When I look to our Universe and to ourselves, I feel an immense wave of gratitude. Gratitude for the gifts of what we are, what we can do, and for all the wonders we see in the world around us. This gratitude not only makes me feel loved, but it also moves me to deeply love those around me and our future generations, and is the wellspring of my spirituality.
What wondrous gifts! Even putting them in broad categories seems to terribly understate them. The very basics of our universe – the millions of wonderful creatures, glorious sunrises, auroras, meteor showers, stunning supernovas and mysterious black hole move me to tears of joy. The same joy comes when thinking of incredible bodies, with brains made from trillions of neurons interconnected in stunning complexity, allowing information processing rivaling the world’s greatest computers, with nearly frictionless joints, with muscles of nanotechnological actin, immune systems that can defend an onslaught of billions of viral weapons at once, and so much more. Even health problems themselves remind me of the wonders in our bodies. Consciousness itself, with its pleasures of love, excitements of discovery, thrills of rollercoasters, satisfactions of good meals, joys of sex, emotions of good movies, and so much more, is too amazing to describe. We literally live at a time when, even if we spent every waking moment learning new wonders that science has found, we’d die before learning anything beyond a tiny sliver of them.
Did our Ancestors really give us all that? How could our Ancestors have given us the beauty of a sunset? Because by “Ancestor”, I mean all our Ancestors. That isn’t just our parents, who may have taught us to seek out and appreciate natural beauty, but also includes those early hominids that gave us the brains to experience that sunset, the primate Ancestors who gave us color vision, the worm Ancestors who gave us eyes at all, the ancient stars that forged the nitrogen now making up our atmosphere, the Great Radiance (Big Bang) itself, which made the hydrogen fusing in our Sun, and many more. I mention a few more examples in my video here, which include both biological Ancestors and anyone who contributed to our world today.
It was years ago when I finally started to see this mountain of love that our Ancestors built, which we all stand upon, and the feeling has only grown stronger since then. Understanding how natural selection works shows how precious all of these gifts truly are. Any joy we have – indeed, every single beneficial mutation – is the result of untold millennia of pain and struggle. Really? Why? Because natural selection only selects changes if they are needed, and being “needed” means that existence is hard otherwise. For millions of years, our Ancestors faced starvation, and survived by eating fruit. Mutations that gave color vision provided a critical survival edge to some, who survived to have more kids. Color vision would not have evolved if everyone had enough food regardless of their eyesight.
And so it goes for every good aspect of our bodies: Without the need to climb, fingers would not have evolved. Without the need to avoid predators, hearing would not have evolved. Without the constant hardship of challenge after challenge, we’d still be pond scum!
This realization transformed my world. I suddenly caught a small, dim glimpse of the mountain of effort, pain and struggle that my Ancestors went through, which resulted in my marvelous body (especially our human brains), and indeed every good aspect of my life. Even without knowing my name, so many of our Ancestors lived with love for their children and descendants. How could I answer that love with anything other than the deepest gratitude, and the firm commitment to pay that love forward, to future generations?
This gratitude fills my life, and comes into special focus with Samhain. So many things in our day-to-day lives can be reminders of that. Getting dressed I marvel at how effortlessly my joints move, and at how even with only one remaining inner ear, I can stand on one leg to put a shoe on the other foot. Thank you, fish Ancestors for starting to build ears. Thank you, amphibian Ancestors, for giving us joints, and so on. Small signposts pop up with even trivial prompts. As this year draws to a close and the next approaches, these spur me on to pay these gifts forward to future generations – who are also the children of our Ancestors.
While I thank our Ancestors every day, and every holiday on the Wheel of the Year is touched by Ancestors in some way, Samhain celebrates gratitude for our Ancestors like no other.
As we approach Samhain, may you feel the love of our billions of Ancestors.
About the Author: Dr. Jon Cleland Host
We are assemblages of ancient atoms forged in stars – atoms organized by history to the point of consciousness, now able to contemplate this sacred Universe of which we are a tiny, but wondrous, part.
Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997. He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog at evolutionarytimes.org). Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.