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Infinity Reveals Itself

My friend at Atoms of Thought recently said that “infinity reveals itself in all things”.

I was inclined to disagree, or perhaps I simply didn’t understand his meaning.  I thought, “We are surrounded by the finite.” There are brick walls all around us, in every direction we turn.  The vastness of the world may be beyond the scope of our true comprehension, yet it is nonetheless contained.  And everything within and upon it is in some way likewise contained.

Even the limits of our imagination are constrained within the bounds of our own experience.  You can imagine and dream beyond what you have done, seen, read, felt, heard – but only in relation to those experiences.  Imagination can build upon what you already know, but can you really create something out of thin air, without reference of any kind?

Anyway, that’s where my thoughts carried me.  The next day, I took this picture:

When I saw it, something clicked in my head, and my immediate thought was “infinity reveals itself in all things”.

I didn’t have a clear understanding of why that picture made me think, “That’s it!”  It just did.  There were fuzzy ideas in my head about the nature of decay and the tenacity of life; of the scale of the brick in comparison to the moss that grew upon it; that the brick was something else before it was a brick, that it used to be clay and sand and…whatever bricks are made of, and that it was headed back that way; that energy is neither created nor destroyed but is transferred from one form to another, of a small thing reaching out into the unknown…

In short, I had a lot of thoughts in my head, and whether they applied to the question at hand or not was of little concern to them.  They had appeared without bidding and like any good uninvited guest, they ran around all willy nilly as if they owned the place.  My only defense was to sort them out one at a time.

So, size: my first clear thought concerned size and atoms.  Just as the world we see is bigger than we can comprehend, the world we don’t see is smaller than we can comprehend.  As I looked at the size of the brick, small in comparison to myself, and I looked at the size of those tiny leaves of moss, small in comparison to the brick, I went further in, and further in…

Keep going – there’s more tiny stuff in there than you can imagine.  And like you can peer further in, you can seek further out, from the leaf of moss to the brick to me to the city to the country to the world to the vast expanses of space.  Perhaps to infinity.

But I can’t think about that very long because, I’ll tell you a secret: it’s the only question that scares me. How big is the universe?  How far does it go?  Everything we know about life involves limits, even life itself. If the universe has no end, what’s holding it in?  It’s just not possible for something to exist that has no end – is it?  But, if there is an end, a wall or a boundary, if the universe is boxed in somehow, then what’s holding the box?  *shudder*  I have to stop myself, I just can’t take it.

So…moving on to something happier, like decay.  My second clear thought was that all materials are recycled, even us.  At some point this wall was earth, it was clay.  Who knows where it came from, who or what walked on it, what crawled through it – that alone is pretty exciting to ponder.  So it was clay, and then it was a brick, and then a wall, and now…I guess it’s headed back to the beginning.  Or maybe someone will take it apart and build something new with the pieces.  It most certainly will change form, eventually, but it will not disappear.  And it’s the same with us.  I read once that, if you pull us completely apart, we would just be a pile of atoms, completely indistinguishable from any other thing in the universe, and that it’s quite remarkable that all those atoms came together in just the perfect way to make you, and not a chair.

Bill Bryson, in A Short History Of Nearly Everything:
Because they are so long-lived, atoms really get around.  Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on it’s way to becoming you.  We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms – up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested – probably once belonged to Shakespeare.  A billion more each came from Budda and Genghis Khan and Beethoven, and any other historical figure you care to name.  (The personages have to be historical, apparently, as it takes the atoms some decades to become thoroughly redistributed.)

So we are all reincarnations – though short–lived ones.  When we die, our atoms will disassemble and move off to find new uses elsewhere – as part of a leaf or other human being or drop of dew.  Atoms themselves, however, go on practically for ever.

Honestly, though, I had a hard time with this.  We are created from within; we are inside another body and we develop there.  When we come out, we keep growing, but it’s not like we’re picking up pieces here and there – again, it’s growth of what already exists inside us.  But then I thought of all the atoms that we ingest, all the atoms that are added from the outside.  We breath them, we eat them, we drink them.  I can definitely imagine breathing in some Shakespeare and never knowing it.  Or drinking him in the water.  Very interesting.  A little creepy.

But isn’t it a kind of infinity?  To never disappear, at least on the uttermost basic level, but to continually change from one form to another.

Then there is just the tenacity of life itself.  We cling to life, no matter how rocky it is, how many cracks or crevices score its surface.  We will find a place and a way to exist, to hold on, to live.  Sometimes, as with the moss in the pictures above, it is the fissure itself that provides what we need to continue growing, a new place to start from.

And though it starts as something that we can’t see, the moss doesn’t grow out of nothing.  It is like us, in that we begin as sperm and egg, two separates coming together to form a new life.  A life unique unto itself…and yet…an entity that carries within it a living record of what came before.  Infinity is in our very blood, in our DNA, in us.

But where does that leave the brick, which is inanimate, unable to reproduce itself?  Is it enough to be a part of the infinite simply because you exist, because you will eventually be recycled, because an atom that makes up part of you will someday make up part of something else?  Maybe.

But I think there is more to be said for the brick.  I think there is something beautiful in the simple idea of being useful, of having a purpose.  There is beauty in being a part of something bigger than you are, of coming together with others to create…anything…to have lived a life that is larger than who you are alone.

And there is still something more.  There is living a life less conspicuous, though no less significant: to have provided a haven, to have offered support to something yet smaller, something weaker than yourself.  That is a legacy too.

I think that’s the one I like best – the idea of the perpetuity of our spirit, the passing on of yourself through your actions, your words, your beliefs…by simply being who you are.

I’m still not sure what atomsofthought meant. And that’s okay.  Like the atoms we’re made of can take on new forms in each carnation, so too our thoughts.  But even as a bud reaches out toward new possibilities, it remains rooted to the base, to what supports it.  And so I am likewise rooted in the idea that “infinity reveals itself in all things”, even as I search for my own definitions.

Perhaps I do understand what I recognized in that picture: a bud of moss, tiny as it is, reaching out into what must be for it the equivalent of infinity, into a world beyond comprehension, a universe seemingly uncontained.

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Item of interest:

Tuesday Photos: Oceans Soothe the Soul; Giant Iguana Attacks Caribbean Bathers by atomsofthought

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11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Michelle, I love this! I agree with your definition of infinity, and I think it overlaps with what I meant when I said it. Whenever I think that “infinity reveals itself in all things,” the first thing that comes to mind is a story by Jorge Luis Borges. It’s a beautiful story that verbalized and translated something I felt strongly when I was younger, a mentality that I have to work harder to sustain as I get older: everything is connected, everything derives from everything else, everything eventually influences everything.

    We’re evolved (or created) to perceive the universe as a collection of separate things. Our brains filter and categorize everything our senses deliver to them. This is a dog. That’s a cat. That’s a tree, and that grouping of trees is a forest, and over there I see a mountain. This is not a false way of viewing the world. Not at all. How can it be false when without it we wouldn’t be us? It’s the world as it is to us most of the time. I’ll never know what the world ACTUALLY is. I’ll only know what it is as I perceive it to be. The idea of reality is meaningless if we have no mechanism for interpreting it… I guess reality has to be something negotiated between us and the universe itself, a negotiation between our minds and the physics of the world around us.

    Anyway, I got off track. If we put aside our obsession (natural and valid) with categorizing the world into separate things, then we begin to see how all of those things link together (in the way you did, beautifully, in your essay), how they grow out of each other, and it becomes much harder to separate them. Instead, every “thing” implies every other thing because ultimately it interacts with the totality of creation. Every event ripples outward and interacts with other events, which ripple still farther, so that it also becomes harder to isolate events from each other and say that “this happened and then this happened and these are exactly the events that caused it.” So if we could see all of these relationships, which stretch across the cosmos and exclude nothing in it, then in one object or in one event we would be able to see every other object and every other event and how they all relate to each other, and the idea is that we would no longer see them as “objects” and “events” but as “the universe,” the whole, the totality. In other words, WE apply these categories to the universe; the universe is only itself and knows no categories. And if the universe is infinite in any sense of the word (either literally, in that it is unbounded temporally or physically or whatever, or in the sense that it defies understanding for minds that are fashioned to perceive things on our tiny little human scale), then every thing in the universe IS the universe. If the universe is infinite, everything we perceive to be a component of the universe must reveal the infinite whole (how can what is “whole” also be “infinite”? Language fails us when it comes to these themes). Buddhism deals a lot in this sort of viewpoint, though I’m not Buddhist.

    Borges’s story is about a man who finds an object called an Aleph. The one and only time he handles the Aleph, it gives him a glimpse of the totality. He sees everything and every connection between those things in one instant. For a moment he loses his individuality, the notion of a self slips away, the notion of others shatters, every face looks the same–to him it’s horrifying. After his encounter with the Aleph he has trouble sorting out reality. He can’t even communicate what he saw, because language itself battles against the idea that reality can’t be picked apart. Language seeks to organize the world. Anyway, it’s a good story. 🙂

    July 4, 2011
  2. Thank you, I worked hard on this one – edited it to within an inch of it’s life. Up to last night I was hacking away, and still I don’t know that I have it where I want it. There are more directions to go in, still, but there’s only so much you can logically fit into one essay.

    I think the thing that I didn’t quite get in there, at least not in a straightforward way, is what you explained about the connections and the universe as a whole. It’s part of what I was trying to get to with the idea of the bud (and us) reaching out into the unknown, the universe that is so much greater than ourselves. It’s a seeking to be part of something we can’t even begin to comprehend, and yet we already are a part, because being in the universe makes us a part of the universe.

    If you’ve read the Thankful page, then you know I love the idea of the ripples and I believe in that 100%. Everything in the universe is symbiotic (if that makes sense). I love this: “Every event ripples outward and interacts with other events, which ripple still farther, so that it also becomes harder to isolate events from each other and say that “this happened and then this happened and these are exactly the events that caused it.” So if we could see all of these relationships, which stretch across the cosmos and exclude nothing in it, then in one object or in one event we would be able to see every other object and every other event and how they all relate to each other, and the idea is that we would no longer see them as “objects” and “events” but as “the universe,” the whole, the totality.”

    I’ll have to keep looking for Borges (Spanish author, right?) I tried to find something electronic (I went for the instant gratification, naturally – and I did read your last post 🙂 ), but came up short. I had to go to the bookstore (so yes, people other than your Dad do still buy paper books) to find Italo Calvino, but it was so worth it. I’m loving Cosmicomics!

    Anyway, thanks for the great comments (as always).

    July 4, 2011
    • I’m so happy to hear that you’re enjoying Cosmicomics! I’ll just say that Calvino was very much influenced by Borges and rhapsodized about his writing and his legacy. BUT, Calvino’s writing is more playful than Borges’s, and he does much better with emotions and character and so on. Borges is usually ALL about the concepts and philosophy; Calvino was probably more versatile.

      July 4, 2011
  3. “Why do precisely these objects we behold make a world?” , Thoreau asks. “Why has man just these species of animals for his neighbors; as if nothing but a mouse could have filled this crevice?”
    I came across that quote yesterday when I was reading “Moby-Duck” by Donovan Hohn.

    Or, if you want to watch a wacky movie, check out “What the bleep do we know?” I love that mind- bending movie. These are all good questions you are asking.

    July 4, 2011
    • I’ll have to look that movie up – I love unusual, or especially the thought provoking, or “mind-bending” movies.

      Speaking of which, and Italo Calvina, I love the movie Stranger Than Fiction. Just after I had started reading Cosmicomics, I was watching that movie again and they quoted him. I was just thinking about it when your comment came in – and you mention mind-bending movies.

      There is a part in that movie when the professor tells the main character that he needs to die because the death that was written for him is so much more profound than any other death that he would experience later. The professor says that in a true heroic tragedy, the hero dies, but the story lives on forever.

      I just think that it’s interesting – going back to the ripples, how it all is intertwined together, and all the things that we experience, read, think, see, hear – everything comes around in circles. All topics are separate, but they circle around each other – infinity, Borges’ take on infinity, Calvino is similar author, mind-bending movies, Calvino quoted in a mind-bending movie, another quote in the same movie brings us back to infinity.

      July 4, 2011
      • Love your posts!

        I agree about interconnedtedness- it is so cool to ponder. In the book I mentioned, the author muses on “driftology”, saying that the only difference between rock, tree, water, human is the rate of flow…Thought you’d enjoy that!

        July 4, 2011
        • Yes, I do! That’s a very interesting concept! (I’ll definitely have to look up the book – you’ve got me thinking about “driftology” now!)

          Also, Thank you! That’s a very nice thing to say, and I’m glad you like them.

          July 4, 2011
  4. Thanks for sharing and musing and speculating! I love the interconnectedness of all things–molecules, moss, cosmos, people in all our variety, philosophies and literature, life and thought!

    July 4, 2011
    • Hi Patti! I do too! It’s one of the things I especially like about blogging – so many bloggers and so many posts, and still the thoughts and topics seem to blend one with another, across blogs. It’s pretty amazing how that happens. Maybe I just gravitate toward bloggers who have a similar outlook or mindset as mine, and so it’s just natural that what we blog about will intersect at certain points.

      July 4, 2011
  5. I simply adored this post, thank you so much for putting it in your comment. It was really beautiful, and gave a whole lot of insight, you spoke just what I feel! Especially because I know God’s hand is in everything, even if we see it for bad He can change anything for the good, and He is infinite. He is everlasting and eternal, infinity is in everything because, as it says in the Bible, though the old world will pass away he shall renew it for the better (in Revelation, I think it says, or at the end of Matthew) and this world will be infinite in what He can do to it and for it. Stunning pictures as well 😉

    January 3, 2013

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