Kenny A. Chaffin
All Rights Reserved © 2013 Kenny A. Chaffin
A poet ought not to pick nature's pocket.
Let him borrow, and so borrow as to repay
by the very act of borrowing…and trust more
to the imagination than the memory.
-- Samuel Taylor Coleridge
You begin your existence as a single gelatinous cell deep in your mother’s body though you will have no understanding, no awareness of that existence for a number of years. That single cell from your mother along with a single strand of DNA from your father was assembled from proteins, nutrients and amino acids. Those things, like all things are made of atoms which have existed since their birth in the hearts of stars billions of years ago. Those atoms once brought into existence by those nuclear furnaces are extremely stable and extremely long-lived. Everything that we are and everything around us is made from those ancient atoms that are at billions of years old. The hydrogen in your body (mostly in molecular water) is as old as the universe itself having been formed shortly after the big bang. The other elements range from 7 – 12 billion years old and were created in first and second generation stars. First generation stars formed just after the birth of the universe 13.8 billion years ago. Second generation stars formed after many of the first generation exploded in supernovas spreading their atoms and remaining original gases into space. Our own sun is a third generation star made from the remains of those that have gone before as well as primordial hydrogen and helium. In something of a similar manner, when you die your proteins, amino acids and the atoms they are comprised of will return to the Earth from which they came to be reused by others or for other purposes such as trees, mountains, clouds or oceans. We are all borrowers. We borrow what we need while we are here. We live on borrowed bones that someday must be returned.
That original single cell that was you did what all cells do, with no direction from you or from your mother; it conscripted atoms from its environment and incorporated them into itself. It grew, divided to become two cells, then four and eight, all using those atoms from long-dead stars. As an adult your body is constantly replacing itself. They say that all the cells in your body are replaced every decade or so. That being the case, how is it that ‘you’ continue to exist? Clearly it is not the physical cells that are you. Even brain cells which are the seat of awareness and consciousness are replaced over time despite the urban myth to the contrary. What is it then that is you or me? Is life an illusion? Are we nothing more than ambulatory repositories for selfish genes as Dawkins argued decades ago? Would life be any different if we were?
Just as the features of your face, your skin color and texture does not change when its cells are replaced neither does your experience of self – your self-awareness -- when your brain cells are replaced. Certainly injuries to the brain can change this, just as a bodily injury can change your appearance. Brain injuries can of course cause you to become someone else or even become unaware of yourself, but under normal circumstances even though all your cells may be replaced, you are still you.
Your facial features, the color of your eyes, those freckles on your skin as well as your brain cells and their connections are maintained by your bodily processes in a constant battle against entropy (the tendency of things to fall apart, lose energy, etc.). New cells replace old cells and are copies of the cells they replace. Skin cells die and flake off. Internal cells such as those responsible for the color of your eyes, die and are carried off by the blood stream or are broken down into their constituent proteins and amino acids and carried off or reused in place. This is all done in a manner that maintains that physical arrangement that defines your features, your body. It’s that pattern, that arrangement, that relationship between cells and proteins that makes your body what it is and makes you who you are. Your consciousness, your self-awareness, your mind is an arrangement as well. It is a pattern of connected brain cells and their neuronal firings that begin long before you are aware. You are a pattern of information, a process of your brain that is maintained by your body’s homeostasis. All the cells, atoms, neurons and neurotransmitters in your brain can be replaced individually and as long as the replacement maintains the original pattern you will still be you. If on the other hand the replacement is faulty like with Alzheimer’s disease then we begin to change. We become someone else or we lose a part of ourselves.
Each of us is only on this Earth for a short time; we arise from the atoms around us, driven by unique information in our DNA. Our bodies are arrangements, patterns built from the information contained in our DNA. We learn, we become, and we are those dynamic arrangements built of borrowed bones, borrowed atoms, neurons and neuronal firings in our brains. We are borrowers. We borrow atoms to build and repair our bodies for the time we are here and when we are done we return them for others to use over and over and over again.
Big Bang Nucleosynthesis:
About the Author
Kenny A. Chaffin writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction and has published poems and fiction in Vision Magazine, The Bay Review, Caney River Reader, WritersHood, Star*Line, MiPo, Melange and Ad Astra and has published nonfiction in The Writer, The Electron, Writers Journal and Today’s Family. He grew up in southern Oklahoma and now lives in Denver, CO where he works hard to make enough of a living to support two cats, numerous wild birds and a bevy of squirrels. His poetry collections No Longer Dressed in Black and The Poet of Utah Park and his collection of science essays How do we Know are available at Amazon.com: