Musings on Bicycling and Buddhism

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

What It Means to Be Human

I attended a most interesting talk on quantum computing (and a mess of other things) by a noted professor of MIT in December (in a pub). (Hat-tip to the Bandit Man for this suggestion.)

Besides sending photons back in time and qubits and such, there was of course talk of parallel dimensions and alien life, the sort of thing often reserved for science fiction. This combined with a recent conversation sent my mind to wandering, here's a paraphrase and a bit of a tangent....

Rodenberry's Vision and My Childhood in Spaceships

I've always loved science fiction. Some lovers of literature and other genres don't quite understand why. It is often seen as some sort escapism. But for those of us who love science fiction, many of us love it because of its power to show us what it means to be human. We seem to have to take a step outside of ourselves to truly understand what it is to be exactly human. To answer, "what really is alien?"; we must look at ourselves and ask "what is it that is truly human?".

And there's more to it than just fiction or our best stories. Beings that are at once perhaps either supernatural, alien, fantastical, or godly in our stories are removed from the human experience by this otherness. They are not human, yet interact with a human world on a human scope (or near), close enough that we can still relate to the story. It could be argued that stories have to be relate-able on some scale in order to move us. (And probably has been long before this musing...)

Growing up I always loved watching Star Trek: Next Generation, and while there were crystalline entities, the godlike Q, energy forms, the Borg, and androids, so many of the races met on the Enterprise were humanoid. And while we might argue that from a special effects budget perspective it makes more sense to slap makeup on some actors, I think Gene Rodenberry's vision was deeper than that. That somehow we must often have the mirage of humanity in order to relate to the stories at all.

I don't think that the probability of (or incredible improbability of) parallel (or convergent) evolution producing unrelated-yet-humanoid life forms all around the cosmos was Rodenberry's point; or the appearance of so many Earth-like (M class) planets either. Those may have helped with not needing space suits in every script. So much of what we have observed in the heavens from our own local star system to exo-planets does not point to the prevalence of human-life-friendly-type-worlds that abound in the realms of science fiction. These observations do not seem to support his hopeful view. But once again I think this link to humanity, in an ecological-story-setting sense, makes for better story telling.

And so we move from a story telling style of a great alliance of planets, The Federation, governed by a Prime Directive, to an even more intimate story telling methodology: the individual.

Doctor, Archetype, Hero?

Coming out of a recent conversation about Doctor Who, came a discussion as the Doctor's function as a hero of the individual. (I've seen just about every episode, even on back to the black and white ones from the '60s all the way to the present revamped version.) He represents the freedom of the individual in a cosmos of standardized, emotionless, conformist, conquest-driven military societies and races. Not all Who nemeses are like this, but the favorite and timeless enemies of the Doctor; e.g. Cyberman, Daleks; demonstrate this behavior. Even the Time Lords themselves, his own people, were strict and hands-off when it came to matters of time travel and space happenings. The Doctor himself is antithetical to their philosophy. He stole a TARDIS and travels anywhere and any-when in space and time without regards to the Time Lord structure and rules. (If he was subject to the parameters of Star Trek's Prime Directive, he would have been a very, very bad boy.)

And in his seeming humanity, in both appearance and mannerisms, he reminds those he encounters of the human race what it is to be human. He encourages them to move beyond freaking out or giving up when the going gets tough to remembering how they got there in the first place: through uniquely human brilliance, creativity, determination and teamwork. He remembers humanity when we forget ourselves and so reminds us. All the while constantly having to remind humans that he is not himself human.

Aliens are so frequently saying how weak, how destructive humans are across the films, tv shows, and books I have encountered.

Is that how we see ourselves? Or is that how we're challenging ourselves not to see ourselves?

Us, Ordinary People

I want to consider for a moment a role the Doctor plays in the lives of so many people who encounter him. He serves to wake people up to the wonder that is the universe in which we live, to the profundity of the nature of the life of the ordinary person. More so in the story lines of recent years, he constantly voices that there is no individual more important and significant in time and space than the ordinary person.

The great storytelling that has sustained my love of this genre, long past when it was only the forceful insistence of my elder brother than began it, shows with such lucidity; and often in a very uncomfortable way, just what our behavior as human beings looks like outside the norms of our today. Outside our usual days, objects, transit options, and interactions it is easier to see exactly what sort of cruel and generous, destructive and altruistic creatures we are. And this is all from fellow story tellers of our own species.

Look Beneath the Surface

Science fiction looks from the lens of the outside and can teach us much. But true and lasting change comes from within, so we must see ourselves as we are, here and now. We must awaken, and there isn't going to necessarily be a goofy alien time traveling rebel to help us wake up. It's the choices we make now - it is a choice to open our eyes and see.

The choice to wake up or not - the whole point of Buddhism in my understanding is to impact our daily lives on an immensely positive scale so that we can then engender a positive change in society at large - ultimately so that humanism is the common sense of the era. Buddhism issues this challenge to look beneath the surface, to face the current situation for exactly what it is, to transform our present truth into that seemingly ephemeral better tomorrow.

And the best prescription to see what's really here means going out there and getting a bit messy. That's what the Doctor excels at. And a bicycle can be that lens from inside the present - you don't get to hide behind technology here:  face to the wind, it's you and the road and the people and the city and the world. In your face. In real time. Eye to eye. The real human experience.

A bicycle can tell us a lot about humanity when we look at how we treat our most human forms of transit. All this in the nitty gritty present, not a far-off world, an alternate dimension, or life form we've never seen. This is every day people, those folks we pass and know and don't know and love and hate and ignore and greet...  our species.

And maybe this bicycle is the vehicle of change too.

My bicycle may have modern components, but it is a time machine. And yes bicycles aren't spaceships. But I think the people who dare to ride them are heroes. Every day, ordinary heroes. It's a simple thing, this bicycle. It doesn't have a warp core, it can't make the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs, as Han Solo says. But it challenges the way we move, the way we think in this ordinary world that is so amazing.

On a bike you have to look people in the face. You can't hide the humanity of this thing, because it has no real life without a person to make it move.

A bike helped wake up my life, and it's helping my city wake up - maybe even the world.

But what can a bike teach us about being human? Sure I pedal and it goes...but there's more...

My bicycle allows me to confront myself by revealing my behavior as a human being. I don't need a space ship or a time machine to show me what the reality is of being human today.** My human powered transit can teach me that. Humanism on wheels = bicycle. If we ignore our human transit we're ignoring an essential part of us. And just as people who don't introspect and face themselves head on don't grow - how can we? Our treatment of our cyclists can tell us a lot about where we are as human beings right now.

Will we listen? Will we take action?

____ ** But I don't mind the idea of a TARDIS:)

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Tour de What You Will by Jessie Calkins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License