Reflection 254: Chaos in Orion

April 13, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

NASA’s picture of the day illustrates baby stars creating chaos in the Orion nebula. Well, you know what trouble babies can get up to. In this false-color image from NASA, here’s what it looks like:


The universe whirling around in a tizzy. Kind of beautiful from a distance. I start with this image as an illustration of Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, because that’s how I feel about the film—both beautiful and terrifying at the same time. If you visit Orion or the film, you’d better hold onto your hat.

In summary, the husband dutifully cares for his Alzheimer’s-stricken father while the wife wants to take their daughter out of the country to get a good education. As many couples are, both are wrapped up in deeply meaningful yet incompatible campaigns of engagement. From that tense beginning, the plot quickly grows much more complicated when a hired daycare-giver and her husband get involved, and we see the plot unravel through the eyes of two children. The point the filmmaker makes being that the parental commitments and engagements  are the context in which the two girls learn how to be human, so of course it is only natural that they pick up the ways of their parents.

The film plays against the background of modern, urban life in Iran, suggesting that the whole country is torn in its engagements, everyone living a solitary life without hope of relief. Chaos in Iran much as it lies at the heart of NASA’s false-color Orion nebula.

It was the best of films, it was the worst of films because so powerfully engaging. When I woke up the day after, I ran through the plots of Shakespearian plays, of Virgil leading Dante through the windings of hell, of Don Quixote’s endless troubles, of the Iliad and Odyssey, of extant Greek drama. Deep affection decaying to ruin and misery—we love it and always have as a reminder to stick to the straight and narrow. It’s like having a Greek chorus wending in the background, reminding us that they’d warned us from the beginning not to get involved.

But, invariably, we do get involved or engaged. We have no choice but to live our lives in the now, not to hearken to some mythical order of the past as it has become fixed in our minds as the way it’s supposed to be. But foolishly we commit much of our time to rebuilding the past as we imagine it was rather than facing into the novelty each day presents as a sure sign the future will be something other than we have ever known.

In the film, the arbiter is a hectored magistrate who is to decide the fate of the conflicted father, mother, and daughter. Is the girl to go with the mother in hopes of getting a better (non-Iranian) education, or is she to stick with her father in performing the ritual duties imposed by the past in caring for a member of an earlier generation? Is the Orion nebula to be locked into an earlier stage of its evolution, or is it to unfold as a nursery for young stars—with all the chaos that will stir up in its corner of the universe?

Put differently, will Israel strive to live up to a myth codified in the seventh century B.C. during the Babylonian captivity, or will it acknowledge that modern times have moved beyond the point where that might even be possible because the so-called holy land is no longer what it once was? Will the peoples of Palestine graciously step aside and make room for the Jews as a fact of modern life?

The problem being—in Orion and elsewhere—that everything is shifting, changing, moving on at every moment, and we have the choice of mooring our lives to a fixed myth of how they should be lived—or of getting with the universal program of change and evolution built on the ruins of the past, while opening onto an ever-new vision of reality each day of our lives.

Are we educable or stuck clinging to a version of the past that never was? Can we accommodate to a future we have never imagined, or must the truth conform to what we already believe?

To grow into the future, a birch tree must tear its own bark to let its cambium layer expand in meeting the needs of a hungrier tree. Baby stars in the Orion nebula condense from and feed on the universal clouds of dust that preceded them. To live is to die to the selves we were yesterday. If we live in the past, we become dead to the present as husks of who we once were.

Engagement requires a commitment to the events of today, not a recommitment to how it was yesterday. To be alive is to move with our times, not against them. If we opt not to keep up, we fall behind, leaving the universe to go on without us.

Imagine discovering peoples on Mars living according to scriptures set down some 1,400 or 1,900 or 2,600 years ago, commemorating ancient events as if they were current. What would we make of them? In each case, creatures of the lost lagoon, in denial that anything of note has happened since their cultural clocks stopped so long ago.

Meanwhile, the Orion nebula just keeps doing its thing, changing into a new form as dictated by the forces acting upon it today.

If we cannot fit ourselves to the flow of days and events bearing upon us, can we claim to be alive to today? Consuming Earth’s limited resources to live in the past is a luxury our planet and its peoples cannot afford. Yes, we are reluctant to let go of past ways, but at the same time are aware of being drawn forward in spite of our yearnings and attachments. That’s life—for Orion, for birch trees, for characters in films, and for us. But if we elect to hold on when we need to let go—to separate from the selves we once were—we are in deep trouble having consequences for everyone around us.

Loops of engagement fit us to the now, not the then. If we use them to cling to the past, we are moving backwards, not forward. When entire cultures dedicate themselves to keeping the past alive, they embed themselves in amber as fossils in a cardboard box on the shelves of a museum storeroom.

Do you smell something musty in the air?

Well, that’s where I am today. The question is, where are you?  Y’rs truly, –Steve


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