Reflections: An Ode to a Lost Friend
December 31, 2007
A good friend of mine
died of cancer last month. She was an
enthusiastic and energetic New Jersey gal who died only a few years after the
young age of 50. She had a great many
friends who loved her vivacious energy, her generosity of being, her bubbly
persona and her nearly indomitable spirit.
A kind of solidarity of
souls emerges in the wake of the death of a friend. A memorial service allows us to come together
with others who cared about the one who died, and it gives us pause to
recognize our own mortality and to realize that the good we do lives beyond us. Memorial services can be an emotional time of
reflection, and can cause a subtle shifting and reordering of our perspectives,
purposes and priorities.
Every culture has its
own methods of mourning death, and I personally think that an approach that celebrates
the life of the person who has died is the healthiest way to honor the
deceased. It seems more appropriate than
being crippled by grief or repressed by stoicism or feeling overwhelmed and
I dedicate these words
to my ‘dear departed’ friend from New Jersey, and I apologize to her for
allowing these reflections to transition into a stream of consciousness that
explores my deeper inner thoughts. My
friend was not overly philosophical or political, but she had a beautiful
spirit and a warm authenticity, and she was alert to the important things in
life. I think she would have applauded
me for choosing to honor her memory with ideas that focus on capturing Big
Picture understandings, and of expressing ecological awareness and
Each of us has our own
personal qualities, abilities, propensities, curious idiosyncrasies, petty (or
great) failings, and ways of mourning loss and striving to heal. My gal friend is now in the ‘land’ beyond
death toward which we all are inevitably proceeding. She probably would have appreciated this
observation that I find in an eclectic collection of my thoughts from years
There are beautiful moments in life, moments so
lovely that one wishes that time could be suspended while the conscious enjoyment
of the moment continues. (Yes!)
Ironically, in actuality the closest we get to
attaining such a suspension of time is to reverse the situation; to wit, we suspend consciousness while the
passage of time continues! (Ha! Perhaps this is what W.C. Fields was
referring to when he said, “A man’s gotta believe in something -- and I believe
I’ll have another drink.”)
The human race has
always been driven by the need to understand and explain the world in which we
find ourselves. A primary motivation for
this has been to find meaning and purpose in our lives. The earliest explanations were superstitious,
attributing even the weather to supernatural forces. This evolved naturally into the embodiment of
these forces in mythological beings and gods and goddesses. Later, a monotheistic concept formed that
there is just one God.
Philosophy began when
humankind grew bold enough to attempt to find natural explanations for
processes and events, instead of earlier explanations attributed to
supernatural agencies and powers. As
Will Durant wrote in The Story of
Philosophy, referring to the French philosopher Auguste Comte:
“In each field of thought the historian of ideas
could observe a Law of Three Stages: at
first the subject was conceived in the theological fashion, and all problems
were explained by the will of some deity;
later, the same subject reached the metaphysical stage, and was
explained by metaphysical abstractions;
and finally the subject was reduced to positive science by precise
observation, hypothesis and experiment, and its phenomena were explained
through the regularities of natural cause and effect.”
In the 17th century,
Baruch Spinoza insightfully wrote: “So
much of man’s thinking is an anthropocentric delusion. The root of the greatest errors in philosophy
lies in projecting our human purposes, criteria, preferences, hopes and fears
into the objective universe.” He was
also famed for having astutely observed, “Instincts and passion are magnificent
as driving forces, but dangerous as guides.”
These understandings are
important to us in today’s world, because instinctive drives, passions and
conflicts are growing, and we can begin to see that this constitutes an
overarching threat to the very survival of our species. This recognition should provide us with
renewed zeal in trying to find new ways to control these emotions and their
attendant domineering doctrines and strategies.
“Truth generally lies in
the coordination of antagonistic opinions.
Let science admit that its ‘laws’ apply only to phenomena and the
relative; let religion admit that its
theology is a rationalizing myth for a belief that defies conception. Let religion cease to picture the Absolute as
a magnified man; much worse, as a cruel
and blood-thirsty and treacherous monster afflicted with “a love of adulation
such as would be despised in a human being”.
--- Of Herbert Spencer in The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant
Voltaire, one of the
greatest intellectual energies in all of history, fought superstition and
corruption and the centuries-long domination of ‘thought’ in the Dark Ages by
the dogmatic Church, famously declaring that we must “crush the infamy”. The Golden Rule, and the First Amendment to
our Constitution, both hold that anyone should be allowed to believe whatever
they like, but that no one should be allowed to force their beliefs on
others. Unfortunately, there is an
evangelical nature to impulses that lead people to try to control and dominate
others, and fundamentalism of belief drives faithful believers to injustice and
even violence because of the tendency of believers to be ethnocentric and
intolerant of others in their convictions that their beliefs alone are the
absolute truth and that all others are not only wrong, but ‘evil’ to boot. Throughout history, many of the most terrible
genocides and wars and Inquisitions and pogroms and persecutions have taken
place in the name of religion.
Astrophysicists tell us
that almost 14 billion years have elapsed since a Big Bang of creation took
place at the beginning of the observable Universe. It could hardly be otherwise that, after each
of our ephemeral individual lives comes to its inevitable end, the Universe
will continue to exist for an indeterminate and endless number of billions of
years into the future.
We are mortals; like all organisms, we eventually will perish. The natural world, in contrast, is
ever-changing but eternal. All matter
consists of elements like hydrogen, helium, carbon, oxygen, calcium, iron,
silicon, sodium, copper and gold. The
lightest elements were created in a process that astrophysicists call ‘Big Bang
nucleosynthesis’. Heavier elements
formed later, through processes of nuclear fusion in the hot interiors of stars
and in supernova explosions.
Our telescopes and other
scientific instruments reveal that matter is catapulting through space at
incomprehensible speeds, most of it burning hot or freezing cold. Almost all of it lies unfathomably far away
from our solar system. An entire
snapshot of evidence of the physical evolution of the Universe is shown in
every moment, because when we look at the night sky, we see light arriving from
countless numbers of stars, each of them at a different distance from us. Thus, the light we see emanated from its
various sources at vastly differing periods of cosmic history. Light left the closest star to our solar
system, Proxima Centauri, just over 4 years ago, and it left the most distant
stars ever detected almost 14 billion years ago. How astonishing and luminary, if only we
could understand the true implications of what we see!
The most fundamental
observation that we can make about the world in which we exist is that
everything changes. The sun appears to
rise and set, clouds form and dissipate, rain falls at times in every locale
and the sun shines brightly at other times, seasons come and go, streams erode
mountains, waves erode rocks into sand on beaches, children are born, people
age and die. From our observations, we
see that the cumulative impact of these changes can be tracked from the distant
past to the present, and that these changes can be described as the physical
evolution of our planet and life and the Universe.
As these thoughts drift
onto the page, I realize that a deeply-felt respect wells up within me for our
great ancestor, the estimable Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who was born on
November 30, 1835. Clemens adopted the nom de plume Mark Twain, a sobriquet
which had its genesis in a nautical term.
One of the crucial responsibilities of a riverboat pilot in Clemens’ day
was to ensure that steamboats on the Mississippi did not run aground. A deckhand was charged with making measurements
of the depth of the river, using a sounding line. The deckhand would call out the water depths
to the pilot of the vessel. A safe depth
for steamboats was two fathoms (about 12 feet), at which depth the deckhand
would call out ‘mark twain’!
I salute Mark Twain
today in commemoration of the 172nd anniversary of his birth. He deserves recognition for many
reasons. He was the creator of novels
that humorously and irreverently explored grand themes of adventure,
friendship, conscience, racism, and freedom from conformity. His books and letters and speeches contain a
clear view of human foibles, and far more than two fathoms’ worth of
Mark Twain was a social
critic during the ‘Gilded Age’ (he even invented this term), when economic and
political corruption ran rampant. He
gave us valuable perspectives that are highly relevant to our societies
today. The inequalities of our current
day societies are in some ways even more sensational than they were during the
Gilded Age about which Mark Twain wrote more than a century ago.
Mark Twain used satire
and irony in his exploration of moral complexities throughout his
writings. His reflections on Catholic
immigration and the backlash against the tripling of the Catholic population in
the United States between 1860 and 1890 gives us pause to consider the strident
voices that speak out against immigrants today.
Mark Twain was also a visionary, and his outspoken views against
ruthless imperialism as a member of
the Anti-Imperialist League provide us with an important context for
understanding our nation’s current domestic and foreign policies. The Anti-Imperialist League was the first
national American peace movement.
I believe that we are in great need today of a
rational, humorous, and powerful new voice that cautions us about the risks
that our ship of state faces -- risks of figuratively running aground in
increasingly treacherous waters. Using
Mark Twain’s ideas, and the metaphor of close attention to true soundings, I
aspire to provide that voice in the writings of the Earth Manifesto.
reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
--- Mark Twain, in response to newspaper
reports in 1897 that he had died
At the time Samuel
Clemens was born in 1835, Halley’s comet was visible in the night sky. By a curious coincidence, when he died on
April 21, 1910, this was the same year that the periodic comet made its
return. Coincidence is often used as a
literary device, so this coincidence in the life of one of America’s greatest
authors is quite marvelous.
fear of death follows from the fear of life.
A man who lives
fully is prepared to die at any time.”
--- Mark Twain
Notions of freedom of
spirit and the escape from conforming influences are contained in Mark Twain’s
most famous novel, The Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn. Huck Finn and the
former slave Jim escape down the Mississippi River on a raft, and they drift
downstream in a reverie of adventure, friendship, discovery, subterfuge and
conundrum. Anyone who has spent time
along the banks of the Mississippi River watching the water slide steadily past
will understand how mesmerizing the flow of a river can be. It can give the mind a feeling of equanimity
similar to that which follows pleasurably exhaustive exertions. It can even provide a relaxed consciousness
like the feeling one gets after gazing for an hour into the glowing embers of a
“Believe me, my young
friend, there is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- half so much worth doing as
messing about in boats.”
--- The Water Rat, rapturous with enthusiasm,
speaking to the Mole, in Kenneth
Grahame’s wonderful book, The Wind in the Willows.
I want to conclude these
observations with an update of an Ode that I penned many years ago. It captures the most significant ideas that
are contained in the Soliloquies of the Earth Manifesto. Thanks for reading!
Dr. Tiffany B. Twain
An Ode to Sanity in Humanity
A balanced perspective and calm equanimity are
In understanding existence, as well as in wisdom and
And so too are vigor, vitality and enthusiasm, for
we are alive only once
And openness and passion are a free expression of a true inner wealth.
Life. Birth, death. Birth, death.
We each and all assuredly have but a relatively
short time alive
In the context of the eons and eons and eons that
So, to the goal of making the best of life, we should strive.
We are losing track of seeing what Qualities are
Possessed by our possessions, seduced by our desires
Unalert to true values, personal growth and
Overwhelmed, unaware, confused, blinded by stoked fires.
How more succinctly can it be stated and understood
More people, more pollution, more trash, more
traffic and strife
Worser environmental impacts, more conflict and less
More danger to peace, more threats, a lesser quality of life.
Existence is precarious, like a proverbial house of
Appearing stable, yet also vulnerable to sudden
As we humans build our civilizations higher and
Gambling with the future, as if in a giant game of craps.
We consume resources unsustainably, faster and
Unwilling to limit our rapid human population growth
Destroying ecosystem habitats, sprawling across the
Exploiting, using up, damaging and polluting, upon my oath.
The forests, the topsoil, the oceans, streams and
Even the atmosphere we inflict with dangerous
Denying to ourselves responsibility or probable
Hurtling pell-mell towards calamity, obtuse to the facts.
Fossil fuels are clearly limited, but we’re like
addicts to drugs
Selfishly unwilling to conserve, burning oil as fast
as we can
As if there will be no tomorrow, no future
generations to come
No others to care about -- and instead every impulse we fan.
Where, oh where, we ask, shall we go from here?
Choices abound and simplicity of decisions is
And instead of letting philosophies guide our lives,
obsessions drive them
And our challenge is to balance what we take and what we give.
Positive and salubrious solutions to our challenges
And it would be wisest for us to institute smart incentives
To transform our societies in the direction of
moderation and sanity
Instead of figuratively puncturing our life rafts so that they leak like
Special Interests and selfish motivations drive our
And our perspectives are myopic, with short-term
thinking so much in vogue
While the need for far-sighted visionary action
grows by the day
And business-as-usual clearly becomes ever more irresponsibly rogue.
Humanity has tripled in number from two billion to
more than six
In just the past seventy years, with no end to this
increase in sight
Yet right-wing puritanical Stern Father arrogance
As if our race will be immune to balancing forces and blight.
We unravel the fabric of Nature upon which we depend
And ignore the obvious completeness of our
Acting as if it were not our species’ inevitably
To die in greater numbers due to starvation, disease or war without
We imagine our intelligence and technology will save
We think we are not animals, that we are not subject
to a fall
We pretend our impact on planetary ecosystems is
Or perhaps more accurately, we don’t consider it at all.
The ‘Lessons of History’ give us a context to mend
To be proactive in protecting ourselves and our
To seize the initiative in redesigning our nations
To make them sustainable, and restorative --- and to contain our fling.
There is reason to be optimistic, hopeful, and
For life can be rich, fulfilling, beautiful and
But we must embrace conservation and sensible
And strive to choose wisely, formulating policies that are sound.
Let us commit ourselves, both personally and
To open-mindedness, to visionary planning, to
To a new Bill of Rights protecting our children and
Helping ensure a healthier world for all in exchange.
We are here, now, for an uncertain while longer
Aware of the days running past like wild horses over
At times alert and at times oblivious to the wonders
And to the potential richness of existence, as we try to get our fill.
The very nature of life includes adversities and
Yet within this context, the potential for joy and
beauty is great.
There can be profound meaning, compassion and
And we may regard existence with Appreciation, no matter what our fate.
Sing out the praises of the feminine
Oh, Muses of inspiration and softness and love
Salute the stance of cooperation and eagerness to
The mystery, the allure, the quality of affection in acting like a dove.
Thanks to males for encouraging their feminine side
For relaxing their macho selves, for coming out of
their cave and letting it be.
Rejoicing and respecting the enticing beauty of the
And celebrating nurturing qualities, feminine wisdom, and loveliness for
all to see.
Confidence may be absurd in the context of
uncertainty and calamity
But since we all choose our own Reality to a certain
It behooves us to choose a perspective we love and
relish and enjoy
And whatever our lot, take heart, breathe deep, and appreciate the
Buddhist philosophy recognizes clearly that all
Wisely counseling detachment from outcome and
moderation in all things
So let us practice philosophical equanimity and
strive to manage gracefully
And let go of fears and delusion, giving thanks for the goodness life
Let bygones be bygones, and celebrate the Here and
Simplifying our spirituality and having an open mind
Being aware, and yearning for achievable and
Enjoying family, friendship and Nature, and making the best of all we
Dr. Tiffany B. Twain
December 31, 2007
P.S. Many other Odes are sprinkled throughout
these writings. “An Introductory Ode” is
among the best; it can be found at the
beginning of the lengthy Comprehensive
Global Perspective: An Illuminating Worldview. In Part Six online, the Evolutionary Understandings contain the
An Ode to Liberty and Justice for All
An Ode to Visionary Practicality
An Ode to Meaning
Many other Odes hide
shyly in my files, hoping that someday someone may find them valuable, curious,
amusing or tenderly important.
“What exactly is an
Ode?”, one may wonder.
Oh, you Ode, I sing exuberant praises of thee
inspired form of expression thou art, allowing creativity
thoughtful perspective and commemoration
And recognizing and exploring our selves and
An Ode is a rhymed lyrical poem of sorts
addressed to a praised object, person or quality
And generally characterized by exalted style
--- so Yabba Dabba Doo!
ideas fly freely and provide greater significance than a mere ditty.
--- From “An Ode to Odes”