Saturday, October 25, 2008

Mortal soul 5 -- The restless heart

In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke writes: "We should try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue." To which I would add, let us trust the gifts that nature has given us -- curiosity, attention, reason -- and if our personal lives are destined for oblivion, then know that we have made of ordinary things something grander and more enduring. We are the transformers. We are bestowers of praise. "Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them," Rilke advises the restless young poet, echoing the great Catholic mystics: "And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."

Is it enough? In the long history of humanity, no hope has been so enduring as personal immortality. At every time and in every place men and women have assumed they will live forever. It is our solace, our balm for the restless heart. Even Neanderthals, it seems, placed flowers in the graves of their dead, presumably to grace the afterlife.

But the lesson of modern biology is clear: Death is final. Do we lapse then into morbidity? Do we rage, rage against the dying of the light? We have art. We have science. Even a rhyme can thumb its nose at death, says Seamus Heaney. We can each of us try to live our lives as poetry, to add to the world an element of graciousness that is not strictly necessary, to leave behind a spoor of rhymes that marks our passage on the Earth.

Yes, the spirit is flesh, but the spirit is more than flesh. The spirit is flesh in interaction with a universe of almost unimaginable grandeur and complexity. The windows of the flesh are thrown open to the world. The spirit is a wind of awareness, a pool stirred by angels.

Some part of the spirit will linger after the flesh is gone, as memories in other flesh, as words, music, science, rhymes -- as a world nudged slightly in its pell-mell course towards good or bad. But the self is mortal: This is the existential fact that agitates the restless heart. "We are biological and our souls cannot fly free," writes Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, summarizing what science has taught us about ourselves. He adds: "This is the essential first hypothesis for any consideration of the human condition."