NPR logo The Irony Of Death And The Circle Of Life

The Irony Of Death And The Circle Of Life

Pilgrims visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

Pilgrims visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

Ross Douthat, op-ed columnist for The New York Times, has written an insightful piece on the the movie Avatar , where he lifts up its invocation of religious responses to Nature.

He ends on a poignant note:

The question is whether Nature actually deserves a religious response. ... Nature is suffering and death. Its harmonies require violence. Its "circle of life" is really a cycle of mortality. ... Religion exists, in part, precisely because humans aren't at home amid these cruel rhythms. We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it. We're beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality.

This is an agonized position, and if there's no escape upward — or no God to take on flesh and come among us, as the Christmas story has it — a deeply tragic one.

Pantheism offers a different sort of solution: a downward exit, an abandonment of our tragic self-consciousness, a re-merger with the natural world our ancestors half-escaped millennia ago.

But except as dust and ashes, Nature cannot take us back.

Fortunately for Douthat, his faith tradition offers an escape upward. But for those of us who don't hold "upward" orientations, there are other ways to think about death that serve to mitigate the sting.

Here's mine.

It turns out that death isn't written into the fabric of life at all. Most organisms on the planet, now and for the past 3 billion years or so, are single-celled, meaning that they grow and then divide in two, and then each in two again. Sure, they can be eaten or killed by adverse circumstance, but they don't have to die; they are potentially immortal.

So from whence cometh obligatory death? It accompanied the advent of multicellularity.

Single-celled creatures are one-man bands, obliged to operate both as somas (negotiating the ecosystem) and as germ lines (transmitting instructions for negotiating the ecosystem to the next generation). With the independent invention of multicellularity in land plants and animals many hundreds of millions of years ago, the project was quickly divided up, with some cells (eggs and sperm) doing the germ-line part and the rest doing the somatic part.

Soon thereafter the somatic cells started forming tissues and organs, each specialized for particular tasks (beaks, hearts, roots, gills), all selected for their ability to collectively negotiate the ecosystem such that reproduction can succeed. Once somas have done their thing, once opportunities for reproduction have been traversed, the somas die — sometimes after a month (fruit fly), sometimes after hundreds of years (redwood).

In animals, one of those organs is the brain, coordinating the soma, and in human animals, the brain is the locus of our self-consciousness. Our brain cells develop with nary a backward look at gene transmission or immortality, instead specializing and cooperating in the construction of these most extraordinary, and most here-and-now, centers of our perception and feeling.

So we arrive at one of the central ironies of human existence, which is that our brain-based minds are uniquely capable of experiencing a sense of tragedy at the prospect of death, yet it was the invention of death that made possible the existence of our minds. Our self-consciousness is the wondrous gift birthed by our mortality.

Yes, it would seem that Nature can only take back our somas as dust and ashes. But Nature is the ground of being for all those seedlings and pupae and embryos, all that anticipation. None of them will escape or half-escape Nature, albeit we all too often lose track of that fact — too often with tragic consequences.

Each of us was once newly born. I figure that being dead will be like before I was born. Maybe I'm wrong about that, but it works. Meanwhile, as many of us celebrate a cherished birth in Bethlehem today, let's raise a toast to all those ancient natural rhythms and cycles, including their ironic twists, that have given rise to the lives we live and the love we share, however transiently.