To David Brooks of the New York Times

 

Time comes into it.
Say it.    Say it.
The universe is made of stories,
Not of atoms.

From “The Speed of Darkness,” by Muriel Rukeyser

Dear Mr. Brooks,

Thank you for your recent series of columns and for your new book “The Road to Character.” I applaud your efforts to introduce a deeper level of thinking into public consciousness. Even more gratifying is the news that people are searching for more personal depth in a world inundated with sound bites, media hype, and political hyperbole that is fundamentally at odds with soulful discourse.

I thought you might enjoy hearing from a person who, according to your May 5 New York Times column, has apparently been bestowed with “intellectual prestige.” You nailed me on two counts: I’m an evolutionary biologist who has found a home in an institute of neuroscience. I’m quick to tell people that I don’t know a darn thing about neuroscience. But I have managed to pay the mortgage on a small house and put two kids through college by working as a research associate in genetics. I can’t remember the last time anyone referred to me as being an intellectual or having any prestige, and certainly I’ve never encountered the two descriptors together. In my discretionary time I garden, forage for wild food, and cut my own firewood. I’m actually pretty good with a chainsaw. I also love salamanders and fish and evolutionary genetics. Nevertheless, if someone were to decide that I had something resembling intellectual prestige, I would have to agree with you: prestigious or not, science is not in the business of teaching us how to live.

Yet science does give us clues about where we might look for satisfaction and meaning in our lives. In the slow burning fire of millions of years of evolution along the lineage leading to modern humans, our chromosomes have been branded with a deep-seated need to connect to our place in the world. The evolutionary embers of this need for place still burn within us. Humans are no different from other animals in requiring water, food, and shelter. We are also similar to other social species in requiring supportive relationships with others of our kind. We are a product of these and many other evolutionary forces that were imposed upon us by daily life. Even today, to be whole people we need to be physically, emotionally, and spiritually tied to a place in as many ways and as deeply as possible—through the people and the landscape and all the other living things with whom we share our space.

Our separation from an intimate relationship with the natural world began only in the last 10,000 years, when many of our ancestors left the tribal hunter-gatherer lifestyle that had sustained the human lineage for a couple of million years. We began a sedentary and so-called “civilized” existence. Now our world is constructed of concrete and crowded with people living as isolated individuals in competition with one another. In some cases this has become a recipe for despair. People have become shadows or, even worse, sociopaths. Regular folks are keening for a deeper more meaningful existence, a phenomenon you mentioned seeing in your talks around the country.

I’m a scientist and love what science has taught us. But I do not believe that science can save our deteriorating life support systems—an equable climate supporting clean air, water, and food production. Science also will not save our deteriorating relationships with our fellow humans. Although my own field of evolutionary biology has given us the intellectual tools for understanding this felt need for reconnecting with other humans and the natural world, these tools alone will not lead us to reconciliation. The scientific method can be used to expand our knowledge, but science necessarily operates without empathy. Science can give us the information with which to wonder, but we must do the wondering on our own. Scientists can have empathy and wonder, but science cannot. To reconnect humanity with the biosphere, we now desperately need empathy as deep and far-reaching as the sea.

Our stories are the source of this empathic wisdom. Stories will break down the partitions we have erected among ourselves and the wider world. In your May 5 column you asked for stories, personal stories about what we do to give our lives meaning. While I’m not sure what “meaning” means for anyone other than myself, I love that you asked for stories. Mine is about a young man ardently striving for a teaching and research career in evolutionary genetics. He built his academic resumé and began looking for jobs around the country. Suddenly he realized that what he really wanted was to come back to Oregon, the place where he grew up and to which he was still connected by three previous generations and a living family who had never left. The man and his young family moved home. He struggled with this decision because it was not the best for his career. This struggle lasted for years. But change happened, a transformation similar to the way that biological succession transforms a parking lot into a meadow. There was a gradual increase in rootedness, complexity, and connectivity until eventually the dead pavement disappeared beneath a blanket of the living. Some strange combination of Zen and intention eventually won out. He gave up on a career in biology and found one anyway. He and his family were able to make Oregon their permanent home. He found peace.

Eventually I began to write my story, actually a succession of stories, tracing this personal transformation. The stories became a book of essays about the conscious pursuit of place. If you’re interested, you can hunt it up—it’s called Blackberries in July: A Forager’s Field Guide to Inner Peace. What is most important is that you understand what this book is about—an introspective melding of biology and relationships between people and the natural world into a unified whole, a single voice. This voice took a long time for me to find. And although I didn’t understand it during the discovery process, what I was actually looking for was an artistic rendering of stories that would stir people.

I learned a lot by writing this book, none of which will garner me any more intellectual prestige. Sure, I developed a writing style and voice. I discovered why I so badly needed to come home. More importantly, I came to realize the power of stories to move people. These stories would have been incomplete had I relied solely on science for their telling. But I did not need to abandon the scientist that I am to become a storyteller. Rather, I told stories that weave the knowledge of science together with the emotional wisdom of our connections to the wider world. Rather than throw out the intellectual baby, I’ve found it helpful to gather her into arms widespread and open to a larger worldview.

Sincerely,

Tom A. Titus