Being married to a Frenchwoman, I’ve had many occasions over the years to visit Paris. While there, I spend a lot of time in cafes and museums, but if I had to quantify it, I’ve probably spent more time in the metro than anywhere else. Over the years, I’ve noticed a lot of changes : the smell of stale urine is no longer as prevalent, the trains are more frequent, and the precise waiting times are now displayed on a digital board. Apart from the time when I was late for the airport, I haven’t experienced a major delay. Given the number of hours I’ve spent being shuttled through the labyrinthine arteries that flow below the city, I find this quite remarkable. In some ways, it’s a great blessing to be able to rely on the system. But in others respects, it’s a shame, since as long as it functions, I don’t tend to notice how a whole host of complex and interdependent elements are responsible for the simple action of getting on a train.
If the metro comes, I usually don’t think of how the electricity that powers the train got there, nor the history of how humans discovered how to manipulate and generate it. I don’t consider the countless hours or the people involved in the manufacture and maintenance of the cars. I don’t consider that the system was a result of conscious decisions to place the stations in their locations. I’m not immediately aware of the alarm clock that woke the driver up or the million other factors that had to come together for me to sit down in the train.
It’s only when the train doesn’t arrive that I begin to speculate on the million reasons why it hasn’t. The moment of breakdown, rather than being a hindrance, can actually be a great blessing, since it has the potential to reveal the interconnection that was always there but had previously gone unnoticed.
Like the punctual arrival of the train, I tend to take other things for granted, most notably my body. As long as my body functions properly, I remain largely unaware of the way in which it exists, forgetting that its breakdown is inevitable. Death is the ultimate breakdown, towards which we’re all inexorably marching.
On some level, most of us know how precious this ephemeral existence is, but death makes you acutely aware of how short your dance on this planet truly is. When people come close to death or lose others, most completely revise their priorities, often reporting that they intend to dedicate their limited time to cultivating and deepening meaningful, loving personal relationships.
Mortality wakes us up to the way in which our bodies work. Given the number of possible things that could go wrong, it is a miracle we continue to exist day after day
And if we look closely at the way in which our bodies run, we’ll find something else we’re not normally aware of: on every level, we owe that existence to other people.
When I shovel a plate of food into my mouth, I’m usually not thinking about the people who grew my food, or the people who taught me how to eat. When I go pee, I’m usually not thinking about the people who invented and installed the city’s sewer system, nor of the people who spent years training me to go in the right place. Drinking, walking, speaking: I had to learn all of these behaviors from others, who in turn learned it from others.
Reflecting this way completely destroys the impression that ‘I’ am doing something, since the ‘I’ that does anything owes its existence to so many elements outside of itself.
Like getting on the metro, it’s not necessary to be aware of the enormous web of causes and conditions that allow me to exist. I can still enjoy a tasty dinner without thanking the countless others, past and present, who participated in the meal.
Some would say that these types of reflections get in the way of enjoying life’s pleasures, but I find just the opposite. Reflecting like this heightens my sense of wonder, expanding what it means to be present. It also tends to make waiting for the metro a bit more interesting than it would be otherwise.