The Well-lived Life and the Intertidal Zone

Once again, I’ve fallen off the blogger wagon. I can blame it on work getting very busy and visits from a few friends, but the truth is, I’ve been worn down once again by a the struggle to live well. Volunteering in forest park, going the extra mile at the office, eating right, working out, writing for fun, staying in touch with friends and family; all those things slipped as I grew tired and sore over the course of a month. Instead, I nestled in to my couch and listened to the bemusing rants of Jeff Van Gundy and the NBA playoffs.  I thinks sports provide far more than escapism, but I’ll admit there are times when that’s what I seek from them most.

As usual, my conscience is fully aware of when I’m mailing it in when it comes to living well. It says, ‘look at you with those gray hairs sprouting, those inflamed knee tendons, those strained and neglected relationships, and that growing list of unfulfilled aspirations. I thought we were going to volunteer once a week, learn Spanish and sign up for guitar lessons. Instead we the weekend’s big adventure was heading to Target for socks and light bulbs. What gives?’

Umair Haque recently wrote an intriguing article for the Harvard Business Review questioning whether a “well-lived life” was we in America define it is worth anything. He describes an “Grand Canyon-sized” gap between what our economy produces and the fulfillment we’re seeking (namely debt, obesity, ecological devastation, pollution, addiction, misinformation, over-stimulation, and the kicker, social pressure that results in apathy toward all of the other issues on this list).

I think he’s right; our economy functions on the notion that the answer to all problems is to work harder and add more. Are the drugs you’re taking are making you depressed? Try taking these other drugs, and double the dosage. Spending too much time driving from your house in the burbs to your soul-sucking downtown office? You probably just need to spend that commute in more luxurious car. We believe these absurd notions because we tend to prefer the Devil we know. After all, change is hard. In this case, it’s also entirely necessary. Even if we thought  conventional economic indicators, like GDP, for living well were accurate, we’d have to admit we’re not exactly thriving.

So how do we change? What are the new units of measure?  Of course we’re right to question Charlie Sheen’s perception of what “winning” means, but it doesn’t seem like we have the definition pinned down. Haque offers some solutions, such as making things that are better, not just bigger, depth, not just immediacy, and creating and building rather than simply trading and plagiarizing. Once again, I agree, but think there’s a simpler answer: Live closer to (and learn from) Nature. You may now commence eye-rolling.

I know this is a topic that tends to rile people up, but hear me out; perhaps we’re in need of a good riling. One of the founding principles behind the mission of the non-profit I work for is Biomimicry, the notion that we can look to systems in nature for solutions to human-made problems. Ecosystems, after all, don’t have energy crises, despite existing in a complex and delicate balance of thousands of interconnected organisms. The exception is that invasive species, those abruptly introduced from other ecosystems, take more than their fair share. They upset the balance. A naturalized species, in contrast, is a generous species. It gives something back into the system. Janine Benyus, mother of Biomimicry, offers this point, suggesting that we humans tend to play the role of invaders. We’ve forgotten how to be generous in our quest to out-consume one another. Instead, we’ve blown through precious resources, altered the physiology of our planet, and marginalized the species with which we were meant to share this world.

Years ago, in an attempt to try my hand at the life of a biologist, I signed up for a Marine Ecology course while studying abroad in New Zealand. For a lesson on the inter-tidal zone, I found myself perched precariously on a rock ledge just a few feet above crashing waves of icy-blue seawater.  With massive strands of kelp swirling below me, I surveyed populations of dozens of minuscule animal species, including worms, barnacles, sea stars, anemones and mollusks. This seemingly inhospitable outcrop was teaming with life along a thin strip of rock where ocean and air met at varying levels through the course of the changing tide. On those rocks,  a cocktail of nutrients, exposure, competition, and an endless barrage of waves created an environment that as dangerous as it was diverse. It was beautiful and chaotic. I read in a recent National Geographic article that John Steinbeck once described the intertidal zone as, “ferocious with life”.  (Who would have thought studying both ecology and English Lit would have ever come in handy?) He also drew the same conclusion about the intertidal zone as I do now — that this ecosystem is an analogy for our fragile existence on this planet.

We are clustered along the shores of our environment (80 percent of the human population is located within 60 miles of a coastline). As space becomes more limited, competition becomes more intense, and only species those who learn to coexist, or better yet, develop symbiotic relationships with their neighbors, will thrive while improving the overall health of the system. To extend, or perhaps muddle the metaphor, the results of our selfish efforts (such as changing sea levels and ocean acidification) have the power to sabotage our chances for survival and fulfillment in this enchanting and ever-changing pool of life.

We’ve made a grave mess of things, to be sure. But we can change if we’re willing to learn. The intelligence of Nature’s design is far greater than we can comprehend, but we can still learn from its principles: generosity, community, discernment, perseverance, beauty, and a power far greater than our own.

-J

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