Friday, January 22, 2021

This is the Story of Our Lives

When I was a boy, my parents tell me, I was obsessed with the family lawn mower, becoming excited whenever dad rolled up his shirtsleeves to tackle the grass. One day, from the backseat of the car, we heard the put-put-put of an unmuffled VW Beetle and I, according to family legend, began to shout excitedly, "Mower! Mower!" This is the story of how our family came to refer to this distinctive type of car as Mowers, a term that still comes up when it's "just us."

It was years before I came to understand that the rest of world called them Beetles or Bugs and that Mower meant nothing to anyone. Before coming to that understanding, however, there were arguments with playmates over who was right. I eventually even won over a few of the kids on my cul-de-sac, but ultimately I was forced to give it up as the evidence of the wider world began to pile up against what I'd learned when the world was just my family.

It's an experience we all have as we begin to move outwards from the home of our birth. It's one of the primal stories of humanity: we are home, we leave home and have adventures, then we return home. We find it in our mythologies, legends, and fairy tales. It is the plot line of many of our children's favorites, from Where the Wild Things Are to Alice in Wonderland to the Dora the Explorer. It's an evergreen theme because it is an evergreen experience.

Children grow up and discover that the world is not as it seemed from within the four walls of their homes. Humankind as a whole does the same. ~Carlo Rovelli

Going out, learning something new, then coming back. The experience changes us because learning changes us, and we find that what we come back to, the world within our four walls, is changed as well. I distinctly recall returning home after being teased by an older boy to scold my mother about how wrong she was to use the term Mower. In fact, that was the moment she told me the family story, revealing to me a truth about my own family, what I'd considered the known universe, about which I'd been totally ignorant. The fact that I'm still reflecting on this more than half a century later, is evidence that this seemingly small thing was a profound, or at least jarring, discovery.

I'm sure it was already ancient wisdom when Hereclitus wrote 2500 years ago that "The only constant in life is change." We live according to the arrow of time, even if scientists tell us that time is a mere figment of our collective imaginations. And time is another word for change. Indeed, we seem to need change, which is why we stray from our four walls in the first place. There must be more, we tell ourselves, and there is. But after a time the wild rumpus becomes too much and we seek to return home, only to find that it isn't as we left it, both because our experiences have changed us and because even home must follow the arrow of time. It's the story of our days, our month, our years, and our lives. 

It's the curse and blessing of our species to forever seek to move from not knowing to knowing. We become restless so we step out. Our adventures are stimulating, but eventually we are frightened or discombobulated or overwhelmed or tired and return home, but we can never go back to not knowing, even as we sometimes try to forget. Eventually, however, the new knowledge becomes one with the known universe and we once again set out on our adventures. This is the story of our lives.


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