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The Tinkered Mind
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August 30th, 2020
Lucilius was walking along a wooded path, accompanied by a young boy who had taken to him in recent months. Lucilius smiled as the two walked peacefully, reflecting on how such connections arise, how we all seek out people to be our parents and brothers, our sisters and children regardless of how plump or scant our own real families be.
Birdsong moved between and around them, creating a chorus of melody within the forest. The dirt path crunched softly as they took each step, each on ground of tattered light, filtered from the high canopy.
Lucilius realized he and the boy had not spoken in some time. Though it was pleasant, and important to enjoy silence in company, Lucilius also knew how much it had meant to him when he’d once been a boy and an elder had asked him what his thoughts were. That someone would wonder, let alone care enough to ask had always stayed with Lucilius.
And so he asked, “What you thinking?”
The boy grew suddenly conscious, clearly having been lost in thought and reverie. He was looking out at the trees, and slowly he smiled.
“I was wondering if the trees are really alive.”
“What makes you think they might not be?” Lucilius asked.
“Well, they don’t move, and without their leaves, in the winter, you can’t tell if a tree is dead or not.”
“A fair observation. So is it the leaves that reveal their life?”
“I don’t know,” said the boy. “That’s what I was wondering about when you asked. But I guess so. The fact that they grow.”
“What about rivers?”
The boy wasn’t sure what Lucilius meant. He gave him a funny look.
“Rivers are constantly changing. Sometimes they start off small, and then they grow and grow, and they can even move around and change course, and a river certainly moves a lot more than a tree does. So in some sense it seems that a river is more alive than a tree. At least in the way you’ve phrased it.”
The boy nodded a little, looking back at the trees. “But you can kill a tree,” he said.
“You can’t kill a river?” Lucilius asked.
“How would you do that?” Asked the boy.
“Well you could build a dam, and that is certainly quite a lot harder than killing a tree. Does that mean it’s harder to kill a river? And if it’s harder to kill, does that say something about it being alive?”
The boy pondered a moment. “But a river is just water falling down along the ground, like down a mountain, the water doesn’t really have a choice to go downhill.”
Lucilius smiled and then slowed his pace and then took a step off the path and then crouched down before a new sapling that had recently emerged from the ground, its first leaves spread wide to catch what little light there was on the forest floor. The boy drew to Lucilius’ side and hunched down also.
“Let me ask you,” Lucilius said. “Did this little tree have any choice about the water that activated its seed? The seed would have stayed dormant, and for all purposes, unliving, had it not been for a little water and some heat in the ground and in the air. So does the seed choose to become a tree? To split and reach upward?”
The boy pondered this last point more deeply. “That’s a good question, he said: is a seed alive before it sprouts?”
“What about you?” Lucilius asked. “Did you have a choice to be born? Did you have any influence over where you were born, and to which parents?”
“No..” The boy said, and he looked away for a moment, suddenly concerned. “Wait, does that mean I might not be alive?”
Lucilius smiled widely. “Well if you’re not alive, then I don’t think I could in good conscience say that anything is alive.”
“But where does it end and where does the living begin?” The boy asked.
“Hard to say,” Lucilius said, “but it’s clear that once we get going, we seem to become something entirely different. It’s as though we are, each and all of us, given this good first push into the river of time, and once we get moving, it seems like we gain this ability to decide how we get pushed by time, we get some little bit of influence over which direction we get pushed. Perhaps that’s what living is.”
“But…” the boys thoughts trailed off. “Last week you asked me if I could predict or decide what my next thought would be and I still can’t do it. It’s like I don’t really get to choose, it just seems like it.”
“Fair point,” Lucilius said.
“So if it’s not choice that makes us living, and the fact that we move around is like the river, then are we really any different than anything else, like rocks and air and stars and stuff?”
Lucilius smiled. “That’s a good question.”