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Death’s Delivery: The Evolution of Beauty

August 2010
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We owe Death a profound debt, and shall not default.

Did we not die, we could not have evolved our most humane attributes. Thought, Art, Music, Compassion, Love: all these are strictly indebted to Death and his cold, churlish claws. Without Death, the very faculties which make the sweet fruits of civilization possible could not be.

We have made our way from simple, single-celled organisms to complex, self-aware and infinitely creative beings who even long for immortality. But it is not to be. No individual has the right to default on our great debt.

The birth of one individual child, of one beautiful child, is dependent on the death of trillions of generations which struggled and adapted to survive and procreate. Slowly, generation after generation, century after century, millennium after millennium, age after age, the simple cell–without a single break in the biological chain between it and the child–moved from the simple to the complex; it moved from simple reactive behavior to the reflections of Kant; it moved from the calls of lower primates to the poetry of Shakespeare;  it moved from mating calls of beasts to the music of Beethoven; it moved from scraping the walls of caves to the art of Van Gogh; it moved from the first dream to the science of Einstein. Onward it goes, this simple, single-celled odyssey.

Seeking refuge from death, we have procreated and shed less clever and less brilliant forms until at last we learned how to live for something, not merely to live running from death. We have learned to love, the greatest of all evolutionary adaptations. And maybe now we can learn to respect death in a new way, and learn to be somehow thankful.

At the heart of love is the infinite vulnerability, which is mortal through and through. Without this vulnerability, without our mortality, our need for care would be no need at all. Nor would we have learned to care for those who would show us also love. Death is at the heart of beautiful love, just as the birth of a baby implies the pending death of loving parents. Without death, love is not possible.

And the hope that parents have for their beloved children! For children embody our deepest longings. They embody our struggle for immortality, to survive beyond death; or, more properly, they are born that we will be survived. And we hope that our children will rise to the greatest blessed and immortal height that evolutionary adaptation has made possible. What will the child give?  Will that child be an artist? A philosopher? A healer? Kind?

Kindness also latently imlplies death’s cold shadow: eternal night. Kindness is the warm fire built this night, around which we invite our blessed friends to stay warm, to share in a conversation, to share a story,  even to sing a song that our breath will rise and reach for an eternally mysterious canopy of stars.


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