The most challenging, the most distressing and yet the most strangely consoling book I have read this year is Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being. It is many things: a string of knotty episodes, a litany of loss, a catalogue of catastrophe, a cry for meaning. Crisscrossing the stories of wise rabbis, the manifold journeys of Teilhard de Chardin and the march of earthly and human history, Dillard weaves a troubled, tattered tapestry.
Like Hamlet, yet with a far different outcome, Dillard reminds us of the paradoxical work that humanity is, "how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and movement, how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals." And yet, the brooding prince muttered, "the quintessence of dust."
To the dust we all return, packed into the ground, trod upon, clay encased, maybe to be discovered in remains some century far off, as we now unearth earlier civilizations. The sweep of time and even space on this tiny earth is numbing, if we dare consider it. By Dillard’s account, we must—and not only the corridors of generations lost who no doubt thought themselves as special as our own, but even of pained humanity in present days.
By any honest estimate, we who have done well in the lottery of life, who have profited from the mating dance of genes and the unlikely chance of our birth, are rare. The rest are poor, some wiped out by tidal waves, some sacrificed on the altars of nation and militarism, many maimed during birth itself. The physical evils attendant upon evolution’s cunning and nature’s power are matched by the horrific intentions of the human mind. Dillard informs us that Nehru was appalled by Chairman Mao when the Indian warned him of the terrible losses possible in a nuclear war. Mao was quite openly "willing to lose 300 million"—half the Chinese population. Such are our revolutions.
And yet, no matter the tyrannies of impersonal force or personal evil, every population ever amassed has disappeared. No matter what our standing, the ground is shaky still. Even if we do rather well by comparison with most, we too are doomed by our bodies, by our failing minds, our failing hearts.
In reading Dillard, one can be overcome by the wounds humanity bears—the slaughtering block of history, the genetic wheel of fortune, the breathtaking inequalities of economy and talent, the profound disabilities from birth, disfigurements from trauma, the excruciating relinquishments of aging, the heartbreaks in between.
And yet she seems to propose gently that our task is not to escape our condition but to abide in it. These bodies, frail as they are, are the only shapes that God takes in time. It is, moreover, in their frightening weakness that God’s power is fully manifest. "You cannot mend the chromosome, quell the earthquake, or stanch the flood. You cannot atone for dead tyrants’ murders, and you alone cannot stop living tyrants." But, inspired by Martin Buber, Dillard uncovers hope available to our ordinary local world. "God entrusts and allots to everyone an area to redeem: this creased and feeble life." Only here only now, for the ephemeral time we live in, there is the being, in love, in friendship, in the soaring of the mind itself at its painful time of deepest question—"Why have you forsaken us?"—and its aching moment of trust: "Into your hands I commend my spirit."
We now enter a century where this all may change by our very will and artifice. Bill Joy, the founder and wizard-guru of Sun Microsystems has written in the April issue of Wired magazine that the advancements in genetics, molecular technology and micro-robotics will make possible not only the refashioning, but the casting off, of our mortal coils. His 20,000-word essay is a moral warning, however, that we may well hand over our lives to the products of our own hands.
Bill Joy notes that while some scientists may like their bodies, if they could trade them for silicon and live 200 years, they wouldn’t hesitate. Why not trade our bodies for machinery? Is not this the improbable dream of some philosophers, who imagine that the entire content of our experience could be "downloaded" into a computer that would never wound or scar? As machines, we would not suffer the fate of our shameful animality. We would not have to endure the disfigurement of our bodies or bear the cross of our incarnate, fleshy spirit, that scary "quintessence of dust," which, although we be like gods, shatters us.
Perhaps, quite unlike any time before, we have the technical opportunity to change what we are. Our bodies, those intersections of time and eternity, those crosses we bear, might themselves be changed, even discarded. We would finally be able to throw the cross away. Yet, having rid ourselves of our bodies’ wounds and their threat of death, having stifled the passion within us, we will find ourselves self-exiled from this fallen paradise.
If we reject the very humanity we have become, we will need no redemption. There will be no cry for meaning, no necessity for hope. Beyond redemption, we will have finally sinned against the Spirit that once moved over chaos and slowly brought forth life, and with it, the passion and resurrection of human faith, hope and love.