A few days ago, my son and I were looking at a book about space, and came across a picture of the Milky Way.
Son: Wow. So many stars.
Me: Did you know that there are about as many neurons in your brain as stars in the Milky Way?
Son: Wow. I must have a LOT of morons in my brain. Mom, why are you laughing?
What I loved about his reaction is that even though he has no clue what a neuron is–and, as I write this, I realize that I’m a little foggy on what, exactly, a neuron is–he grasped the vastness and immensity of the galaxy and of his own brain all at once, which is, of course, the point.
There is much to be said about how we humans depend upon one another and upon the systems (both natural and human-made) that support us. We do not create our ideas, or our genes, or anything else, by spontaneous generation, but are always dependent on and drawing from prior creations and prior discoveries.
I was reading with the boys this morning about Stone Age people moving into the Bronze Age with the discovery of metals, and we marveled at how many discoveries and inventions would have to be made to allow for the possibility of (say) our Land Rover. As I said, generations of dependence.
And yet, it would be wrong to diminish the significance of the individual discoverer. As any parent knows, it is miraculous to watch your own child make discoveries, and to become who she is, even–or especially–if who she or he is is different in some way from what’s ‘normal’–what’s around them.
Sometimes I think we think of ‘identity’ in terms of ‘how you fit within the group’ rather than ‘who you are.’ It does not diminish the reality (and beauty) of interdependence to celebrate the extraordinary nature of the individual mind, with its galaxies of neurons and its boundless capacity for imagination, creation, creativity, and love.
Herman Melville wrote of “how wonderful” it was that a whale– “to whom corporeal warmth is as indispensable as it is to man”–could be at home anywhere. Whether in Arctic waters or at the equator, the whale’s blood stayed steady, and Melville saw in this a beautiful metaphor for the glory of the individual human being whose self-identity is secure:
“It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! Admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man, in all seasons a temperature of thine own.”