When we zoom in and focus on a single person’s life, it appears to us as a series of discrete moments. Each person is born. She encounters her childhood, learning from each experience. He moves through adolescence, developing his sense of independence and individuality. They grow into adulthood, perhaps having children of their own. They mature, they age, they die. Each of these moments is its own story, with the individual as the protagonist.
When we step back and take in the life of our planet over the course of its history, it appears to us as the ebb and flow of patterns — the rise and fall of landscapes and creatures over eons. Flourishing leads to extinction leads to flourishing. Warm periods lead to cold times lead back to warm. Spring leads to summer, to fall, to winter and back again. When we step back even further and take in the history of our universe, we see stars born, growing, dying. Supernova becomes nebula, the birthplace of new stars. Patterns repeat themselves, beyond time that can be reasonably comprehended by the human mind.
From our macroscopic viewpoint, the components of matter such as protons, neutrons, and electrons seem to be particles. We talk about them like the bricks and mortar that we use to construct a building: one atom of carbon is made of 6 protons, 6 neutrons, and 6 electrons. We connect atoms to create molecules, we connect molecules to create substances, and we combine substances to create the world through which we all move.
At the ultra-microsopic level, electrons and other particles exhibit some properties of waves, scattering, bending, and overlapping like waves of light. Scientists describe each particle as having a corresponding wave function, which is more difficult to detect the larger the object. In fact, all objects can be described with wave functions, including our own bodies and all the entities around us. This seeming paradox is called the wave-particle duality, and it forms part of the foundation of the scientific theory of quantum mechanics.
The stuff of our universe is neither fully a particle nor completely a wave. Life is neither fully the collection of one creature’s moments nor solely the repeating patterns of untold time. In each case, it is both. Moment and pattern. Particle and wave. They are complementary ways of understanding that which is incomplete on its own.
In the United States, we love the individual story, the individual moment. We love the concreteness of the object that we can hold in our hands, or at least experience and measure directly. To value something in our super-capitalist economy, we must be able to count it, weigh it, and control it. Things and people are worth what we can extract from them. This obsession with measured worth has led us down dangerous paths, where we exchange the intrinsic, evanescent value of all beings around us for the illusion of security and permanence we get from the things we believe that we own. We reach and try to grasp what we can hold as individuals or families, rather than considering the benefit of the larger group, the society, the collective.
This paradox of particle and wave is the tension we feel between the individual and the collective. In this country, we have overturned the balance toward the side of the individual — the particle — and away from the collective — the wave. We must find our way back toward a balance between, an integration of, these two ways of existence. We must let the seeming paradox guide us to an acceptance that we are not one or the other. We do not alternate between one and the other. We are both — simultaneously.
Jim Schwartz is an Oak Park resident, an educator, and a blogger at Entwining.org.