The phrase “proof of life” is typically used narrowly to reference evidence (phone calls, videos, etc.) that a kidnapping victim is still alive. This may facilitate ransom payments or further negotiations for the release of this victim or victims.
In this essay I take a wider lens to the notion that there is very good reason to repeatedly reassure ourselves that there is life both around and within us. I am motivated by my profound belief that this search extends far before and after our own all too finite lives, however fulfilled or unfulfilled these may be. Indeed, we are all in this perpetual search as part of the basic human condition.
The search for proof of life is an all hands on deck venture. Mankind has been searching for extraterrestrial life for centuries, and with continuously advancing technology such as rovers now exploring Mars, the quest seems unlikely to ever stop. The hit movie “Ad Astra,” starring Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones, illustrated the fanaticism that can grip those who probe our known universe for what must almost certainly be other living creatures. Jones’ character morphs from serious scientist to an isolated, demented and obsessed maniac.
Probably not intending to be a killjoy, eccentric but highly respected Scottish philosopher and physicist Freeman Dyson of Princeton claims there is something unique and exceptional about planet earth’s capacity to generate life. This because over many millennia evolution of the ingredients that the ecosystems needed to sustain life kept appearing.
Back here on Earth, we all engage in a search for life. Within ourselves, perhaps while praying or offering a confession. Perhaps while sitting on a moonlit porch after a hard day’s work and worry and joy, gazing at the breathtaking spray of stars against a clear night.
The windows to this search are everywhere. The sparkle in a child’s eyes, their joy at the circus, a state fair, or a high school football game. The glow flowing from a lover’s gaze, the wrinkled nose when she laughs, her unmistakable scent under those stars.
Or maybe the warmth we may feel when watching an old movie: The Wizard of Oz, Gone With The Wind, Peter Pan, It’s A Wonderful Life, Cool Hand Luke, Thelma and Louise, the list goes on. A soothing oak fire blazing away in the fireplace, popcorn at the ready in a woven basket grandma made in her youth.
Which brings me to chaos theory, a branch of mathematics focused on the analysis of chaos. More specifically, dynamic systems which display seeminglyrandom states of disorder and which are actually governed by underlying patterns. Wikipedia notes that “Chaos theory is an interdisciplinary theory stating that, within the apparent randomness of chaotic complex systems, there are underlying patterns, interconnectedness, constant feedback loops, repetition, and self-organization.” My condensed version of chaos theory notes that the simplest theory of a phenomenon is usually correct. A frequently used metaphor in this field is that a butterfly flapping its wings in Texas can cause a hurricane in China.I (and most of you, sigh) have lived through hurricanes in South Carolina and was surprised to learn that butterflies were the culprits.
Foolishly, I had always believed NASA’s explanation that hurricanes were “like giant engines that use warm, moist air as fuel. That is why they form only over warm ocean waters near the equator. The warm, moist air over the ocean rises upward from near the surface. Because this air moves up and away from the surface, there is less air left near the surface. Another way to say the same thing is that the warm air rises, causing an area of lower air pressure below.”
Yeah, silly me. When huge oak trees were falling on our house, the palms were bowed and the tidal creek running through our dock flooded the back yard I had no ideathat maybe trillions of butterflies were likely the villains. Evacuating to Augusta, Georgia at a lovely Marriott hotel on 10thStreet and James Brown Boulevard, in between lovely takeout meals from across the street including possibly the best coconut cake on the planet, we sat glued to the Weather Channel and our e-mail accounts for reports from Saint Helena neighbors who chose to wait out the storm at home. Oddly enough, no one even mentioned butterflies.
And speaking of chaos theory, there is always the matter of my bizarre dreams. Recently, at about 3am, I dreamed that my fantastic wife “Hurricane” Jane and I were on a trip to visit old friends somewhere in downstate New York. Their house was hopelessly cluttered, dimly lit and packed with assorted strangers plus an old friend running around half naked. I tried shaving in the tiny bathroom, nearly in the dark. Then hopped into the shower. Finding only a wet towel to use afterward, I got ensnared and could not escape. Finally, I found a series of Velcro strips and busted loose. Jane, my trip guru, could not explain how we were going to return home. I was desperate to just get out of there but the surrounding chaos made cab rides and plane reservations impossible. Egad, get me out of here. As luck would have it, my bladder saved the day. A trip to the bathroom revealed that I’d been dreaming and this was indeed my place. As Dorothy said in The Wizard of Oz, “there’s no place like home.”
The chaos surrounding insider trading on Wall Street comes to painful life in Sheelah Kolhatkar’s riveting nonfiction “Black Edge” (Random House, 2017). These human sharks, operating with no apparent scruples and motivated to extremes by pure greed, are exemplified by Steve Cohen and his tainted and convicted firm, SAC. If these crooks are indeed human, they come across as a sinister mutation. Cancerous to their souls, or what is left of them.
These men (yep, very few women) stand before history as polar opposites of legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. His near religious fervor for life is brilliantly described by David Maraniss in “When Pride Still Mattered” (Touchstone, 1999).
“The Triinity of Vince Lombardi’s early years was religion, family and sports. They seemed intertwined, as inseparable to him as Father, Son and Holy Ghost. When his mother baked bread, it was one for the Lombardis, one for the priests, with Vince shuttling down the block between his house and the Saint Mark’s Rectory delivering food and tendering invitations.”
And finally. While finishing this piece, I was sitting at my laptop in the living room. Lady, my 12-year-old Yorkshire terrier and one of the loves of my life, found a scarf I had dropped on the wooden floor. She curled up on it while I was typing and fell asleep. The smell of dad was apparently too much for her to resist. I looked at her and thanked God for her devoted company. She does not know yet that we are getting a new puppy in a few weeks. I am trying to imagine her reaction to having a baby sister. Noses touching. Tails wagging. A magical connection beginning to flourish.
Proof of life indeed. Who can ask for anything more?