Let me start by admitting a persistent befuddlement in the face of many of life's presumably easily answered questions. The one that has mystified me the longest is - why, if we're constantly replacing the cells in our bodies, do we retain scars? Get wrinkles as we age? Shrink and limp our ways to the grave?
I am sure a quick PubMed literature search would reveal that this "mystery" is easily explicable by the vagaries of environmentally-caused cell mutations, or some nasty aging gene, but I'll leave that science to the biologists and geneticists for now. I'm more interested in the science fiction of it all, and what it means for our sense of self.
The face that I saw in the mirror when I was 10 feels like me when I imagine my way back to that time, just as my 20 and 30 year old faces do, and my 40 and 80 year old faces will. Of course, every cell is different, lines are different, whiskers are different, hair color is different (right now, I'm transitioning to my third natural color...blonde, brown...yes, now, grey). But it's still me somehow. I think this is an awesome mystery. Everything about us changes, yet we are still us!
Or are we?!? Creepy research seems to percolate into my consciousness are fairly regular intervals concerning the influences of microbes on our poor, frail species. My first creep-out moment was coming across the periodical news releases arising from a cellular census of the human body. One National Public Radio story had this lead-in: "The human body contains 20 times more microbes than it does cells. In fact, a visitor from outer space might think the human race is just one big chain of microbe hotels." Another story puts the number at more like 10 microbe cells for every human cell, but still!! Researchers always like to point to the pleasant symbiosis that allows us to digest food, extract more energy from nutrients, and so on, but it still distresses me to think that perhaps people are just pudgy planets for a few thousand generations of microbial civilzations.
What if they do to US what we do to OUR PLANET?
What, indeed? Well, perhaps just pesky little inconveniences like infectious throat bacteria giving us Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder or bird flu giving us Parkinson's Disease! I know what you'll say...none of these things has been proven yet. On the other hand, it's not like I have to try very hard to think of examples where wimpy microbes suddenly morphed into flesh-eating plagues (although some might argue that strep throat isn't that wimpy).
But the last straw was an uber-creepy story about a fungus (!) that infects a type of ant and somehow makes the ant crawl to a particularly fungi-friendly place under a leaf on a particular side of a particular tree, latch on with its mandibles, and...DIE! Granted, an ant's brain is probably only half as complex as the brain of the average Jackass stuntman-wannabe, but STILL! Zombie ants under fungal control!
Does this remind anyone of a certain, prescient Star Trek vignette? Poor Chekov was minding his own business when a slimy parasite crawled in his ear and took over his brain. You might think that's far-fetched, but Star Trek was pretty visionary - I mean, they predicted the Bluetooth earphone!
So what if all of my cells, including a few trillion foreign, microbial invaders, parasites, and hangers-on, have all died and regenerated their way through a few thousand generations? So what if - physically - the me who's typing this won't exist on a cellular level, and is mostly not "me" at all? Why should that be a problem?
To me the amazing thing is that it ISN'T a problem. Here I am, semi-panicked, yet highly fascinated by the thought of billions of little bacterial buddies bouncing around in my fingertips as I type, trying to imagine the collective annoyance that my microbial amigos will feel when I die ('Crap!' they'll grouse, 'now who can we live in?').
But it's still me. Our brains (at least the human part of our brains) just can't seem to help themselves when it comes to weaving together the moments of our lives into a consistent narrative. In my research, I refer to this as the comprehension, sense-making function of meaning in life. It is a fundamental human adaptation. We exist, we bring in sensory information by the boatload, and we assort it all into one mostly seamless movie, which we then live for decades. The heart of my research and practice is trying to make this process intentional, and work toward out flourishing rather than our deterioration. We get to shape our stories as we live. Take a moment to reacquaint yourself with the values you want to drive your life, and work them into your story at every opportunity.
It's a practice I will continue to strive for every day.
At least until the zombie fungus takes over my brain!
Lego sculpture by Nathan Sawaya
© 2009 Michael F. Steger. All Rights Reserved.