X had marked time in the limestone ledge since the Paleozoic seas covered the land. Time, to an atom locked in a rock, does not pass.
The break came when a bur-oak root nosed down a crack and began prying and sucking. In the flash of a century the rock decayed, and X was pulled out and up into the world of living things. He helped build a flower, which became an acorn, which fattened a deer, which fed an Indian, all in a single year.
From his berth in the Indian’s bones, X joined again in chase and flight, feast and famine, hope and fear. He felt these things as changes in the little chemical pushes and pulls that tug timelessly at every atom. When the Indian took his leave of the prairie, X moldered briefly underground, only to embark on a second trip through the bloodstream of the land.
This time it was a rootlet of bluestem that sucked him up and lodged him in a leaf that rode the green billows of the prairie June, sharing the common task of hoarding sunlight.
— Aldo Leopold
Blue Stem Grass
Those who think about fear of dying think about the future rather than the past. The truth is that you have already died many times. Like X, the traveling atom, your bits have traveled from all over the cosmos to be you for a little while, but they have already been “you” in all the incarnations that came before, most recently in the cells of your mother and what she ate and breathed, according to a plan settled upon by your father’s and mother’s directions for assembling a human being. You are as temporary as they were. Human beings are temporary arrangements of elements assembled as molecules, then cells, and then a body that constantly changes.
Not only does it change by taking in the world, sorting it, keeping part of it and throwing the rest back out, but also the cells collaborate to make the identity “grow.” I resisted this as soon as I understood it was happening. Partly it was because of all the smug grownups who would say, “You’ll grow out of this. You’ll be different later.” Growth sounded to me like the death of the familiar identity I knew and loved. This was accurate. But I tried to defy it. I hated giving up my old familiar clothes simply because I’d gotten too big. I hated having to give up pablum.
Somehow identity was mixed with consciousness, not to be conscious was to be dead. So I tried to be conscious of everything. That was easier before school, where all the other identities interfered with me. My own insides were so vivid, so known, so cherished, that everything else was merely shadow. Were you like that?
Staying alive means changing and growing. When I finally realized that, partly because of needing to achieve in school and to avoid punishment at home, I wept. How could any new self be manageable? It meant accepting the belonging to a group, which I had always resisted, felt was a step down, a surrender.
So now it’s easy for me to see that when people (maybe adult and maybe not) finally understand that their familiar identity as an alcoholic, or a risk-taker, or as the oppositionally defiant person (which can only be an attempt to stay the same despite the wishes of others, usually authorities) and who sees that this set of behaviors is likely to cause their bodily death, which will mean the end of their consciousness, will only then make an effort to change their consciousness and behavior. Religiously, this is often called a “rebirth.” Often it means access to good behavior that had been left behind, at last pulling it out of the darkness where it was pushed by the struggle. This might be called a “renaissance,” which means “rebirth.”
Usually this is not the violent, squalling, relinquishment of safety in a womb of some sort, but rather a kind of gradual shift, a new compass point as destination. But a radical difference in environment might indeed be the rock cracking open to release atom X so it can start another journey.
This has happened to me repeatedly by now. Death will only be another version of it, but I’m greedy for more consciousness and I’m not through with this identity so I fight to keep it. Partly I’m in the habit of this oppositional defiance of everyone else trying interpret, control, demand what I think or do. It still continues. It’s part of being alive, but a lot of people concede and do what’s expected, even if it makes them ache and empties them -- so they try to be numb and automatic. Dead while alive. Atoms trapped in uselessness.
I did not understand that evolution is not about monkeys and humanids. It is about everything. It is simply time. We borrow everything from time, which soon enough takes it back. The brain itself evolves, and therefore can think new things, which means a renewed identity and consciousness. And yet part of the evolution has allowed memory, though it’s probably not all that accurate. Yet, I DO seem to remember what it felt like when I was five, before school. I hated school. It interfered with me all the time, until I evolved enough to have access to what it was “for.” Then I could see the usefulness.
And now I’ve evolved enough to abandon school, generate many identities and consciousnesses — or at least play my connectome like a piano or harp so I can experience many things many ways, without drugs. Those who insist I be who I was, the person who was familiar and convenient to them, are always aghast now because they haven’t changed so they deny and despise some of who I have become. My mother struggled with this lifelong. Why couldn’t I marry a nice safe Presbyterian minister and be a helper and a better cook — like her? All that means is that she had no idea what misery a nice safe Presbyterian minister can be or suffer, even married, even male.
There is no safe life. All lives are transient, even the ones that come and go through the same bodies and are changed by social participation. Few lives are very intentional. We forget that previous times, viewed with nostalgia, are dishonestly remembered.
Every day is evolving into a time of great possibility. One of them is the possibility of death — it has happened to so many people in our times. Millions. So now I sometimes turn my attention to the issue of how to die well. I don’t mean courageously, but something more like gracefully, having made a contribution even if no one recognizes it. Setting X free to be whatever comes next. Joining the bloodstream of the land, which in this case is an ancient dry seabed, next to the tectonic collision that raised the Rockies.