A talk delivered by James J. Geary
before the Harrisonburg Unitarian Universalist congregation
15 November 1998
Good morning again, survivors! And congratulations!
We are all survivors, are we not?
(Story - not sure what was read)
So he didn’t survive. But we have — at least so far. Survival and security is the topic of this talk ; but it is also about ancestors, and children, and the celebration of life.
First I would like for us to take a look at some remarkable aspects of survival. Not only have we survived, but our parents had to survive, at least until we came along, or we wouldn’t be here would we.
And our grandparents were survivors, and their parents and grand-parents — at least to the reproductive age.
So I guess we are made of the right stuff; and they were made of the right stuff. And then, too, just maybe they were pretty darn lucky. Luck is a big thing in this world.
But you know what , it was not just our immediate ancestors who have survived to the reproductive age. It’s our ancestors for the past…thousand years? million years? no, it’s our ancestors for the past billion years or so!
And there has not been a single break in that almost endless chain — or rather I should say in those almost endless chains, because for each of us there have been thousands, millions of ancestral chains — not a single break in any one of them for a thousand million years, and more.
If just one of the vast number of ancestral lines that each of us has, had a break, we would not be who we are. We’d be somebody else.
I don’t know about you, but that just boggles my mind — to coin a phrase. I have a hard time taking that in: not a single break for billions of generations, even back to our ancestors who were little wiggly things in the sea; and even before that.
So, for us and for our billions of ancestors, it has been a pretty benign world — a pretty benign world.
But is it a benign world?
Let us consider for a minute the number of living things that have perished before reaching the reproductive age. Think of the hundreds, maybe thousands of seeds that die for each one that takes root; or the many that take root but are crowded out before they can reproduce seeds of their own. Consider the great number of fish eggs that are gobbled up, or the baby fish that are eaten for every fish that reaches adulthood.
Or to bring it closer home, think of the agonizing number of children that our more recent ancestors lost. My maternal great grandparents lost three our of ten. My paternal grandmother lost six out of eleven.
So it appears to be a very dangerous world, and we who have survived must indeed be made of the right stuff; and we and our ancestors must have been unbelievably lucky to have come so far.
Very interesting. But what is my point?
Well, it seems to me, that in view of that long record of survival, we are sort of obligated to do the best we can to continue to survive. And we are sort of obligated to teach our children how best to survive.
It’s interesting to speculate about our remote ancestors, or about what humans will be like down the road. But it doesn’t really mean anything. It is the here and now that matters, our lives and our children’s lives.
And survival seems to be the name of the game. It appears to be nature’s intent that a few of us, with the right stuff and a bit of luck, shall survive. But we have to work at it. And that is where security comes in.
To be secure, or relatively secure, requires constant vigilance. I watch a lot of nature films on T-V, and vigilance appears to be second nature to all wild animals.
Have you ever watched how alert and suspicious a deer is — even the tame deer of Shenandoah National Park. In the game preserve in Idaho where Pat and I camped throughout August, the deer would come up and eat out of your hand. But they never let their guard down; they always remained a bit suspicious.
That’s how they have come down without a single break in their billion years of descent. Everything in the animal kingdom — with the possible exception of humans — appears to be ever vigilant, always looking to their security.
For us, there are many kinds of security. There are endless kinds of physical security: bolted doors , locked windows, special electronic security systems, neighborhood watches, police protection, courts of law. Some people have guns, Mace, attack dogs, you name it. On a larger scale we have very expensive armies and navies to protect us from invasion and possible death or slavery.
Armies and navies are also designed to protect the economic well-being of their citizens — in our case, to protect the flow of foreign oil that gives us such a grand standard of living, our so-called American way of life. Because we, and people the world over, are also very much concerned with financial and economic security. We work hard at it, trying to make more money, to save more money, to protect what we save. In some countries the peasants, distrustful of their governments, cultivate gardens to assure themselves of enough food should the distribution systems break down for some reason. Other people hoard gold as the one true thing they expect to hold its value.
Life is a sort of tight rope that we have to continually walk, isn’t it. We could fall off at any time. And it is so easy to let our guard down, to believe that we, at least, live in a benign world. Yet disaster can strike so unexpectedly. Ask the parents of the kids that perished in the recent Halloween dance in Sweden; or the survivors of Hurricane Mitch in Honduras and Nicaragua.
Thirty years ago Ted, my handsome young son-in-law, a Navy lieutenant, Naval Academy graduate, went boar hunting with a friend in the wild, rugged mountains of California, just east of the Big Sur country. In the pre-dawn darkness they lost the trail. They separated in an effort to find it. Just then a freak storm, rain, wind, fog and snow moved in from the Pacific. You have to see the chaparral that covers those mountains to realize what a dense impenetrable thicket of shrubs and dwarf trees it is, even without fog and rain. Ted never made it back. It took Army and Navy search teams, including helicopters, nine days to find his body.
His friend did find his way back. He was lucky. They weren’t prepared, had no compass, or map, or adequate clothing, and apparently hadn’t checked the weather report.
Disaster can strike so unexpectedly.
There is, of course, no absolute security. Professional robbers can always break into our homes. Police are not adequate for complete protection. Drunk drivers may crash into us. On the economic side, our whole financial structure might collapse, as it almost did in 1929, and as it has done in some countries, like Germany after World War I. Life savings can be wiped out by illness, loss
of a job, or bad investments. ABC had a feature recently on how little most of us know about finance and investing, and how little our children know about saving.
We in this country are unbelievably prosperous. But so is much of the world. I’m not sure the human race can stand prosperity — the kind of prosperity that has enabled us to dominate nature, to a degree, and to multiply all out of reason. Sometimes I think civilization is like some flowers. They take a long time to mature, then flower briefly and die. I wonder if we, here at the end of
the 20th century, are in the flower stage.
In the past there have been devastating scourges that wreaked terrible tolls on human populations: the Black Death, the Thirty Years War in Europe, our American Civil War, the flu epidemic of 1918, World War II, to name a few. I am confident there will be other firestorms. Nature is not going to tolerate endless, runaway population growth, or an accelerating rape of the world’s resources, without exacting a price.
I realize, some of these dire scenarios seem pretty remote for us. But many of them are within the realm of possibility in the decades ahead. Let me suggest one that is not so remote. Your child, or your grandchild, or you nephew or niece, could be killed or badly crippled tonight, or next Saturday night, or on prom night, either as the driver or the passenger in a recklessly speeding car that crashes.
So what to do about security, ours and our children’s? And, since we are UUs, what is spiritual about all of this?
To me, there are two steps we can take that are superior to any others in securing our future survival and that of the children we love. I believe they will stand us in good stead no matter what the future may bring.
First, we can guard our health, physical and mental, because being strong and alert is our first line of defense. If we abuse our health, or don’t have a positive outlook on life, we are letting down our guard.
Second, we can educate ourselves in those things that will best protect us in case of calamity.. I’m not just talking about the education we get in schools — although that is very important — but also the practical knowledge about handling the everyday problems and hazards of living — a sort of street-wise wisdom, if you will, much of which we learn by word of mouth.
If we have those, health and knowledge — and character is implicit in both — then we are equipped to better face whatever the future may bring. And if we teach our children to cultivate good health, physical and mental, and a good well-rounded education, then they too will be better equipped to face adversity.
A little philosophy would be helpful to us also, and to them, should everything else fail. We must learn not to take ourselves too seriously. Die we all must, and if it comes sooner than later, it is better that we be philosophical about it.
As to the spiritual in all of this. I think I have already answered that: we are sort of obligated — by nature, or God, or providence — to do what we can to survive and to teach our children how best to survive. It seems it is what is expected of us. And that calls, not just for personal vigilance, but also to work for a more peaceful world.
People reflect and argue about the purpose of life. Some think the purpose of life is to worship God, so they can be saved and in the afterlife they can have eternal peace and joy. Others, in the Orient, think the purpose is to build good Karma in successive reincarnations so eventually they can attain nirvana and have eternal peace and bliss. That’s all fine, if you feel one of those is the purpose of life and it gives you peace.
I have a different view. I’ve lived a long time, and I have never found any purpose in life other than the living of it: facing the day; meeting life’s challenges; reveling in the beauty of a sunset or of child’s face; participating in the great adventures of life, the adventures of marriage and parenthood, of inquiry, and travel, of new people and old friends. In short, to take part in and enjoy the great cavalcade, the great, mysterious and magnificent pageantry of existence.
Why isn’t that enough? Why should we ask for more?
It seems to me that If nature has any purpose for us — other than just living — it must be to produce the next generation, so that generation can produce the next one, and on and on, ad infinitum. So possibly our purpose in life is, first, to survive, and secondly, to produce children and to train them to survive — that is, if we can have children and want children. If we can’t have children, or don’t want to have children, then maybe life’s purpose for us is to
help others survive and help them protect and teach their children to survive. So in the end, maybe life’s purpose is just for us, first, to survive, and then to be good parents, or good uncles or aunts, or maybe just good Samaritans.