In eighth grade I took life science.
It was either seventh or eighth grade. The first day of class we opened up our textbooks that I thought looked very impressive (just you wait for pharmacy school…). Our teacher started by having us read the definition of life.
Woah now. This was just the eighth grade (maybe seventh)… And there we were getting straight to the definition of life. The meaning of life.
“A distinctive characteristic of a living organism from a dead organism or non-living thing..."
What. The. Hell.
Now I may have only been in eighth (seventh?) grade, but even I knew that you weren’t supposed to have the word being defined in the definition. Seriously? A characteristic of a living organism? What garbage.
But it’s the age-old question, isn’t it? We ask for the advice of our mentors. We ask opinions of trusted friends. We wonder if we should move or stay. Quit or stick it out. Go on or break up. Apologize or demand contrition. But once we apply some paint thinner, the bones of our questions are exposed.
All we really want to know… Is how should I live? How should I use my life? What is my life for? What does it mean to live? To be alive? I guess… what is the meaning of life?
Life. Breath. Birth. Growth. Blood. Rhythm. Beating. Pulse. Change. Balance. Reaction. Wounds. Repair.
What’s the difference between a grain of sand and a blade of grass? You could make a list… color, texture, shape, pliability, length, weight, function. But none of these things seem to be that “distinctive characteristic” that distinguishes a living organism from a non-living thing.
What makes the damn grass alive and the piece of sand just a piece of sand? What do I and the blade of grass have in common that the piece of sand does not?
All of this was rising inside me as I was standing on the back deck of a cruise ship. My stomach was pressed into the guardrail of the back deck. I had let my hair surrender to night wind. The stars and the waves summing together amounted to that feeling that’s just too much. It was pressing my skin from the inside. I had my hands close to my chest. Half because I was cold. But mostly because I thought it might press so hard that my heart would fall out. I had to keep it in. I saw the waves. I felt the waves. And all I could think was, my heart is breaking.
The waves will continue to rise and crash. They will continue on their journey to nowhere. They have something I will never have. Or rather I have something they will never have.
I have life.
I felt envious of those waves. They didn’t need anything. Not sunlight. Not food. Not rest. Not money. Not family. Not love. They were tirelessly strong and never once needed any outside source to give them anything. A perfect picture of nonchalant independence.
And this is when it struck me. I am not like the waves. I am not like sand. I am like grass. Grass needs sunlight, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, water… Just like I need things.
This is what it means to be alive. Life relies on something outside of itself.
Life is dependence.
And I think when we understand this. When we sit on the idea for a little while. Let it ruminate. We better understand how to be human. That dependence implies we must give and we must receive. That dependence puts us in this distressing place where we are vulnerable to all sorts of damage. That we will break. And that to heal, we are reliant on things like inflammation, rest, and time.
And if we can embrace dependence, we can embrace life. And may be a little bit closer to the answers to all of our questions. Our rather, our one question.