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O To Live! To Build a Quiet Life: Deep Time, Eschatology and the Anthropocene

ANTONIO. I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano;

A stage, where every man must play a part,

And mine a sad one.

GRATIANO. Let me play the fool!

~The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare

The centre, for many, seems not to be holding. Turning and turning in the widening gyre, it appears that we homosapiens have lost our way. The darkness has dropped a thousand times over and still we ignore the tensions between our profound purpose and the brevity of life…

On a blue-skied afternoon in London, against the backdrop of a chorus of birdsong and the murmuring happenings of a leafy suburb, I embrace the concept that despite the socially constructed stratification of what is and what isn’t considered the ideal life, there is no real hegemony or hierarchy in one’s approach to and experience of it. To me, to live means to cultivate a quiet life. To engage with the world around us, to build meaningful relationships and to practise the avocations that make us feel most like ourselves. How humans have embarked on their own definition of a good life however, has over millennia been subjective. Despite this, to be a contemporary Argonaut and document this, regardless of humble or hubristic intentions, to perpetually be in pursuit of an ensuing milestone has overwhelmingly taken precedence in the public imagination of what is considered a successful life. There is nothing about this I am particularly opposed to until it is positioned to the detriment of those of us who choose to enjoy the silence of slow living. 

I am brought in this reflection to make sense of many loose ends, to mull over a multitude of amorphous ideas concerning humans and nature that may or may not be interlinked and to ultimately attempt to weave them from a moment of disarray into a piece that grips my intention.

Deep Time and Islam

“It is imperative to the health of the planet, to the longevity of humans as a species, that we connect with deep timescales that are longer than our own” ~ Rachel Sussman

Time is deeper than we know. To grasp the ungraspable is mimicked by its microcosm. Even the particles of an hourglass will escape the human fist. We simply cannot know it. Given our timescales in relation to the cosmos, we are miniscule, ephemeral, insignificant, futile. Given we, as Copernicus said ‘…know that we know what we know, and [omitted] we do not know what we do not know’,  we are powerful beings with profound capacities for accessing the truth of things.

Sheikh Hamza Yusuf of Zaytuna College in a lecture in Malaysia, speaks about the crisis of knowledge in academia, following the enlightenment of the west and the consequential agenda of secular modernity. The crisis of knowledge means that as a global community we ask ‘how?’ rather than ‘why?’. It also means that convolution in answering ‘how?’ provides a more perceived valid or affirmative response to the simplicity in answering ‘why?’. If the truth is to be universally understood, should it not be devoid of convolution, accessible to humanity at large, young and old? Death is a universal that all religious and non have no choice but to accept. It is an eternal state which we are born into and live on the brink of.

To paraphrase Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, if we are on the brink of eternity should we not think deeply about our time here? To not think about time is to subvert the human intellect. To not think about death is to sabotage our time on this abode. And to quote Sheikh Ammar alShukry of AlMaghrib Institute, ‘so much of us has died already’. If we are earth, land grabs diminish our volume day by day until there is nothing left of us but death. To not realise we are being taken by degrees is like Shakespeare’s Gratiano, to request to play the fool despite overwhelming avenues to dignity. 

Deep time is a geological concept originated by naturalist and geologist James Huttun and popularised by John McPhee to make sense of our lifespans in relation to our 4.5 billion year old earth and our 13.8 billion year old universe. McPhee writes: “Consider the earth’s history as the old measure of the English yard, the distance from the king’s nose to the tip of his outstretched hand. One stroke of a nail file on his middle finger erases human history”. Metaphors like this are habitually adopted in order for us to make sense of the massive spatio-temporal scale of earth and the cosmos. Deep time provides a logical fulcrum to map in a cartography of sorts the span of human life in relation to geological processes. 

Geologist Andrew Alden writes:

“Geologists do not talk about deep time, except maybe rhetorically or in teaching. Instead, they live in it. They have their esoteric time scale, which they use as readily as common folk talk about their neighborhood streets. They use large numbers of years nimbly, abbreviating “million years” as “myr.” In speaking, they commonly don’t even say the units, referring to events with bare numbers. Despite this, it’s clear to me, after a lifetime immersed in the field, that even geologists can’t really grasp geologic time. Instead, they have cultivated a sense of the deep present, a peculiar detachment in which it is possible for the effects of once-in-a-thousand-year events to be seen in today’s landscape and for the prospect of rare and long-forgotten events to occur today.”

Indeed thinking about deep time inevitably gives way to Eco philosophy, deep ecology, conservationism and ethics. Eco philosophers such as Arne Naess of Norway pushed the notion of the ‘ecological self’- the human being who is deeply intertwined with nature and promotes its preservation. Naess along with Sessions in 1984 also outlined eight principles for deep ecology:

1. “The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves…. These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.”

2. “Richness and diversity…contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.”

3. “Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.”

4. “Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.”

5. “The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.”

6. “Policies must therefore be changed…[to] affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures.…”

7. “The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality…rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living.…”

8. “Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to participate in the attempt to implement the necessary changes.”

Point seven is most poignant to me and this piece. Sessions and Naess note that appreciating quality of life and adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living are not symbiotic. It points to questions about the far reaching feelers of imperial histories, ecological devastation and environmental despoilment that must be begotten for the privileged amongst human beings to maintain what is believed to be quality of life. For the time being I will leave this stray thought unobserved and continue along my earlier thread of deep time.

Deep time for many theorists begins at the big bang, the moment of the universe’s inception. For many theists the question remains – what was before the before? What was before the big bang? A question as staggering as deep time put simply is this: If the cosmos erupted at a given moment giving birth to protons and neutrons- what was the void that came before it? Did time not exist before then or are we again essentialising our place and importance in the complexity of the universe? For physicists time is still a mystery. For the Muslim we accept what we know and we accept what we cannot comprehend- including how God can describe himself as both eternal and before the before- a concept in turn which for the Muslim answers the conundrum of the contemporary physicist.

Cosmic inflation, the theory that explains the rapid universal expansion is once again indicative of the crisis of knowledge. Modern physics and cosmology will tell us ‘how’ but without the anchor of tauheed (oneness of God) cannot tell us ‘why’. As with Yusuf, knowledge for the Muslim is remembrance – an affirmation of what the innermost core of the human being – the lubb has already perceived. If contemporary knowledge has stripped the Divine from its universities and institutions how then do we access the secrets of matter and Divine material?

“here’s for hoping for a blessed sleep. because barely does the eye adjust to tentative light only to be swallowed by darkness again.” ~ a colony of ants

Al-Bidayah wan-Nihayah translated to ‘The Beginning and the End’ from Arabic, is an Islamic book that explores answers from the beginning of the universe to the end in answer to what the physicist is grappling for. Sheikh Moutasem Al Hameedy of the Abu Hurairah Centre in Canada similarly speaks about the unseen dimensions of what governs matter and intelligent life. He mentions an ecosystem of truth and values that have ripple effects once their sanctity is breached. Ecology for the Muslim is therefor environmental as well as spiritual. Spiritual ecology means to harvest the good word and de-weed the bad. To keep the soil arable and rich for the life of the heart to flourish. In circling back to the question of what constitutes a good life eschatology provides a reference point for life’s priorities. The cosmos operates on a timescale that is beyond our understanding and Islamic eschatology offers a solution and a guide to reflective living, the point of reference being our departure from this realm and the reality of the ending of things. 

The Anthropocene

‘In the mornings I drank the dew that fell from the magnolia;

In the evenings I drank the petals that dropped from the chrysanthemums.

If only my mind can be truly beautiful,

It matters nothing that I often faint for famine.’

~ Li sao, Qu Yuan

The Anthropocene refers to the period in human history where humans have inhabited the earth to create an undeniable influence on our global climate. Human civilisation, against the backdrop of deep time has as with John McPhee’s earlier metaphor been as insignificant as the first layer of the nail of a king erased by one stroke of a file. Yet in our dominance over life on earth, the misuse of our intellect and the human desire to accumulate, we have caused irreversible damage to the planet.

Circling back to my introductory thoughts, what then does it mean to live?…to really live? Given that most agree we are in the Anthropocene whilst simultaneously being insignificant to the spatio-temporal history of the planet, how do we make sense of these opposing tensions? Despite belief or non belief in Islamic eschatology, a life lived without reflection and deep meditation seems to be a seismic waste of what it means to be alive. Slow living for many is attuned to deep time and the finality of death because barely does the eye adjust to tentative light, only to be swallowed by darkness again. Barely do we make our way in life only to be confronted by the reality of our imminent departure from it.

If we cannot agree how life should be led then let us at least agree that it should not be spent opiating the pain of separation from our creator…or ignoring the ending of things.

“Only to live, to live and live! Life, whatever it may be!”

~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Soukeyna Osei-Bonsu is a poet and writer based in London. She is author of the chapbook “All The Birds Were Invited To A Feast In The Sky” and has been featured in the publications The Drinking Gourd, The Black Explorer, Hikaayat, Amaliah and showcased at an MFest exhibit.

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