Falling Leaves

1 Nov

Yesterday, during a discussion-based class I team-teach every Saturday, I was not getting any questions from students. I walked out the door and stood on the fourth-story balcony of the building I was in and looked out at the world around me. The balcony overlooks the roof of an adjoining building with all its vents and skylights. There are trees between and around the buildings that are starting to turn brown as we enter the fall season.

The wind was blowing hard and leaves were falling. As I watched some of them fall to the ground, I immediately realized how pretty they are.

However, upon further reflection, I realized how sad they are. These leaves blossomed in the spring, grew, absorbed sunlight, and were a part of the community of leaves that made up the leaves of the tree. They were alive and vital. But fall came, they turned brown, and they were now falling to the ground. I anthropomorphized these leaves, and imagined that they were aware of their surroundings and the passage of time. I imagined how they must feel as the excitement of life gradually turned to the realization that they would inevitably turn brown and die.

I was reminded, as I have been reminded many times before, that all the beauty in nature also has a dark side. Tweeting birds are desperately looking for a mate. Blossoming leaves are the beginning of a cycle that must inevitably end in death. The trees they hang from are in a desperate battle for resources against every other life form. We are surrounded by beauty that represents a harsh reality.

This observation could have made me sad. It had an easy opening. I recently learned that my sister has cancer that is probably incurable. My 90 year-old mother, who has only a few years left, was depressed over my sister’s condition. A girl in our class had just confessed to me that her grandmother, who she was very close to, had died and that it was making it hard for her to concentrate. I had just been kicked off of a forum that I sort of enjoyed, although it was a doomed affair. It was cold, windy, wet and dark outside. I was definitely in the right mindset to be down. But I went in another direction.

I realized that my anthropomorphization of the leaves was, after all, just an illusion. Leaves are more like the skin cells of an animal that it sheds when their usefulness has expired. They are not aware of their surroundings or the passage of time. They are not really part of a community. I realized that everything we see around us can be interpreted in myriad ways…including our own lives.

Still, life can be sad. Whenever I see someone walking a puppy down the street, I imagine what life must be like for it. Everything is new. The world is old, but it is all unexplored. What is that over there? Who are those people? What are those things? What new game can we play? Of course, puppies do not have words for these things, but their thinking is evident from the way they bounce down the street wagging their tales and seeming to smile. Yet, puppies grow old and eventually die. They live for only 10 to 20 years, depending on their size and breed. I wonder how much living a dog is able to squeeze into that roughly decade and a half of life?

Life is neither inherently beautiful, nor a sad cycle of life and death. These are all illusions that we print onto it like we print words and images onto a piece of paper. Life may actually have a meaning, but we have no idea what it is. As someone who believes in God (most of the time) I have an easier time believing that life is inherently meaningful, but I never fool myself into thinking I have it all figured out.

I had just given some very good and hard-earned advice to the girl who had told me about her grandmother’s death. I had told her that there was no solution to what had happened, but that there would eventually be acceptance; that no religious idea or philosophical rationalization in the world would make it OK; but that she would notice one day that she was thinking of her grandmother more as history than as a lost friend; and that when that day came she would be able to accept her death. One must appreciate that I do not go around advising people about death. She asked me and I told her what I thought. I pointed out that, as far as her school work was concerned, all she had to do was get through it. I assured her that I would help in any way possible to lighten her burden.

But that is advice for me and all of us. I do not understand life or death. I do not know what they mean. I do not have a solution. But the thing is, I do not have to have a solution. None of us do. We can try to explain life, but we are not obligated to get it right.

When bad things happen, we find ourselves looking much harder for solutions. However, we seldom move closer to the truth. More often than not, we invent useless or even harmful rationalizations. I imagine that much religious dogma has been invented in that way. However, there is something I have learned through the course of living. When Christians describe the phenomenon, they say, “When God closes a door, he also opens a window.” What I have observed is that when one thing ends it is usually accompanied by the start of something else. Years ago, when I was more or less fired from a job, I was suddenly needed at another better job. A friend and colleague of mine, the person who I team-teach with on Saturdays, frequently observes how she was sad at losing her condominium when she did, but that it put her in a position to make a killer deal on a better one. The transition does not always happen like that, but it happens so often that it is difficult to dismiss as mere coincidence.

I am a little sad now but, possibly for the first time in my life, I am not fooled. I know that something new is coming along. I do not know what it is. I do not even know that it is positive. Maybe it will be the Technological Singularity that many of us have speculated about. Maybe it will be a terrible war. Maybe it will be something extremely personal like finding new love or even stumbling onto that long sought after item that never seems to turn up on eBay. Maybe I will get some incredible inspiration that leads me to an explanation of consciousness or the nature of matter. Maybe I will just have a long period of relative personal silence that leads me to some subtle but transformative insight. It is out there. I can feel it coming.

And so, another Sunday goes by. Another leaf falls. The Seahawks will play another game. They will finish another season. My sister may live or she may die. My mother may last for another day or another decade. A terrible war may start tomorrow. The Singularity may come tonight. Today, November 1, 2015, I got it right. Today, I saw life for what it is. I will get my work done, and I will get on to the next day.


2 Responses to “Falling Leaves”

  1. camm444 November 4, 2015 at 10:29 pm #

    Chin up ol’ boy, I am sure something great is right around the corner for you. Regarding you sister and cancer — I’ve done a fair bit of research on this regarding adjuvant supplements that may greatly increase chance of reduction or elimination of cancer.
    Please email me anytime,

    • spikosauropod November 4, 2015 at 10:41 pm #

      Thank you. I apologize for not OKing and responding sooner. Messages on this site work rather strangely. I have never gotten the hang of it.

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