Posts Tagged ‘American Transcendentalism’

Faith in a seed

May 15th, 2010

Today, Greg and I (masked and gloved) went to Walden Pond for a second visit, this time with our dear friends Alison and John.  We hiked the trails for a few hours.  There was life all around us—trees, insects, birds, and mammals were obvious everywhere we walked.  Walking with my loved ones, I thought of Thoreau.  Thoreau saw majesty in the smallest creatures.  As he famously wrote in Walking:  ”In wilderness is the preservation of the world.”  So much of my existence lately has been about killing bacteria, and killing viruses, and killing cells, and killing . . . and fear of death. Today was only about life, and living.  I needed today.

After Walden, we went into Concord and walked around, saw the beautiful Concord Library, Sleepy Hollow graveyard, and other historical landmarks.  It felt great to get out, especially at Walden and in Concord, where so much important American history took place—and where the words that would change my life and influence me to want to become a biologist and activist were written.

Were it not for Thoreau, and Emerson, and Alcott, and (to a lesser extent) Hawthorne—but especially Throreau—I might not have become a biologist, and so might well not be in a position to understand what is happening to me right now—my stem cell transplant.  I might not have become an activist, and so might not have the spirit to confront and challenge my physicians when needed. I can say honestly and with no hyperbole:  These qualities—a love and knowledge of Nature, and a rebellious bent—have been utterly essential to my survival since diagnosis.

So, today reminded me of my past, but also gave me hope . . . faith . . . for the future.  I remembered how important Nature is to me, and how important being with Nature is to me.  And I saw the power and majesty of Nature, if only briefly.  And today reminded me of rebellion, and of being young . . . and strong.  Today I walked, and hiked, and talked, and laughed for five hours. Five hours!  It was the most exertion I’ve had since the transplant, by far.

Today I felt strong.  Very strong.

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Posted in advocacy, biology, emotions, illness journaling | Comments (4)

Er, uh . . . I meant totalitarian

May 12th, 2010

A good friend recently pointed out his surprise at my use of the word communist in this post, given my political leanings. He’s right; that wasn’t the right word. What I meant was totalitarian.  I do think that the cells in our body are locked in a kind of communism, but the negative aspect I was pointing out isn’t necessarily linked to that.  Obviously, communism has lead to totalitarianism often, but I hope it’s clear from my blogs that hyper-individuality in the midst of society has its serious costs as well. We’ve seen the cost of extreme individuality in the stock market (no surprise, from a historical perspective; it’s all right there in Marx), and we see its costs in cancer.

The experiment of America, of Federalism, is partly about grappling with these seemingly incongruous interests. The Founders tried to find a solution, and the Transcendentalists tried to find a solution. But so did the Bolsheviks. And so does Polistes, and so does Dictyostelium, and so do all living things.  For social creatures, negotiating the individual and the group is an everlasting struggle of life.

This conflict plays out in our bodies as well, at times.  That was the only message I intended.

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Posted in biology, social contract | Comments (1)

Conflict between the individual and the group

May 5th, 2010

Okay, I know.  I didn’t actually blog again last night.  Sorry for that, but since I’ve been feeling so, so, so much better, I’ve begun to realize just how much work I was laying aside.  I’ve been catching up.

So as a mini-catchup,  I’ll offer this symbol and some thoughts:

Polistes in Thoreau's attic

Polistes in Thoreau's attic

This is a nest of the genus Polistes—from the attic of the home where Henry David Thoreau was born. (Really.  You’ll just have to trust me on this, okay?)  Greg and I visited Walden Pond and toured Concord with expert historian Joseph Wheeler (grandfather of a good friend of ours, and son of the historian Ruth R. Wheeler, author of Concord: Climate for Freedom) just before I was admitted for my stem cell transplant, over seven weeks ago.

My greatest intellectual influences, without a doubt, come from the 1800s.  Marx, Engels, Darwin, Kropotkin, Emerson, Whitman, and of course Thoreau.   Like millions of other American High School students, I was especially influenced by the Transcendentalists.  But unlike some of my other 19th Century influences, the Transcendentalists—and especially Thoreau, I think—were caught in a kind of struggle.  They all wanted to forge a better world, and they all believed in cooperative alliances and effort; many joined communes and similar groups.  But the Transcendentalists were also great advocates of the individual, and the individual spirit.  This is especially true of Thoreau, who famously retreated from society, lived alone for a few years, and even went to jail in solitary protest against slavery.  At the same time, his writings and his message influenced Gandhi and MLK to reshape society through coordinated group action.  Thoreau is like Polistes.

Polistes is a one of the varieties of wasp I discussed in an earlier post, the kind in which groups of females, all able to have offspring, initially fight to become the egg layer and queen of the colony. There is little-to-no physical evidence of division of labor—no obvious anatomical queen and worker castes.  Eventually, the losers in combat settle down, sort of, and become workers.  But the social group is composed of would-be individualists, biding their time for an opportunity to shrug off their worker roll and take the queen’s throne.  It is a group that exhibits cycles of social behavior interrupted by periods of solitary behavior.  Polistes are the Transcendentalists of the wasp world, symbolically bridging the gap between selfish and altruist, individual and group.

This is how I see Thoreau. For humans as individuals, this might be a good, stable state.  For wasps, it’s unclear to me.  For the colony of cells in our bodies, such conflict is decidedly unwelcome—and when it happens, we call it cancer.

But are our individual cells slave to some purely communist totalitarian society?  Why wouldn’t they “prefer” individuality, a notion so decidedly American?  Does our body’s proper functioning demand that our worker cells (that form our kidney’s, lungs, livers, and, of course, blood) be oppressively chained to a social contract that forces them into a single roll (despite having all the genes needed to perform any roll), never allows them to reproduce freely (many are unable to divide after a point, and all are restricted), and then ultimately commit suicide (apoptosis) when the group so decides? What a dystopian nightmare!

So, as strange as it may sound, from a perspective of freedom, and rejoicing in the individual at all levels—ideas that ignited my intellect and set me on a path to activism and my current study so many years ago—I have sympathy for my cancer.  I cannot blame those cells for wanting to be free.

UPDATE:  See this post.

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