“Situational awareness” is a current concept of wide applicability - it’s “a thing”. It favors survival where one’s life is at stake, say in military matters or piloting aircraft. Otherwise, it may be simply of personal interest by way of examining one’s life at any level of context. Perhaps the game of chess makes the concept more manageable. A skilled player knows everything present and possible within the four corners of the board; the history of the progression of moves from the standard beginning, to all the possible moves which may come in the future. In chess, then, the master is situationally aware in a most comprehensive manner. The question arises whether this chess analogy scales up to one’s life at large?
Given the number of variables in both the world and an individual life, the answer is “No” (An aside: A few hours after writing thusly about chess, while re-reading “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”, I read therein a quote from Richard Feynman no less, making exactly the same analogy”! And, he adds, merely learning the rules of the game - the physical laws of the universe - does’t mean we can play; we just get to watch, he says). It is nonetheless instructive as a matter of approach, so it doesn’t mean that most of us don’t make at least intermittent efforts to make some sense of our lives in the context of our place in the world/universe in which we find ourselves with ever-improving knowledge. Science has brought within our ken an astounding number of phenomena and events of which our ancestors could scarcely guess. A curious, introspective individual in our times, then, has much to understand and correlate - should (s)he choose - to discover even a modicum of such situational awareness.
My present compulsive introspection comes In the wake of a miIld case of Covid, which has left me experiencing severe dyspnea and tachycardia with the mildest exertion. The Covid came on the heels of a month long bout of asthmatic bronchitis (probably RSV). I didn’t realize how serious this was until I climbed the stairs in my house quickly (I have habitually bounded up steps) the other day, to get something. Upon arrival in the bedroom I was so short of breath I thought I was dying. In my terror, I had trouble plugging in the oxygen concentrator kept next to my bed for just such emergencies. I got it plugged in and turned on and improved in about one minute of breathing oxygen. My oxygen sat at the outset was 93 (oximeter also kept handy - usually 97) and heart rate 125 (usually 70). Now, I do have coronary artery disease and had a stent in 2015. Before the stent, rather than presenting with angina, however, my coronary ischemia presented with dyspnea on exertion; this is referred to as an “angina equivalent”, where the inadequate blood supply to the myocardium results in an inability to pump sufficient blood per unit time - called “acute heart failure”. This, in turn, results in a back pressure in the pulmonary vasculature resulting in severe shortness of breath. If not promptly relieved, pulmonary edema and death can occur. Realizing my heart rate was so high, I put 10mg propranolol under my tongue to slow it along with some nitroglycerin. Within 5 minutes, my heart rate fell into the 90’s and I began to feel normal. All of which is by way of introducing the especially acute desire to improve situational awareness of my entire life.
Those who know me know I hardly need such reminders of my mortality; they know I spend some time most days thinking back on past events and trying to understand their meaning and context. This ongoing effort has been inadvertently augmented in the past few years by what seems to be a new mechanism of memory retrieval. I don’t know if these frequent memory events are due to old age (and associated storage overflow from accumulation of too many memories - some sort of “memory incontinence”- or maybe some brain pathology). For example, I happened to read about a mid air collision which occurred over Elizabeth NJ in the 1950’s, where I grew up. I then recall that the impact site was a few hundred yards from my junior high school. I then get a flood of memories of many teen events which happened at that school. None were dramatic, most ordinary, just part of growing up - like when new twin sisters from down South transferred into the school with charming Southern accents and pronounced words like “vee-hickle” (automobile), to the delight of the class. I have many such memories and associations these days which flood my awareness with little or no prompting. I suspect this was what Marcel Proust was describing in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu when he encountered the famous madeleine cookie. The unbidden appearance of such spontaneous memories is a remarkable, mysterious, and sometimes troubling experience. Most days, at least once, a thought - perhaps a memory, perhaps not - will suddenly intrude. Usually it is a sudden, unbidden fear I have omitted to do something or that I have done something wrong. These fears may or may not have any basis in reality. The point is they pop up out of nowhere. The related medical term which describes their sharp, penetrating character is “lancinating”.
For some time as well, I have imagined that I might, with increasing age and further cognitive decline, lose some of my intense attachment to life, thereby reducing my fear of death. I have, for instance, noticed a certain apathy set in to some people I have known with advancing age. I don’t know if this is realistic or even desirable as I imagine - thinking I might adjust and become more willing to loosen my tenacious attachment to life. Of course, this doesn’t relate much to sudden death, as I feared was happening the other day; rather it applies to living through the extended decline of a fatal disease, which takes some time. Interspersed with such musings are questions of whether I have made the best use of my talents over the course of my life; second guessing how I have used the abilities I may have.
I am presently re-reading (I do a lot of this, given the paucity of non-preachy, non-woke science fiction nowadays, especially given my inability to remember the details of what I have read of late) Influx, by Daniel Suarez. Part of the plot describes some geniuses who do not follow a safe career path and manage - without “credentials” to create novel inventions which literally change the world. Though I was always at or near the top of my class, I was no genius. I did have potential, though. At my father’s urging, I went into medicine. He had lived through and was largely informed by his experience of the Depression. He told me “doctors and their families always eat.” Complaining of his intrusive “encouragement” (bordering on bullying) all the way, and unknown even to myself back then, I actually shared all the same fears and economic insecurities - but lacked the self-awareness to know it. Now, having retired from a moderately successful 40+ year career as an anesthesiologist (I also graduated law school and was admitted to the bar, but I barely ever practiced), I ask myself if I might have done more, done better. For example, engineering was a discipline of which I knew noting as a kid. Now that I understand what it is, I realize I might well have had some talent there. I always had the interest in solving physical/mechanical problems. Alas, the road not taken. It does make me wonder, nonetheless, what might possibly have been. Fortunately, I don’t dwell on it.
Any effort at individual biography begins at the beginning; “I was born at this place and that time” and am now this old and live here”. I will die before the Earth has revolved around the sun less than 100 times, likely less. Similarly, to explore context in the broadest sense, I look to cosmology, which similarly begins with birth - “The Big Bang” - around 13 billion years ago, as best we know; the universe - a sparse confection, to be sure - is expanding, we learned recently, at an ever-increasing rate and in some billions of years will, itself, undergo either a heat death or a cold death - take your pick, but the final death of conscious creatures is all that needs concern us here (for an imaginative alternative ending, see The Final Question by Isaac Asimov). Among the remaining near-infinite questions as to situational awareness, an inquisitive human might ask, then, is how does one self-conscious, brief flash of a human life interface with this unfolding universe? Is the existence of a single human being anything more than a quantum fluctuation in the zero point field? What would the “Grand Chess Player in the Sky” observe happening on the chess board on which the flicker of my life moves among the other pieces? What can I even know of it from my senses and reason which - epistemologically - is not Revelation from somewhere on high?
As an Aristotelian, I am bound by time and causation. I find it necessary to perceive all - especially my own life - as having a beginning, a middle and an end. Rightly or wrongly, I impute the same concept to the universe as a whole. This is the only framework in which I can even begin to conceptualize it. In that regard, durations and distances extend orders of magnitude beyond my ability to even conceive; all I can do is notate them correctly, in the abstract, to something plus or minus a few orders of magnitude. I can’t really conceptualize the universe or its evolution over time. I can barely imagine a universe where - if the proton of a hydrogen atom were represented by a baseball, the electron “shell” (or its probability function, more correctly) would be about 3 km distant. I have no physical sense which shows or tells me the sheer enormity of empty space between subatomic particles which, if my body were to contact such “vacant” matter with any momentum at all, it will destroy the integral arrangement of the stuff that is me and kill me (that same empty space constitutes my subjectively solid physical being, as well). Until recently, no one had a clue that such is the nature of physical reality or that there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches/oceans on Earth. We have learned so much about the universe that even this fact is no longer surprising!
All of which is yet more perspective for the increasingly urgent musings which characterize me, the late septuagenarian, contemplating the end of my existence. As the edge of the known universe recedes, so does my lifelong goal of grasping a theory of everything - some synthesis, some gestalt, which is comprehensive, satisfying and internally consistent - the ultimate situational awareness. I once believed I could ‘get it’ before my end. No longer.
In old age, I find a puzzling mental turnabout has taken place. Witness to many of the scientific discoveries since my childhood beginning at the end of WWII, somehow, I took this avalanche of new understanding as merely a matter of course. I experienced no sense of wonder or awe as science adumbrated ever more of reality which both comprised me biologically and physically surrounded me. The universe appeared external to and separate from me. One might say I was born jaded; a blasé emotionally - unmovable observer. Now, however, much of my perception of reality - whether it be the size scale from Planck length to billions of light years - has become filled with awe, wonder and a great sense of mystery. Mystery particularly imbues my perception of life and consciousness.
For example, there is something about my knowing the complete biography of others who have died - whether they be relatives, friends or acquaintances - that leaves me with a sense of puzzlement. Specifically, the fact of their deaths - that that person’s existence has ended - their story told completely, in some sense gives me an overview of their entire lives; there is nothing about that life to yet be experienced. It has closed out. This may simply be ineffable, but something about knowing the beginning, middle (however incompletely) and the ending of a life, leaves me with a sense of wonder. This, of course, is an awareness of myself I will never have. One of the things which so troubles me about my own death is the fact that I will not get to experience it, mull it over, try to figure it out (that ‘situational awareness’ again) and report back on it - as I do with every other experience of my life; this ability is, perhaps, the hallmark of my life. I will also not get to know the future of humanity, the Earth or the still hidden wonders of physical reality. Are there other self-aware creatures out there? How did first life arise? Does random mutation and natural selection really result in new body form/new species, as opposed to merely modifications within species? Is this all a simulation? Leaving without knowing answers to these big questions, particularly, grieves me.
I have an even greater sense of mystery about my parents, grandparents, and unknown ancestors generations removed. I try to imagine the hardships my ancestors survived to live long enough to have children in a primitive and brutal world. I especially wish I knew more of the lives of my grandparents, who emigrated from Russia/Ukraine around the turn of the 20th century. As a child, I did ask them questions about their early lives, but I learned precious little, not really even enough dots to connect to get an image of their lives. They barely remembered their grandparents’ names. To some extent, my understanding of the context of my life is mediated or framed by knowing the life stories of of the people who were my own genetic lineage.
Ancillary to my aforementioned jadedness, somehow I was incapable of missing my grandparents as the young adult I was when they died. I surely do miss them now, however, and sorely wish I could spend hours learning all I could about their lives. While all I have of them are some fragile old photos, persistent modern media will allow our descendants to see and hear us many generations into the future. I am sufficiently taken with this idea, that I am a first-round investor in FOREVER.COM, a company which guarantees stored media will be available in whatever is the dominant format, for the life of the subscriber plus 100 years; they actually aim for a lot longer than that. My inner entrepreneur hopes there are enough people like me, who think about and value their descendants, to make this venture a success. I believe the ability to look back many generations and, perhaps, to see and hear elements of one’s self (physical resemblances or mannerisms) in ancestors, may have a significant impact on their own situational awareness - their own sense of belonging to the generations of the human family. My sense of this as a phenomenon arose when I saw an old photo of my paternal grandfather, Abraham, as a young man. In that photo, I saw a striking resemblance to my then 4 year-old son, Jonathan.
I wonder whether I lived out the best career path given my talents. Did I in effect, betray a higher calling, foregoing possibly more meaningful achievement for the sake of safety and security as my dad insisted I do? The safety of my course is also revealed by my remaining squarely within my comfort zone as a clinician. I avoided any effort to involve myself in departmental or hospital politics. I did not do so because of a lack of interest. No, I was interested in how things worked and had lots of ideas as to process improvements which might have been made. Rather, I stayed on the sidelines out of fear - fear of the internecine power struggles which are part of every organization and institution. I had no stomach for failure or defeat. That fear kept me in the clinic, where, in fairness, I must say I was dedicated and always did my very best.
As my aforementioned lineage is a window on the context of my humanity, awareness of my situation in the abstraction that is the universe, is mediated in a practical sense by my role as a citizen of the US during the course of my life. Here, too, I find recourse to the notion of betrayal of higher purpose. While as to myself, I merely have some question of whether that may have occurred, as to the US, it is sadly, a certainty. I have an overwhelming belief that, once the last, best hope for humanity, the US has so corrupted what once Constituted it, that it has degenerated into an autocratic, tyrannical system, rotten from the top down. Elites with no principles whatsoever pursue only power and control for their own sake. Given some familiarity with history, I cannot believe this will correct itself. Having fully betrayed its promise, the US is in the process of dissolution. I hope, for the sake of my children and grandchildren that its collapse will not be too violent.
Given the inherent myopia which results from interacting with the world and the universe beyond - largely via the inter-mediation of a self-betraying, collapsing nation state in 21st century Earth then, it seems a short conceptual leap (over a very, very long time) to envisage the ultimate triumph of entropy and bleak end of everything. Prior to Nietzsche’s trumpeting the arrival of modernity, such pessimistic endings were both unknown and irrelevant. Mercifully for them, our ancestors prior to that time mostly understood that purpose, meaning and endurance were baked into God’s Universe; that their individual lives - however difficult - were part of a greater whole. Though offset by greater material insecurities back then, such spiritual certainties likely offered a certain counterbalancing comfort. It may or may not be that human self-awareness is but a way station of the universe becoming conscious, but that possibility gives me little comfort.
I came into awareness with an ineffable longing for comfort, belonging and meaning; a modest optimism in a hopeful land of opportunity. For as long as I recall, I have had many burgeoning questions. I got some answers as to the nature of reality as I created a family and made my way in the world economically, emotionally and intellectually. I approach leaving that awareness deprived of my former optimism. This deep pessimism results from betrayal of the principles - Natural Law if you will - in pursuit of the very raw power whose exercise the Founders tried and failed to prevent. I leave heavy-hearted, with a modified set of questions and no answers to the Big Questions. I will continue to ask to the very end. There is no alternative.