The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
December 2014 – Vol. 17 Issue 10
Our hearts are cold to the relation of distant misery.” – Edward Gibbon
Whatever the alchemy of the season may be, for many it seems easier at Christmas to discover the living bond that unites all people into one family. The ability to understand the suffering of others holds the key to our future because it is through our sympathies that we correctly perceive the oneness of the human family. Destiny is relentlessly forcing us to the universal recognition of brotherhood, not as an abstract principle but as an inescapable reality.
Down through history suffering has always been with us, the abject poverty of multitudes a matter of indifference to those more plentifully endowed. In the 18th century, Gibbon's time, there were the downtrodden masses, ignorant, driven, practically no thought being given their welfare, with little or no voice in deciding their fate. Then came the various revolutions, industrial, social, political, bringing increased education for all, better living conditions, representative governments, and a vastly accumulating knowledge. Yet these wonderful advances have brought with them a flood of other problems, so that today, far from basking in the security of a more mature era, we seem poised precariously on the brink of a general disaster and beset on every side by confusing issues. It would take the vision of a seer to foretell how present upheavals will work out, whether mankind will succeed in attaining that worldwide brotherhood or whether find our-selves wandering like lost tribes over a wasted earth.
What is emerging? Different colors among humanity have conveyed a sense of separateness; different languages and religions have held us apart; different modes of life have led us to feel that certain peoples did not deserve to be treated as human. Our epoch has shown us how mistaken, how criminal, are such prejudices. In a thousand ways we have always been dependent upon one another, and now the world in every aspect is becoming more and more obviously unified. We are beginning to realize that each human soul owes to and deserves from the rest of mankind something deeply essential to his dignity as a human being.
There is a constant warfare in us between the tendency to view people as separate from us and a sympathetic awareness of others. Locked in this cage of a body, which appears to be distinct from all other bodies, we often read about suffering or even view it as though we had no part in it. It is worth discussing how and why we are able to feel for others. Is it because we too have known hardship and can identify with their plight? When we have suffered, the afflictions of others become more poignant to us, but this is not the whole reason. True sympathy resides in something deeper, in at least a partial awareness of the fact that these so-called others are actually extensions of ourselves. I am reminded of an Indian fable. There was a wise man standing on the roadside watching a procession go by, when the person next to him, a Sikh, exclaimed: "Look at the man on the elephant!" To which the sage replied, "Which is the man, and which is the elephant?" "The man is up on top of the elephant," said the Sikh. "What is up and what is down?" the sage inquired. Whereupon the Sikh threw him to the ground declaring, "See, I am up and you are down!" "Which is you and which is me?" asked the sage. This of course is the philosophical ultimate of the problem: we can feel for others because all creatures and things are in essence one.
Suffering, insecurity, tragedy make headlines, rather than the better side of human nature. As a result we are so pressured by the latest murders, famines and world disorders that life takes on a nightmarish quality – but all the while, for every spectacular instance of weakness and brutality, the great majority of people in every land quietly show forth in their daily living a myriad examples of courage, unselfishness and gentleness. If we could but contact the hearts of the world's peoples, we would find them warm like our own.
Still, hardships in far off lands often make less of a pull on us than nearby tragedies, possibly because we have not yet grown to the point where we can readily identify ourselves with those living afar. Fortunately this callousness is becoming less and less prevalent. Never before have people been so seriously involved in helping each other. Hardly one of the numerous appeals for the less fortunate is left unanswered. We feel the impelling force of compassion coming through the fears and uncertainties of our troubled times.
Rousseau said: “The most important lesson in life is simply this: never hurt anybody." The heart responds instantly to this sentiment. Basically there is no such thing as “distant” misery. When we stand off from our little planet, we see that it is one world inhabited by one humanity, and so long as there is want and injustice in any part, there will always be insecurity and even fear in the others. Hence the vital necessity to heed and uphold what is just and humane for all, no matter what the cost.
If our hearts are cold to distant misery, it is because we have not properly identified ourselves with mankind. We are like icebergs floating in the ocean of humanity; sooner or later the warm sun of compassion will transform us and we shall come to understand that we too are part of the all-encompassing sea around us. – John P. Van Mater
Plants differ so greatly from animals that they are hard for people to figure out. They live at a much slower speed, so their actions only stand out in time-lapse films. While we judge deliberate behavior largely by creatures moving towards and away from things, plants are rooted to one spot. But, as Michael Pollan writes in The New Yorker, this limitation “calls for an extensive and nuanced understanding of one’s immediate environment, since the plant has to find everything it needs, and has to defend itself, while remaining fixed in place. A highly developed sensory apparatus is required to locate food and identify threats. Plants have evolved between fifteen and twenty distinct senses, including analogues of our five: smell and taste (they sense and respond to chemicals in the air or on their bodies); sight (they react differently to various wavelengths of light as well as to shadow); touch (a vine or a root ‘knows’ when it encounters a solid object); and it has been discovered, sound.”
Because plants are fixed, the parts above ground are often damaged or destroyed. Therefore, its most vital part is underground, the relatively protected root system. Charles Darwin demonstrated that root tips can sense such factors as light, moisture, gravity, and pressure and then determine the best path for growth. He wrote, “It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the tip of the radical … having the power of directing the movements of the adjoining parts, acts like the brain of one of the lower animals; the brain being seated within the anterior end of the body, receiving impressions from the sense organs and directing the several movements.’’
Darwin’s research was ignored for a century. In the 1980s several studies showed that trees exchanged information through air-borne chemicals. These studies were attacked so aggressively that this new field almost died as funding dried up. Since the 1990s, however, further studies have confirmed that most plants release volatile chemicals to communicate among different parts of the plant itself and with surrounding plants and animals. A damaged part may trigger the manufacture of chemicals that make the rest of the leaves less palatable or nutritious to herbivores. Also, as Kat McGowan notes in Quanta: “Compounds released from damaged plants prime the defenses of corn seedlings, so that they later mount a more effective counterattack against beet armyworms. These signals seem to be a universal language: sagebrush induces responses in tobacco; chili peppers and lima beans respond to cucumber emissions, too. Plants can communicate with insects as well, sending airborne messages that act as distress signals to predatory insects that kill herbivores. Maize attacked by beet armyworms releases a cloud of volatile chemicals that attracts wasps to lay eggs in the caterpillars’ bodies. The emerging picture is that plant-eating bugs, and the insects that feed on them, live in a world we can barely imagine, perfumed by clouds of chemicals rich in information. Ants, microbes, moths, even hummingbirds and tortoises … all detect and react to these blasts.”
Problem solving is another aspect of intelligence seen in plants. Dr. Anthony Trewavas writes: “Plants actively forage for food resources by changing their architecture, physiology and phenotype [form]. When patches rich in resources are located . . . decisions are made to initiate enormous proliferation, which greatly increases the surface area for absorption of energy, minerals and water. In this way decisions are made continuously as plants grow, placing roots, shoots and leaves in optimal positions according to the abundance of perceived resources” The root system senses its own distribution and that of other plants, optimizing its own root growth at the expense of others in a territorial way. Recent findings also show that plants are able to distinguish their own seedlings and siblings from less closely related plants, and act less competitively towards these relatives.
Another facet of intelligent behavior seen in plants is the ability to make decisions based on predicting future outcomes. The growth of branches, for example, has been shown “to be based on the speculatively expected future return of food resources rather than on an assessment of present environmental conditions.… Many temperate trees make decisions about flower numbers a year ahead,” according to Dr. Trewavas. Also, “possible future shade is predicted by many plants from perceived, reflected far-red/red light. Countervailing and extensive changes in phenotype are initiated before any loss of photosynthetic light occurs.… When provided with water only once a year, young trees learn to predict when water will be provided in the future and synchronize their growth and metabolism with this period only.” These and many other intelligent behaviors in plants are too complex and dependent on varying circum-stances to be genetic programs.