by Ralph Lelii, English department
On the Sunday before Christmas, I sat in worship with my two grandchildren in the Abington Friends Meetinghouse. It had been a festive and blessed morning, complete with caroling, a roaring fire and general good cheer. Out of the silence, a Friend stood and spoke. He said that he had been angry earlier that morning and had acted in ways that made him feel ashamed. Before sitting, he said it was important that he remember that if there is to be peace on earth, it needs to begin with him.
In that ancient room, there was a feeling of gathered spiritual commitment. The spoken ministry had seemed earnest and timely, and the assembled Friends, myself included, were united in that vision of the world, one in which spiritual contemplation and its resultant action could result in a better, more ethically coherent world. It is a vision of human existence I hope my grandbabies will share, one where there is the possibility of peaceful coexistence and cooperation. Spiritual reflection often brings such hope and such rewards, but as the silence returned, my thoughts wandered away from this tranquility.
Five days before, I had been hit by the flu virus. The impact of its coming was so sudden and violent that I felt as though I had been viciously clubbed. My surprise at this stealth attack comes largely from ignorance and denial. In fact, viruses lie around our environment by the millions, waiting for a host cell to provide it hospitality. This happens in what is known as the lytic cycle. A virus will attach to a host cell, inject its genetic blueprint, recruit the host cells enzymes to the task, make more parts to construct new virus particles, and assemble the parts into new viruses which break free to find new host cells.
Despite our conscious desire to live a peaceful coexistence, the body on its own, divorced from conscious thought, goes into battle. When our bodies come under attack from a viral infection they launch a sophisticated defense, the immune response. Our immune system is designed to recognize the cells that make up our bodies and repel any foreign invaders such as viruses. It marshals a huge army of defender cells, a myriad assortment of white blood cells, which identify and immediately destroy if they can, these foreign cells. This viral battleground coexists with our bacterial theatre of war. In this one, the white blood cells “eat” the threatening bacteria if they can. Some white blood cells also produce antibodies to isolate the bacteria and neutralize or starve them. If they cannot, as is often the case with Ebola or sometimes with streptococcus, we die because we lose the war. As Susan Sontag once wrote, illness is not metaphor; it is metaphysics, and our bodies are natural landscapes for a thousand daily skirmishes.
We can think of this human battleground, understand it, because of our evolution into the Cartesian world, an existence where we are defined and sustained by our ability to reason, to think, to understand; in fact, cogito ergo sum implies this kind of scrutiny is the primary means of knowing the self. It seems to me that much of our education about the self centers on psychological, philosophical and spiritual contemplation. I think, though, that this is but a part of what it means to be human, perhaps not even the most important part, and it is a mystery to me why we as species seem to know so little of our other lives, the meat machines that carry around that three pound mass of tissue that we call our existential home, the locus of mind, the carrier of the soul.
If someone asks what we believe about God, about justice, or politics, or art, or celebrity, or race, we can, as a general rule, rattle off a series of claims which define us to others and to ourselves. But if we are asked what is the function of a T cell, what does our spleen do, how do our macrophages conduct their daily tactical incursions, many of us, regardless of educational level, would fall silent. The reality that our existence rests on a grim, chancy, random series of biochemical battles seems too improbable to contemplate for long. It is too hard, too threatening to look at my twenty-month-old grandchild and realize that a virus now sleeping peacefully on the fuzzy outer rim of her left ear might awaken six months from now and take her from me.
Why does it matter? In April, the World Health Organization released a sobering report about the world wide state of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It made the claim that the world was entering a “post-antibiotic era” in which even the most powerful antibiotics are becoming ineffective. In Europe and the United States, over fifty thousand people die each year from bacterial infections that would have yielded successfully to antibiotic intervention ten years ago. It has been our relentless overuse of antibiotics that has led to this crisis. Viruses and bacteria are brilliant survivors, and they mutate daily to survive at our expense. The flu virus mutates by introducing random mutation in its genes. We are hosts of our own possible extinction, and how does one reconcile that miraculous claim with the hopeful calm that faith provides in the warmth and familiarity of the meetinghouse?
Freud wrote that we would, and do, employ every psychic mechanism necessary to deny our own deaths. In our culture, so much of our education revolves around exploring consciousness, psychology, and its myriad existential landscapes. Socrates claimed that the “unexamined life was not worth living.” Twenty five hundred years later, given our level of scientific awareness, we might rightly ask what we might mean by “life”? When we pursue our life of the spirit, when we weigh the psychological meanings of our choices, when we explore art and culture and the thousand natural lures that flesh is heir to, we define what it means to be human. But the intricate world of our flesh ought to be at least as compelling a subject for contemplation, though it seems one far less appealing in the daily living of our lives. Hamlet claimed, “There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” an appealing, enduring and empowering bromide to be sure, but in some realms of human existence, it just ain’t so. When it comes to the physiology of life and death, it seems clear that thinking has very little to do with it.