the symmetry and asymmetry of life


‘Symmetry leads to economy, and nature, like human beings, seems to prefer economy.’*

‘The only essential is this: the gift must always move. … There are other forms of property that stand still, that mark the boundary or resist momentum, but the gift keeps going.”**

I found myself playing with ideas when I read these two things earlier.  Here’s what happened.

I am no mathematician, but neither do I need to be for the equation of a circle with radius R as R:x²+y²=R² to be true.  As I’m thinking about this, I’m interrupted and feel some mild irritation.  I notice this and tell myself its okay.  I return to the maths, but while I’ve been away in my thoughts, nothing has changed.  Even when the axes change to w and z, the maths stay the same: w²+z²=R2.

Then I notice my “to do” list is building up, and the symmetry of maths which would exist without any of us being here, does not help me with the asymmetry that consciousness, especially the human kind, introduces.

This symmetry we see in the natural order of things has evolved to minimise energy: bees form their hexagonal cells because it not only allows many bees to work simultaneously on their design with no wasted space, but it also reduces their energy output for wax to eight ounces of honey to one ounce of wax.*

Humans then come along with the ability to focus large amounts of energy on really difficult tasks, making it possible to overcome problems that should make us give up, if not wipe us out.

My natural tendency is to say “I can’t do this,” “I haven’t got enough resources,” “It’s too hard,” but I know I can put these thoughts aside, use up huge amounts of energy, and bring some asymmetry into existence.

Of course, it’s easier to do nothing, or as little as we can, but the human story suggests life is most meaningful when we get a little asymmetrical with it.

(*From Alan Lightman’s The Accidental Universe.)
(**From Lewis Hyde’s The Gift.)


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