When we are first introduced to Captain Sisko, then Commander, in the Star Trek franchise Deep Space 9, we meet a grim and bitter man who has never forgiven the universe, especially Captain Picard, that his wife died at the battle field of Wolf 359 leaving him and his son. And yet the Prophets, the local gods of Bajor, choose him to be their emissary. But before he can fulfill his destiny, he has to let go of the past and move forward. During this process the Prophets and Sisko spin out a conversation on the linearity of human existence:
“You claim you do not know the consequences.
Then how can you take responsibility for your actions?”
“You try to anticipate, to set a strategy for all possibilities, but in the end it comes down to throwing one pitch after the other and seeing what happens. With each new consequence the game begins to take shape.”
“And you have no idea what that shape that is until the game is complete.”
“We are explorers. We explore our lives day by day, constantly searching not only for answers, but for new questions.”
It’s a great explanation of humanness and a hat-tip to the original idea of Star Trek, the reason I love(d) it so in the first place.
Then the scene returns once again to the spaceship at Wolf 359 and the prophets ask:
“If all this is true why do you exist here?”
“I was ready to die with her
I never left this ship.”
“You exist here.”
“I exist here.”
“None of you past experience has prepared you for this consequence.”
“And I have never figured out how to live without her.”
“So you choose to exist here. It is not linear.”
Each time he closes his eyes Sisko sees his beloved lying in the wreckage of the spaceship, dead. Ostensibly life goes on in it’s linear nature, he goes through the motions of raising his son and doing his work, but really he is stuck in the same loop a shadow of his former self. The difference between action and motion is that through action we shape the game. Motion lets us pretend to play.
For Sisko this scene is a turning point, he realizes that he must learn to live in spite of the consequences, to throw the ball once again and let the game take shape. What shape, is shown in the following 175 episodes of this epic.
Another epic, and please forgive me for the slightly blasphemous idea of comparing DS9 to the Gita, the Bhagavad Gita tells the story of Arjuna, who is faced with a similar loop. He sits on the edge of a battlefield on the opposite side sits family that has usurped his throne. He is a warrior and his duty points him to battle, but he refuses out of love for his family. Krishna through several chapters now teaches Arjuna the importance of playing the game of throwing the ball to make it take shape. He later reveals his divine nature and like the Prophets he sees time not linearly, but in it’s entirety. In chapter 11 Krishna reveals himself to Arjuna in his true form and Arjuna is fearful of the immense complexity that he sees, because Krishna is the whole universe. He sees for a moment the shape of the game and the part that he and his family on the opposite side play in it. He sees the complexity and the infinite possibilities of action he could take. He also sees that in the end all things perish, as is the nature of the universe.
Reductionism is a model to understand the world that states that a complex system can be described as the sum of its parts. As chemists we often joked that biology is nothing more than applied chemistry and then laughed at the pique of biologists. Of course physicist would do the same thing to us, stating that chemistry is just applied physics. By this logic you should be able to explain the emotions I feel watching Sisko let go of his wife’s death, or the at the beauty of the Gita, by the fundamental laws that govern subatomic particles. In reality though even here we stumble over a level of complexity that is hard for us to describe, making approximations necessary, just as we make approximations based on past experience to determine our actions in the everyday. The Gita, and Sisko’s speech above ask us to act in spite of not seeing the whole picture to trust in the Universe, the game taking shape, it is the other side of taking responsibility for our actions.
As humans we can only fully grasp the parts of the game that have already been played. We see bits and pieces of the game that is developing, maybe a few steps ahead of the current throw, seeing the batter brace for his swing. Sometimes, if we are lucky our intuition will show us a little more of the game and its overwhelming complexity. We might learn that the answer is 42, but not see the question. Yet it is our duty to play anyway, to take responsibility for our actions even if we don’t know the consequences.
Most of all it is our duty to act.
Why am I writing this? Because it is something I need to hear. I get so stuck in trying to anticipate the game and then dithering on the playing field and I need a call to action.