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I have recently become hyperaware of my left thumb. The reason for this is that in my enthusiasm for preparing dinner last night, I sliced quite deeply into the tip of it and it is now snugly taped up with steri-strips and a bandaid. It’s not just that I’m left-handed, which of course makes this accident all the more inconvenient; or that I now have to pay close attention to how I handle and manoeuvre objects in order not to cause myself additional pain; it’s that I have seldom noticed before how much of a role that thumb plays in my general level of manual dexterity. I feel hobbled.

This is really just a particular instance of not appreciating what I have until I don’t have it. Fortunately, in this case, the situation is temporary – the injury is already showing good signs of healing, so it’s likely I will have recovered full use of my thumb well before the minor adaptations I’m currently exercising have become habitual. It does make me wonder, though, how I would respond to a much more profound and long-lasting – even permanent – change in my ability to function; and opens the broader issue of dealing with change generally, especially if it’s not a change for the better.

Coping with change is a field that has already spawned self-help books and websites by the bucketload, so I don’t want to add to the vast body of peppy, preachy literature that already exists. This post isn’t going to contain any advice. Like the good little aspiring philosopher I am, though, I have spent quite a lot of time thinking about change and how to deal with it, accept it, even embrace it as part of a more general Epicurean approach to pursuing a life of tranquillity.

“Life is change,” sang Jefferson Airplane in ‘Crown of Creation’. “How it differs from the rocks.” Of course, everything in nature, including rocks, is continually changing – it’s just that living things appear to do it more rapidly; and moreover, many of us are capable of consciously experiencing change, which, so we presume, rocks cannot do. It’s so simple it sounds like a truism but actually taking on board the idea that life is change can have profound effects on the way we think about the world and our time in it. At least that’s how it’s been for me.

I suspect it may in part have been the result of a religious upbringing that I started out approaching my life with a sense of certainty. Religions deal in certainties about the way the world is and the way it ought to be – trouble is, they’re often wrong, not just about the fact claims they make but also in their resistance to change. Had not this sense of certainty in me been challenged by my experience of the world, or had I been more reluctant to admit the challenges as they came, I would be a very different person to who I am today. Looking back, I wonder at this – how many seemingly insignificant circumstances added up to a significant change over time; an evolution, of sorts. It’s tempting to think that there have been a few pivotal moments, momentous decisions I have made along the way that have “shaped” my life in significant ways; but I suspect it’s closer to the truth to say that an accumulation of smaller changes brought me to those pivotal moments where decisions were required.

I have found it intellectually and emotionally liberating to consider my life in terms of its fluidity rather than as a series of more-or-less fixed states. Evidence from neuroscience is mounting that our brains are more capable of change and adaptation than was previously understood. I have my own set of evidence for neuroplasticity in the ways I have found to deal with recurrent episodes of depression. The first time, I didn’t understand what was going on and I wondered if I would feel that way forever. I’ve since learned that depression, like any other mental state, is transitory and open to influence from both internal and external sources.

Of course not all change is going to be positive – unlike Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I don’t subscribe to the solipsistic “nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so” maxim. Some things are just not good, no matter how you dress them up. Cancer, dementia, even just getting old and frail are the kinds of changes most people would prefer to avoid if they can. Yet it’s curiously comforting to consider that without bad changes, there would almost certainly be no good changes either. Admitting the changes we don't necessarily want is the price for not subsisting in a state of flat, dull sameness. It’s easier to accept the bad things that happen in life when I consider them as part of the vast, endlessly mutable tapestry of existence.
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In my previous post, I reflected on my recent infliction of death and destruction upon the inhabitants of my garden, observing that in our world, there is no life without death. It seems kind of appropriate, I suppose, to follow up with some of my thoughts about death - which is something I have also written about before but not for quite some time.

One thing that appears to trouble religious believers particularly upon finding out that someone is an atheist is the question of what's supposed to happen after you die. Being an atheist doesn't automatically require one to abandon belief in the concept of some kind of afterlife; but any serious consideration of such evidence as we have does tend to point towards the actual, terminal finality of death, the cessation of consciousness, the obliteration of the self. Rejecting belief not just in gods but in all supernatural entities, including souls, eventually and inevitably leads to confronting the fact that when we die, we cease to exist.

I didn't always think this way, of course. As a child, I was very thoroughly indoctrinated with the concept of an immortal soul, of heaven and hell, and the idea that one's behaviour in this life was the primary determiner of one's ultimate fate in the next. It was a long and meandering road by which I eventually walked away from this belief but in many ways, it has been a road to freedom.

According to those who feel that life has no meaning or purpose if we're not working towards some kind of ultimate reward, what should have been my response to rejecting the idea of an afterlife was to sink into a deep, dark melancholy, to become paralysed by the pointlessness of living if I'm only going to die at the end of it. Well, I'm certainly no stranger to the deep, dark melancholy; but it's not the fact of death that brings it on, not even when I am directly confronted with it; and if anything, reflecting upon the sheer absurdity of life is something I actually find deeply comforting. Much has been written about the liberating joy of embracing this life as the only one we have, rather than relegating it to the subordinate position of a mere proving-ground for an eternal afterlife; what I will say from my own experience is that accepting death as final has led me to a more careful contemplation of my behaviour - there's no judgemental god to tally my sins and virtues, only myself and those affected by my actions.

There was a time when I was afraid of death, when I thought that dying was the worst thing that could happen to someone. That time is long past. It's true that I do sometimes worry that the manner of my death will be unpleasant; but with the prospect of ceasing to exist, I am largely unconcerned. If consciousness does indeed stop when we die, I will not be around to experience not being alive - so what's to be afraid of? As Epicurus put it, "Where I am, death is not; where death is, I am not." What fear remains is indistinguishable from the fear of change - losing a loved one is, after all, a permanent change that I am forced by my beliefs to accept as such; not for me the superficially comforting thought that I will meet them again in the next life. Knowing that I will never see someone again once they cease to be can be a hard truth to swallow; but it does remind me to treasure every moment of the time I do have with them and take nothing for granted.
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It's been a little while since I last wrote anything about religion - or specifically my own lack of anything resembling supernatural belief - although I've hinted around it in several recent posts. It might look a bit bizarre to combine this with a post about gardening; but I promise it will all make sense in the end.

A couple of days ago I spent a satisfying hour or so ripping up ornamental vegetation from our back garden bed. This was not an act of wanton destruction but in fact part of the process of preparing the area to become a vegie patch. It already contains a tomato plant - which I'm very happy to say is now fruiting - and if the seeds I am currently attempting to germinate actually end up sprouting, it will soon be home to peas, carrots, celery, dill and stevia.

But in order for this to happen, a substantial amount of vegetation had to die and large numbers of worms, grubs, snails, spiders and sundry other small wildlife were disturbed. This is not a small amount of harm to be inflicting, when you think about it. So I have to say I have mixed feelings about my gardening project - the satisfaction of actually making progress is tinged with a certain sadness and self-questioning.

On the whole, though, I am inclined to consider it a positive experience and oddly enough, the reasons for that actually have something to do with my present approach to religion.

The opening chapter of The God Delusion is headed 'A deeply religious non-believer' and it aims to make clear that there is a vast difference between the God of Classical Theism and the god to which scientists such as Einstein, Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan have been known to refer; the argument being that it is disingenuous to claim that such distinguished minds believe in God, when what they are actually demonstrating, when they use the word 'god', is their awe and wonder at the glory of the universe. This is the god in which I believe, if I might be said to believe in any god at all.

Clearly this isn't a god that requires worship or answers prayers - it's not the God in whom I was taught to believe as a child; it's not a god with a personality or feelings of any kind. Nature, my god, doesn't care about me or any other individual - it just is and we are all part of it. I've had arguments with theistic believers who either think it's ridiculous to glorify nature (mostly because, well, you can't pray to it) or who find the idea of a universe indifferent to our joys and pains, our achievements and failures, indifferent even to our very existence, deeply depressing. For myself, I must own that I find this idea exhilarating; the feeling of reverence for the universe in the face of our own insignificance, expressed in the likes of Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot speech, makes my heart sing.

It's in this context that I consider my actions with respect to gardening. In the grand scheme of things, what I do here and now makes not a jot of difference to the universe. It only makes a difference to me and to those with whom I interact, directly and indirectly; including the plants and animals that inhabit our garden. Yes, I am inflicting death and destruction - on a relatively small scale, to be sure, but let's not quibble over the fact of what I am doing, just because the victims happen to be small and insignificant from our perspective; from far enough away, we're all small and insignificant. The facts of our world are such that there can be no life without death, and we all play out this balance every day of our lives. The trade-off here is that by destroying some life, I am allowing other life to flourish. On the one hand, it's an easy decision to make; on the other hand, I don't take it lightly - it is what it is.

It may seem odd to consider gardening in such a philosophical, even religious way; but I can't deny that on top of the physical satisfaction (and it must be said, the resulting aches and pains from muscles that haven't seen enough use before now) of furthering my aim to grow my own food, there is the deeper, more comforting - though sometimes unsettling - consciousness of actually participating in the destructive and creative processes of nature. I suppose it could be said that the garden has become my place of worship.

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October 2013

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