses of the earth we call home, matter. This requires her to make certain leaps in logic regarding an unspecified allegiance to a form of human exceptionalism, elevating “us” as that which must survive and the earth as the current habitat that we surived within. And yet if the notion of “earthling” is not approrpriately defined and afforded its particular meaning, or if it can’t be in rational terms, why precisely is it that we should we be concerned about humanties particular and possibly threatened long term survival? Why does it matter precisely if changes in our climate lead to the same kind of changes we can observedly track through the whole of evolutionary history? And why does it matter if, as the evidence seems to suggest, technological advancements are effectively blurring the definitions of life and earthing altogether? If, as she says, life out there can reveal that life which looks differently than humanity has no greater or lesser value than humanities expressed uniqueness (or potential lack of), then why does it matter that our current state of life persists at all? If nature is apt to do what nature will do, and the natural order of things is found in the predictable cycle of life that brings about its ongoing change and diversity, then a changing climate in which some species flourish and others simply go away is simply the narrative that always was and always will be. We either claim to right to circumvent this for out own gain, or we relegate our species to the natural order. That seems logical enough, but it’s not a conviction many will feel comfortable going wholesale in on.
Unless, that is, we somehow elevate human made progress to some kind of godlike perspective. That is to say, we humans are here and we have the capability to think and be aware and discover what is “out there” and how this world works, and therefore we can claim superiority over the natural order. In this view, having a long view of the future where we can ensure our survival must become the sacred call. Why? Because the god of progress tells us it must be so, and this is in our nature to do so. That, to use Tarter’s own words, is simply the responsibile thing to do as a species. But here’s the problem. That perhaps makes some sense to those who are actually priviliged enough to make a difference in this world on that level (speaking of the ongoing survival of the human species). But when you dial that back down into the everydayness of the human experience, those who’s lives cannot possibly make a meaningful difference in such a long term view of humanities future, and those who look upon the suffering of others as in indication that this long form view is suspect at best, this begins to make far less sense and is certainly a much harder sell. To make matters even worse, this segment of humanity, which in effect can be described as the “majority” of humans that pouplates this earth, is actually effectively impeding progress through their existence. If not for that pesky thing called morality chances are the incredibly advanced technology that exists behind the scenes would be not only that much more advanced but it would already be employed and we would likely already be well on our way towards space colonization and even human made immortality. If not for morality things like cancer and viruses would percievably already be cured and eradicated. To make this even more complicated, the consequence of hanging on to some sense of morality (of the sort that deems the very real “Thanos” moral dilemma as an actual moral dilemma) is that we must then contend with immorality, which breeds inequality and the kind of overconsumption that threatens the lives of all and allows viruses like Covid to emerge.
This is the question at the heart of Ad Astra. When we arrive at said future, and when, as Tarter suggests it inevitably throws up that mirror, what will we see? Will we see life? Will see some form of humanity? And if the means by which we arrive at said future is currently replacing both nature and humanities own advancements with artificially bred evolution (read James Suzman’s book Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots, or Yual Noah Harari’s book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century), what meaning do those definitions ultimately have or hold to begin with?
This is a lot to glean from a vaccine that essentially reflects a turning point in current vaccine technology given it is the first of this kind of RNA bred technology to be employed through a vaccine on this large of a scale- for an indepth but accessible analysis on what RNA technology is this is a helpful interview/article from Harvard: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/multimedia-article/were-better-off-with-mrna-vaccines/
And yet what the uncertainty that some have demonstrates or reveals is that we, as a collective humanity, aren’t conversing enough about the implications of such a future in terms of the bigger picture (of biotechnology, transhumanism, genetic research, ect). As was suggested, this is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to genetics and development, technology and the sciences that is currently well underway. Those with concerns demonstrate a helpful reminder that these are questions we would do well to keep asking lest we lose site of the questions altogether, which stands to be a real danger for an already predictable future. And to push this further, those asking these questions from a relgious perspective are the ones who tend to ingore these questions the most, the sad reality being that they have a lot to contribute to discussions of morality, life and what it means to be human.
The 2019 film Death Will Come and Shall Have Your Eyes by Director Jose Luis Torres Leiva and based on a book by James Sallis, a film I watched this week and which gains its title from a Cesare Pavese quote, the early 20th century Italian writer and poet, underscores this point. In it we are offered a picture of two women, life partners where one is facing an undefined terminal diagnosis and the other is left trying to be a presence in her life as she comes to terms with her inevitable and quickly approaching death. Refusing any further treatment, the one with the diagnosis begins the long journey of reconciling herself to the idea of death. And yet, as she does this the reality of her life begins to underscore the fallacy and lies of some the core assumptions that have been used and relied on to give her life meaning while she was in the throes of living. The common “generational” refrain, this idea that we live on through emerging generations, is a nice adage but gets exposed quite quickly once we try and reapply this to the worth of an individual and aged life in any meaningful fashion.
This idea that we live a life of worth until we are no longer worth something is a fallacy that has massive and largely ignored implications for our ability to define what life actually is. It has contributed to the very real problem of ageism, and focuses our attention on the future at the general expense of both the present and history here in the West. If we doubt this at all, all we have to do is look at Covid and reations many using the fact that it only affects the aged as a reason for why Covid is not the problem the governments are tell us it is.
As the film unfolds and we watch her journey towards death progress, we hear her tell two seperate stories, the first of which involves an older woman and a youthful child. In this first story we see the unspoken angst and uncertainty that comes from trying to funnel all our hopes and dreams into this fundamental assertation and idolizing of youth, only to realize how utterly isolated and meaningless this leaves life in its inevitable trajectory towards death itself. Equally so in the second story about a younger man who has a brief encounter with an older, married man. The younger man is not married and does not have children (and is not interested in having children), something which permeates this brief moment of impassioned desire as a kind of existential question that both intrigues and haunts the aging man. At the heart of this second parable is a similar question of meaning and what it means to define a life. This is why we remain obsessed with youth and youthfulness and remain uneasy with aging, whether we want to admit it or not. These two stories reposition a narrative about “generational” worth towards the problem of inherit meaninglessness in death. It is a way of allowing an irrational claim (eternal youth) to somehow and in someway give us purpose in a world that seems both undefined in its obscurity while being equally defined by progress and technological advancement. We take the meaning we can’t find in ourselves and we project it onto and into the future by way of this eternal youthfulness.
In this same sense, one of the oft criticisms of belief in a god that I have heard tends to come from the ridiculing of its tendency to try and find solace in a fairy tale, or its fairy tale illusions of heaven and immortality designed and manifested in its old world setting to hide us from death and afford us a false sense of comfort while making sense of the unknown and the uncertain. The irony is though, the entire human endeavor has always been seeking immortality, just now in a different form. It is equally as false in this view to claim that we gain meaning from our children as it is to say we gain meaning from god, and yet we spin this narrative all the time for the purpose of allowing ourselves to make some sense of this world and our lives. In fact, I know the false nature of this story well given our own diagnosis of infertility. When one can’t have kids, or when one never gains a partner with whom to have kids, the cruel nature of a life that deems our worth in this vision of eternal youthfulness comes rushing back to the surface very, very quickly. And yes, this is how life works in the view of modern progress. One has to look no further than the current Covid crisis for proof of this. I remember stating when all of this began and articles released touting the beatiful, unified nature of the worlds collective push to create a vaccine that we would end up in a place where the affluent countries eventually reaped the rewards of the vaccine while the less than affluent were left to struggle (and even more pointedly, where the rich gained the most reward of all). And guess what’s happening now? This crisis is a small picture of what will inevitably happen in the future on a much larger scale when even more powerful technologies emerge with the ability to accentuate this kind of inequality. If we don’t believe this to be true then we are remaining blind to how technological advancement actually works and how it will continue to work. True progress and advancement as defined in technological and scientific terms demands and fosters inequality to function at the level we need it to. It’s not an out there claim to say that we wouldn’t have the vaccines if not for this basic truth.
But, and here’s the shocking thing, most of us mostly know this to be true, even if we are ignorant of it, and we deal with it by continuing to hinge our undefined definitions of life and humanity on necessarily irrational claims and narratives that allow us to ignore it and bury it. This is what allows us to remain ignorant and to live in this world as it is. To use immortality as an example, what makes us able to glorify death as if it is some great, virtuous notion while also living in a world that now deems a life span of 80-100 years as the effective norm and measure of an appropriate length of life? Why do we shift in this direction when the rest of human history would imagine this same narrative vision applied to then then common 30-40 year span? And further, why would we think that we would effectively stop with 80-100 years when so much of our attention as a species is given to eradicating disease and prolonging life? What do we think happens when we find a cure to cancer? When we crack the puzzle of aging (which is still a great mystery)? Most actual studies that take the science at face value would suggest that we meaure the value of a life based on the presence of struggle, pain versus quality of life rather than its length. In short, death has meaning because it positions us on one end of this pendulum. When the pain and suffering can no longer be tolerated and when relief fromt his pain in death is better understood as a reward, and fruther when that cycle is measured according to the potential 80-100 year life span, we consider it a tragedy when someone dies “before their time.”
That this is completely contextualized to our present experience of pain and suffering or quality of life is ignored by many a modern philospher and critic of religion trying to wax poetic about death’s virtues without a god to afford it some sense of meaning. That death as a virtue can be spoken of in ways that idoloize its function can only truly be spoken of from a position of either privilege or necessity. We continue to fight against death because death in fact matters. it is, in effect a problem that we are intuitely aware of. To say otherwise is to look for ways of finding meaning where there otherwise would be none, and ways of narrating life and death according to the “natural” cycle of life itself positions itself entirely in service to that necessary future where human progress and advancement and survival is both our god and our given human purpose (not that many of us asked for that). What makes this convolutted is that this is a future without an actual vision to hang our hats on lest we imagine some version of a potential utopia. And yet that utopia and our endeavor to create it and bring it to life necessarily collapses our mutually led efforts to try and suggest that this present struggle that we call life has meaning within its visible struggle and in its inevitable death. This confuses progress as our god and humans as the gods who bring it about, and again, this only works from a position of position or necessity. Privilge breeds inequality and necessity breeds false and irrational narratives. In truth, all we really have without a god is our association to nature, and this is, in fact, the story of all of biological life, not the necessary cycle that gives it meaning but the striving to adapt in order to survive it. That we arbitrarily then want to apply this in some terms of meaningful specieism might be the most irrationally bred human narrative of all, because as a human species we do so by projecting this notion of human exceptionalism. That’s the way progress then is allowed to become a god. Otherwise let nature have its way with us as it will, right? If we disappear from this ecosystem then what it the big deal. In scientific terms after all all, evolution is not a linear and progressive narrative. Far from it. In truth though we don’t actually believe this. We need a narrative in order to live, some kind of linear story to know where we’ve come from, where we are and where we are headed. Which is a part of the conundrum that we face when it comes to the creation of Covid vaccines and the development of genetically enhanced or targeted sciences. We create these advancements with little ability to actually understand the narrative and the questions that flow from these narratives.
Which is all to say, for as much as we like to paint those hesitant about blindly embracing the vaccines as crazy and foolish and anti-science, we might do well to heed some of their example by holding some of these necessary questions to the fire. These are the questions that haunted Cesare Pavese as he eventually succumbed to suicide. These are the questions that guide myself and many others in this world, towards notions of God and faith that actually challenge some of these narratives. These are important questions for any of us today, as important as that perennial question, “are we alone in the universe.” What is life and what does it mean to be human feel as vital to our existence as a vaccine that can help eradicate a virus stealing so much of that human life. And one clear and important aspect of this that is important to recognize is that the meaning of an individual, the meaning of the collective, and even further the meaning of the whole of the created universe and world are interwined, easily corruptable, but equally important and shared concerns. It’s as true to locate ones concern for the vaccines affect on an individual life over and against concern for the collective as a negative and narrow sighted as it is recognize the equal challenges that arise in pursuing that narrative of progress while ignoring the common concern and need to define individual meaning. I think we create more division than not when we neglect the multi-layered nature of these inherant questions.
Some things I’ve been thinking about anyways.
“Every luxury must be paid for, and everything is a luxury, starting with being in this world.”Cesare Pavese