Unlearning Despair

By Voskoboynik, Daniel Macmillen | New Internationalist, January/February 2019 | Go to article overview

Unlearning Despair


Voskoboynik, Daniel Macmillen, New Internationalist


We are made of memory. In our mother's womb, cells weave replicas of our parents' bodies: a heart, a brain, a knotwork of veins, a shelter of skin. The first breath we take, like those that will follow it, pulls particles of the past into our chest: strands of oxygen and carbon that have travelled through the lungs and leaves of centuries.

We are born into a universe we will belong to, into a planet formed by billions of years, into an ancestry drawn by generations. Fortune finds us our family. As our umbilical cord is cut, we are bound to less-visible cords that tie us to cultures, traditions and societies.

We start the uncertain journey of life. We grow. Our biological memory, the encoded stories of our genes, unfurls. We acquire names for the world around us. We attempt to express our internal world through language, a memory of words and grammar. We begin walking, on an earth that holds the remains of our ancestors.

With time, we build identities with the mortar of our childhood memories. We interact with fellow humans, who share virtually all of our genetic memory, exploring and exhibiting the remaining fraction that makes us who we are.

Rituals, songs, books and conversations subtly hand us the lessons of yesterday. The gaze we hold, the dreams we dream and the opinions we form are shaped by our surroundings.

As we age, new selves graft over the old. Memory, the tide of remembering and forgetting, retains and releases, defining us. And so we live our lives, carrying our unprecedented story.

Nature is the memory of the Earth. Behind every forest, every valley, every body of water, is a hidden history, a patient effort of time. Landscapes are carved by wind and water. Trees and plants are sculpted by the hands of altitude, precipitation and sunlight.

Time flows, and in its currents, existence leaves its mark. Trees etch rings, faces trace wrinkles, sediments fold layers, and whales archive journeys in the baleen bristles of their jaws.

Life passes itself on. Like seeds, our own societies disperse their memory. Farmers rely on our memory of agronomy to nourish life from soil. Educators and elders transmit human memory through stories, told and written. Lawyers interpret and apply juridical memory. Doctors examine patients, drawing lessons from our history of healing.

Scholars devote lakes of ink to documenting and explaining our evolving memory. Historians reconstruct the past, the imprint of human endeavour. Astronomers turn their telescopes to the skies, watching the delayed memory of stars arrive from light years away. Geologists trace the movement of mountains over millennia. Archaeologists brush away the sediments of time. The present releases memory, and journalists rush to record the latest events.

Together, in our own ways, we recall and rewrite the memory of human survival.

We all are because others are. Born of love, we begin as delicate beings in need of care. Our parents, our grandparents, and our communities are the immediate forces that bring us into this world. Yet we are also the descendants of unknown predecessors, both human and non-human.

The Earth is only habitable for humans because of the minuscule organisms that breathed oxygen into our atmosphere millions of years ago. Our own life form today is the result of a persistent transition from cells into bacteria, from organisms into diverse species. The elements that compose us originate in the stars.

We are small strokes on the vast canvas of time. The earth that sustains us is over four and a half billion years old. In comparison, our life as a species begins only 200,000 years ago. If the history of our planet were to be made into a two-hour film, human beings would only feature in the final second.1 But that final fragile second holds an infinite sea of stories. Stories of loves and longings, of joys and sadnesses, of wishes and wonders. Stories about the creation and protection of life, and stories of its eradication. …

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