Anyone who spends time with children or teens knows that they sometimes say the most profound things, perhaps without actually meaning to. It’s as though their eyes can see the world in ways no longer possible for those of us who have fully conformed to conventional ways of thinking, those of us who no longer see the ordinary magic that surrounds us.
Each year I am reminded of this ordinary magic when I take my students on a three-day camping field trip. Even though it’s the most exhausting and stressful thing I do – imagine being responsible for 30 teens for 72 hours – I know that their experiences at camp will be what they remember for the rest of their lives. They come back to school each year to tell me so.
There is nothing extraordinary about the camping field trip. They canoe, complete a high ropes course and engage in various teamwork challenges. But it’s what happens to them in between these activities that they remember most of all.
In teenspeak it’s called bonding. And, as in all words that teens repurpose, its meaning goes beyond what may conventionally come to mind, of two or more things being fused together.
When I first heard the term I had to ask a lot of questions before I fully understood what it meant. Teens don’t always articulate clearly the full meaning of what they’re trying to express.
Bonding, I learned, is what happens when they stay up all night (despite my best efforts to discourage this) talking to each other. The topics of these talks range from the silly to the sublime but no matter where they begin, they end in a deeper understanding of each other. They get to this place of understanding when they learn how much they have in common with each other; how so many of them have similar struggles, the same concerns and worries. They learn that they’re more alike than not, that their families and circumstances are similar despite cultural divides. It’s this deep understanding of each other that leads them to experience what they call bonding.
Scientists would have a different way of describing these “bonds”, the ties that bind us to each other.
Neil deGrasse Tyson says it’s the most astounding fact – that we are all not only “bonded” to each other but indeed that we are “bonded” to the whole universe:
“Recognize that the very molecules that make up your body, the atoms that construct the molecules, are traceable to the crucibles that were once the centers of high mass stars that exploded their chemically rich guts into the galaxy, enriching pristine gas clouds with the chemistry of life. So that we are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically. That’s kinda cool! That makes me smile and I actually feel quite large at the end of that. It’s not that we are better than the universe, we are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us.”
Christmas is a perfect time to consider this most astounding fact about our existence.
Consider that our biological connection to each other extends far beyond the family with whom we share the Christmas meal. It can be traced all the way back, through thousands of generations, to our first home in Africa. The food we eat during this time of feasting connects us to the earth chemically and those chemicals themselves are the result of the atoms spewed by stars into the universe.
Science has long provided the evidence for this most astounding fact. Why then do we live each day oblivious of it?
If we walked through our days acting on this fact, we would not still be engaged in debates about whether we should protect our environment or not. Engaging in such debates is akin to wondering whether we should protect our bodies from the cold or whether we should breathe air free of smoke.
If the education of our children was based on this fact, we would radically change what we call school and would do all that we could to prepare our children to survive through the age of climate change.
If we shaped our economic activities based on this fact, any action that could lead to the poisoning of waterways, the pollution of airsheds and the extinction of species would not only be rejected but not conceived of in the first place.
If our individual and collective decisions, whether political, social or economic were based on this fact, we would be living in a far different world, one where consumption was not cancerous, one without poverty or pollution, one where peace was more than a pipe dream.
We would be living in the kind of world we wish for each other in the greeting cards we exchange at this time of year.
At this time of celebration of family and of joyful feasting, I hope we will pause to consider this most astounding fact and that we then resolve to act on it in the new year.