Walking Up the Ramp

Life is a ramp. We—all things alive—are walking along ramps that slope upwards at various angles, angles that change during our lifetimes. The climb may be easy or arduous. The ramp begins at birth and ends at death.

delange.org

delange.org

The angle of the ramp depends on the difficulties we are faced with, both from our circumstances in life and our inner struggles. For humans, it is not an index of how unhappy we feel. Instead it represents the total of the obstacles, limitations, frustrations, stresses, discomforts, opposition, tedium, and loneliness that a person faces. It is a snapshot of the “uphill” nature of a person’s daily living.

My own ramp has sloped up only slightly most of my life. As a white, upper-middle class, male, educated American, I have not struggled very much, except at those times when, as for all of us, personal problems raise the ramp, often drastically, for a while. Otherwise, the long-term angle of the ramp rises progressively if one is female, poor, a persecuted minority, uneducated, chronically ill, imprisoned, a refugee, or a victim of violence. It generally rises less for those with resilient personalities and more for those with depression.

Animals and plants too are on ramps. Lack of food or water, disease, injury, tilt their ramps upward.

Can the ramp ever slope downward? Not in this metaphor. The ramp is always sloped up at least slightly because living is never completely free of limitations and difficulties of some kind. Darwin and the Buddha were right: life is struggle.

When our ramps tilt upward and the walk is tiring, we think about how to make our lives easier or better, and we may or may not actually take the steps to do so. If we do take them, we sometimes find that the steps were mistakes—bad decisions about jobs or relationships, for example—although they were the best we could do at the time, and that our ramp has not changed much or that we have inadvertently raised it. We may or may not try again.

We can easily, through meanness or indifference, raise the ramps of others, making their lives harder.

But we can lower the ramps of others too, always slightly, sometimes a great deal. And by some strange mechanism, lowering other ramps always lowers our own as well.

Darwin’s Dark Vision: “Ten Thousand Sharp Wedges”

Darwin has gotten to me. The third chapter of On the Origin of Species has changed how I look at nature. The name of the chapter sounds quaint at first: The Struggle for Existence. But it is an apt name for a dark, violent vision.

For Darwin, the central reason that life is a struggle is the numbers. Seeds, larvae, eggs, babies—most living things reproduce in big numbers, every year. We modern humans with our small families and our one or two pets don’t think of reproduction on that scale.

But, as Darwin writes, we should not forget that in truth “every single organic being around us may be said to be striving to the utmost to increase in numbers; that each lives by a struggle at some period of its life; that heavy destruction inevitably falls either on the young or the old…Lighten any check, mitigate the destruction ever so little, and the number of the species will almost instantaneously increase to any amount.”

And then this astonishing simile: “The face of Nature may be compared to a yielding surface, with ten thousand sharp wedges packed close together and driven inwards by incessant blows, sometimes one wedge being struck, and then another with greater force.”

purple loosestrife

The invasive purple loosestrife. Each plant produces one million seeds each year, every year. (fenton.patch.com)

We don’t notice the intensity of this competition in part because plant life takes place in slow motion. Darwin studied what lived and what died; he counted the seedlings in a patch of his yard and saw that most did not survive the struggle against competing weeds and insects. “We behold the face of nature bright with gladness, we often see superabundance of food; we do not see, or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life; or we forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their nestlings, are destroyed by birds and beasts of prey; we do not always bear in mind, that though food may be now superabundant, it is not so at all seasons of each recurring year.”

gulls

Whether an animal is sustaining itself or is destroying other life is a matter of point of view.  (telegraph.co.uk)

Although he uses the word “competition” to point to one obstruction or another, Darwin doesn’t find that word sweeping enough. And indeed today, for us, the term usually refers to what goes on between two individuals or teams or companies and the like. Struggle, however, points to competition in all directions at once—to the competition between a living thing and others of its own species, competition with other species, struggle against disease, against climate. It is the intensity of this struggle between the numbers of one’s offspring pitched against the strength of the adversaries that makes natural selection so effective. Any advantage, no matter how small, is big.

At the chapter’s end, the vision of the struggle slides over to “war”—along with a dubious consolation. “When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.”

roadside plants

Along a roadside, the slow-motion war goes on. (nps.gov)

Where I live, the plants and insects look vigorous and healthy as always, but I see them differently now. In the small overgrown zones between suburban backyards and along roads, I used to see beauty, vitality, and tranquility. That is what we are expected to see in nature, after all. But now I look first at what plants are the greatest in number; they are, at the moment, the winners. They are the best adapted, putting other plants out of business in slow motion, and producing the most variations that might make their offspring even fitter.

Humans are similarly primed for struggle and competition of all kinds. Even here in suburbia, we are all alert to shortages or price increases in food and fuel, to drought and flood, to violence and car crashes, to drugs and diseases, to potential enemies in the neighborhood and in the world–“incessant blows” on the “sharp wedges” that are driven in on the “yielding surface” of our lives.

The Music Man

Recently I stopped by a music store in town to buy banjo strings. I hadn’t been in the store for at least ten years. I remembered it as a hive of kids and grown-ups trying out guitars, pianos, and clarinets, browsing through racks of sheet music and instruction books, going in and out of the back rooms for lessons. This time, it was almost empty—partly the result of the guitar mega-store that had opened on the highway.

The owner himself had also changed. He had slowed, gained a tremor, and lost the steadiness of his speech. The change in him, along with the decline in his business, shook me. I realized that I had expected during those years that he and the store had remained as bustling as they once were, immune from time.

As I left I wondered what the music man’s recent life had felt like. What had been the satisfaction, the worth of it all, as he became ill and his business dropped off? In life, did aspiration and effort always lose out this way to decay?

But such sympathy comes with risks. It can distort our picture of another person, or a group. I knew almost nothing about the music man or his life. For years he had been teaching music to people of all ages, a legacy to be proud of—though whether he was or not I didn’t know. And he had music itself as a source of joy, presumably. Compassion can overgeneralize. Perhaps I was unaware of the ordinary satisfactions that sustained him.

The music man who lives happily ever after. (ovrtur.com)

The music man flies up to a happy ever after.
(ovrtur.com)

Still, I couldn’t put down the question that the music man had handed me: what is the value, the worth, of our lives if they always end in decline? Our inner voice tells us that we matter. Do we? We may have our protective attitudes; I certainly have mine. But these can be rocked when we come face to face with a man or woman who has weakened from disease or the passage of time.

There is another “Music Man.” The 1950s stage musical of that name describes a charming con man, Harold Hill, who arrives in an Iowa town to sell musical instruments and uniforms to the kids, promising he will teach them to play and will organize a band. Hill and the town librarian fall in love. She knows he is a fraud but keeps it to herself. Hill is finally exposed and is being put in handcuffs just as the instruments and uniforms arrive. The children appear in their uniforms, magically playing Beethoven and then the rousing finale of “Seventy-Six Trombones.” All ends well.

The  poster for “The Music Man” shows the smiling couple flying skyward, arm in arm, Hill playing a trumpet. The musical is a romanticized Christian answer to the dilemma of frailty and decline. The sinner is redeemed by love, death is defeated by grace. But I prefer the lesson I learned in the music man’s store.