TRYING TO KEEP AN EYE ON THINGS

By Paul M. Lewis

You know you’re getting old when… I suppose there’s an endless string of completions that could be made to that sad beginning.

I was faced with one of my own the other morning when I woke up, opened my eyes, and saw a weird kind of amorphous, squiggly, circular outline dancing in the center of my vision. I remember saying to myself, “I don’t think that was there yesterday, was it?” As if some other person, other than the I of the dancing squiggle, might have been there to answer. The reply came back swiftly enough as a fairly definite “no, not that I recall!”

So, what to do, I wondered. Should I just ignore it and hope really hard that it would go away? This is a strategy that has worked for me in the past, sometimes with better results than others, to be sure. Or should I mention it to my partner? That, I knew, could have only one consequence: he would insist that I call the eye doctor as soon as his office opened up and try to get an appointment. And not that he wouldn’t have been right about it. Sometimes I may have the tiniest tendency to procrastinate, especially when it comes to dealing with doctors.

In this case, however, it was clear even to me that I really had to act. The background is that, for whatever reasons of genetics, or karma, or just the simplest of unfortunate happenstances, I was born with amblyopia in one eye. Sometimes called “lazy eye,” amblyopia is a condition wherein the brain favors the stronger eye over the weaker one. It can be corrected, if caught in childhood, which mine unfortunately was not. This means that my vision today mostly relies on my one good eye. I’m more or less legally blind in the other, and it was of course the good eye that now displayed the wavy lines.

I won’t go into a lot of detail about the visit to the doctor’s office. Suffice it to say that I did get in the same day, and he told me that this is just something that happens as people get older. Something about the vitreous humour, the clear gel between the lens and the retina, pulling away from the back of the eye. Most of the time, the moving circle that results eventually goes away, but you never know how long it may take, and if there are other symptoms, worse ones (e.g., exploding lights, whole darkened areas), then I needed to call him anytime, night or day, which I have to admit got my attention. I pictured myself no longer able to drive a car, maybe even not able to go to the gym anymore because I couldn’t make out the machines, or at least the buttons and levers you need to make the machines operate. I imagined bumping into grumbling people, while I stood there mumbling, “Oh, very sorry, but I can’t see a damn thing.” And what about reading? My God, what about reading?

The good news is that my worst fears have not come true, at least not yet. The darkened outline of the jostling circle seems to be diminishing. As a result, I’m having fewer fantasies about running into people while attempting to get on the treadmill. Still, all this makes me wonder: Is the body beginning to fall apart? In one sense, I suppose the answer is as simple and direct as, yes, absolutely! It could be said that the body begins to fall apart as soon as we’re born. It’s just that the process starts to get more apparent when you enter into your 70’s. Who ever called these the golden years?

All of this made me reflect further about the whole notion of what it means to fall apart. There’s a scientific term referring to this sort of thing that I have long been fascinated by. It’s called “entropy.” Stephen Hawking defines entropy as “a measure of the disorder of a physical system.” He goes on to talk about entropy as it relates to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which he defines as “the law stating that entropy always increases and can never decrease.”

That’s technical speak, of course, but here’s my take, using less scientific verbiage. What we’re talking about is the increasing unavailability of a system’s energy source and the gradual decline of that system into disorder. In other words, the demise of the body’s physical energy, the slow and steady contracting of the circle of life, ending in the diminution of our physical abilities as we age. When we’re young and full of energy, we’re eager to explore the world, to make our mark, to do something that makes a difference. With age, the energy it takes to do such things becomes less available. In extreme old age, or catastrophic illness (whichever comes first), we no longer have any energy at all to expand outwardly. Everything becomes focused inward.

This is what it means for a body when entropy begins to set in. At first, the gel of the eye pulls away from the back of the socket, creating peculiar shadowy shapes. If we’re lucky, that eventually dissipates. If not, it pulls away, tearing the retina and causing permanent damage to your ability to see and interact with the world out there. But note the part about being lucky. Is it really true, does chance, or random happening, have anything to do with entropy? It might in the detail of it, that is, in terms of how things happen (such as wavy lines in front of your eyes, or something else), but not in terms of its ultimate eventuality. As Hawking says, entropy always has its way.

Even so, the bigger issue isn’t so much about it simply happening, but about whether or not there is a larger, a greater scheme of things, a plan that our lives follow that has a meaning we can point to, beyond the stark imposition of natural law in our lives. These are questions that science has nothing to do with. Does religion, or philosophy, or even mysticism? That’s a question only each of us can answer on his or her own.

Who knew that waking up one fine day and seeing zigzaggy, undulating lines could bring about such thoughts? Even if the lines do go away, as I think mine are, or eventually will, it leaves me to wonder when some other morning will come when I might wake up and something is there that won’t go away. When will entropy finally catch up with my personal system, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics begin to exert its final, inexorable effects? As in physics, so in life, there are no reprieves from such laws.

Steven Hawking comes to mind yet again while reflecting on all of this. There’s someone who really understands entropy, not just in the abstract, scientific sense, but in terms of what it has done to his body. Talk about disorder and the break down of a physical system! How has he handled it? How has he managed to hold things together all these years? I don’t know him, but I can only imagine that it is surely with determination, definitely with dignity, and probably even with a measure of humor.

To me, this raises the question of whether there’s an even more fundamental law of the universe, one that charges us with facing our inevitable disbanding, the failing of our personal physical universe, and the release of the atoms of our bodies into the cosmos; in other words, the dissolution of our bodies. Human laws can be broken, even if there may be consequences to pay. The physical laws of the universe cannot be. They are inexorable, fixed forever, inevitable, utterly inescapable.

Whether there are yet other laws still, higher ones if you will, that require us to face ultimate questions of meaning, of purpose, or of cosmic design, is again up to each of us to answer on our own. But in the end, what could be more worth our time to look into? My own hope is that, maybe someday, I will get to see beyond the entropy of physical systems, past the universal laws of dissolution and disintegration into something higher and grander, something permanent and unmoving, beyond questions of unwinding or decay. Call these laws what you will, the word matters little, but this is what I would like to catch a glimpse of, wonky eye and all.

BIGOTRY BY ANY OTHER NAME

By Paul M. Lewis

Now that marriage equality is the law of the land (as much as certain states are still attempting to throw up roadblocks against its implementation), it’s curious to see how some religious people are reacting. One tack that seems particularly egregious is the claim that anyone who is adamantly pro-traditional marriage (so called) is now the supposed aggrieved party. “I have every right to believe what I believe and to say what I say about the errant and sinful nature of gay marriage,” they say.

Is that so? Of course it is, at least so far as it goes. It is difficult to imagine anyone, gay or non-gay alike, who would argue against a person’s right to believe, or to say, whatever he or she likes (given the usual exclusions, of course, such as defamation, or the iconic yelling fire in a crowded theater, when there is no fire). This is the very essence of the First Amendment, that we are free to express whatever views we care to about almost any subject. In a sense, the more controversial the topic and the views expressed, the more the right to speak or write about it ought to be defended. It is, after all, especially in its most egregious form (e.g. hate speech) that we have no choice but to protect and secure the right to express it, because one person’s extreme is another person’s truth. What often gets overlooked in declamations about the First Amendment, though, is the fact that those who oppose extreme views on controversial subjects themselves have the right to express their own opinions about the opposing point of view, and about those who hold it.

The argument being made by the ultra-orthodox is actually somewhat convoluted, but boiled down to its essence, it amounts to something like this: They, themselves, are experiencing unfair defamation of character when those whom they criticize as sinners call them bigots. “Is it really bigotry,” they say, “when what we are simply doing is pointing out what we sincerely believe to be immoral or unbiblical (or un-you-name-the-holy-book) behavior?” “No,” they reply to their own question, “it is not bigotry; it is simply our God-given right, indeed, God’s mandate, to call a sin a sin.”

But is it truly unfair to call them bigots? In attempting to untie this knot, it may be useful to clarify exactly what is meant by the word bigotry. It is a term much in use these days, one frequently tossed about and applied in many varied circumstances. As such, it deserves closer scrutiny. In delving deeply into the meaning of a word, it’s useful to begin with the etymology of the term, its provenance, if you will. In this case, the etymology remains admittedly a bit unclear. But one commonly held suggestion is that it may be a corruption of the Germanic oath “bi Gott,” a bigot being someone who swears “by God” that he/she is right and that this purported truthfulness is sanctioned by the deity. In modern usage, a bigot has come to mean a sanctimonious person, someone making a special show of holiness or religiosity, in particular vis-à-vis another person’s actions or beliefs, and who as a result takes it upon him or herself to condemn these actions or beliefs.

Those who follow the orthodox interpretation of virtually any organized religion condemn gay people based on their holy book, or at very least on their bishops, priests, rabbis, pastors, mullahs etc., defining marriage as solely between a man and a woman. Any variation therefrom is held to be against the laws of God, as He has made his dictates known. It would seem hard to deny that this fits squarely in with the accepted definition of bigotry, as the condemnation of another person’s actions or beliefs out of religious conviction. But then there is the follow-up question: Does that mean that LGBT people, and their supporters, are themselves also bigots, when they call the ultra-religiously inclined bigots? Here, the word seems not to fit, inasmuch as most LGBT people are surely not acting out of any special show of holiness or religion.

It’s clear that those who believe God made the world one way—and one way only—and that in this scheme of things two women, or two men, who love each other are not allowed to marry one another, open themselves to charges of intolerance and bias. Again, it bears repeating that such people have every right to hold to these extreme views and to express them in whatever forum or circumstance they wish, but in doing so, they do not have the right to claim exemption from charges of discriminatory behavior, or to hold that they are being treated unfairly when someone calls them a bigot. And whining about the supposed unfairness of another’s appellation doesn’t get you very far. God knows, the religious right has said some truly terrible things about LGBT people over the years, things that amount to hate speech. And while we may have called them bigots in return, at least we can say that the word, in accordance with its literal definition, actually applies.

There’s no doubt that words can be injurious. Being called fagot and queer, to name a few of the less horrible terms, does not feel good. And neither do actions—prohibitions—like not being able to marry the person you love, or the inability to visit a loved one in a hospital, or the denial of citizenship to a loved one from another country—all of which have, thankfully, now been corrected. But other bans continue to remain in place, such as the so-called right of an employer in many states to fire a person, simply because that individual is lesbian or gay.

Words may have specific and precise meanings, but bigotry, by any other name, still remains bigotry. Certain orthodox religious people may not like it. They are not used to “being called names,” as we used to say when we were children. In the end, though, if the word fits, it must be applied, and there is no earthly (or heavenly) reason that I can see not to use it.

Does it hurt a sincere Christian believer when people call him or her a bigot because that person says LGBT people have no right to marry? I suppose it may well. But my advice to them is to buck up and learn to take it. Or better still, maybe they will even be inspired to think: Is it true? Am I actually a bigot!