The Curious Case of Benjamin Money Tree

Back in November of 2014, I posted a picture of Benjamin, my money tree, on my Facebook page.

Benjamin Nov2014 20170304_204417
Benjamin in November 2014

I was sad that one of Benjamin’s five braided plants had died, but the sadness had soon turned to excitement when I realized that the remaining four plants were sprouting new leaves and thriving. It prompted a moment of reflection for me, reminding me of the different cycles of life and the old making way for the new.

Over two years later, in March 2017, I was sad to find that Benjamin was not doing too well again. Two of the four remaining plants in the braid had died, and the last two were completely bare except for a few weak leaves on the top.

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Benjamin in March 2017.

A few months ago, I had changed the soil and moved Benjamin to a larger pot thinking that it would rejuvenate him, but he didn’t respond well to the change and showed a steady decline in health ever since. =(

As I sat there pondering what to do next, I was reminded of another money tree I had many years ago. My dad had given it to me as a gift when I started law school. It did well for a while, then started drying up even though I was watering it diligently. As one of the rare gifts I received from my dad, I didn’t want to give up on it, so as a last resort I took it to a nearby nursery where a really nice guy helped me out. It turned out that the plant’s roots had been encased in a small plastic box inside the pot, so the roots were hardly getting any water. Once the plastic was removed, the plant sprang back to life almost in a matter of days.

The first lesson I’m learning is that I apparently do not have much of a green thumb.

The second more important lesson is one about perspective, and also attachment; I used to make fun of people who obsess about their pets and usher them around in strollers like they were babies, but now there I was obsessing about a plant (again)!

Once we humans decide we care about something, the attachment that we sometimes develop can warp our perceptions and distort the importance that something or someone has relative to the rest of our lives or the world. Sure, every single life is precious, whether it’s a sentient animal or a plant, but every life will also eventually end. It’s foolish to glorify any single life beyond proportion, and futile to cling onto it in the face of death.

All this to say that maybe my beloved Benjamin’s time had come, and I should let him go in peace. But part of me still said I should keep trying to save him like I did with the other plant. So I gave Benjamin a lot of love and attention, but alas it was time for him to go after all, and I resigned to putting his limp remains into the trash can a few weeks later.

I had actually started writing this blog post around March 2017 shortly before Benjamin died. Circling back to this now, the question I wanted to ask remains the same – in these moments where something or someone seems to be dying, when should we keep pushing and fighting for life, and when should we surrender to death with grace?

Thankfully, Benjamin was ‘just’ a house plant, but the question becomes much harder when a human being is involved. My grandmother, for instance, is in her late 80s and has had Alzheimers for about 7-8 years now. She has lived in a hospice for many years and can barely speak a full sentence or recognize her family members. Yet, her body has been kept alive all these years by an extensive regimen of medication and treatments, all while her mind wastes away. As her granddaughter, of course I understand the desire to keep her alive as long as possible, but I seriously question Western medicine’s tendency to try to keep a body alive at all costs – costs, both financial and emotional, which are borne by her not-so-well-to-do grown children.

A very controversial and emotionally charged situation, indeed.

With a living being, at least there is the eventual finality and certainty of death, however long it may take to arrive. But what about other less certain deaths, like the death of a career or a relationship? How do we know when there is still a seed of hope and we should keep fighting to save or, or when all possibilities have died and we should move on?

I suppose this just boils down to the age-old question of fate versus free will. Paradoxically, I believe both in the fateful flow of this universe as well as our own power to direct it.  With Benjamin, the universe drew him into my life, and with my love and care his life waxed and waned, before finally succumbing to the universal call of death (for it truly is universal). It is both true that I affected and directed his life, and that the universe had him die at the destined time. It is a dance between what can be, what must be, and what is.

Seven months later, I look back at Benjamin’s life and my decision to accept his demise and put his dying body in the trash can. How many more living beings, relationships, projects, and dreams will I have to let go of in my lifetime?

I guess I won’t know until my dance with the universe is done.

Me, Myself, and I… and I… and I

I consider myself to be a perpetual student of life, always striving to learn, grow, and improve. There are huge benefits to that: excitement, novelty, and the deeply satisfying feeling of making progress in one’s own life.

There is a downside to that as well, however. Sometimes, I discover so many different nooks and crannies within myself, and sometimes I change so suddenly and unpredictably that it can be quite disorienting and scary. I am like those Russian dolls, where I keep opening up a new layer only to discover another unfamiliar face staring back at me.

As I constantly strive to grow and improve, that inevitably entails a lot of change and I find myself wondering – who is the true Lyna? Am I shedding the “untrue” parts of me to reach my eventual core true self (whatever that may be), or am I at any given moment just a temporary confluence of characteristics, all subject to change at any time?

They say what differentiates the human species is that we are aware of being aware. I think about myself being aware of myself, being further aware of myself, and I can just picture my brain cascading into itself, like the different worlds in the movie Inception. Or a snake that’s eating its own tail… I think that’s enough of a head trip for tonight.

It may sound banal, but I actually think there’s nothing more significant in this universe than the fact that we are aware of being aware. Without that awareness, we would be like plants and animals, existing and living but not aware that we exist and live. And if we are not aware that we exist and live, then we might as well not exist and live because there would be no way of knowing it…

Maybe that core awareness or consciousness is as close to a definition of “true self” as we will ever get. Maybe if we all just keep chipping away at ourselves to reach our core truth, there will eventually be nothing left but an invisible, intangible awareness, an energy that is there and also everywhere.

That would mean that everything else in our personal identities is impermanent, malleable, and ultimately meaningless. Our gender, ethnicity, personality traits, and even our physical bodies would just be window dressing for what we truly are inside.

I find that incredibly terrifying and liberating at the same time.

 

 

Mutual Reality

 

What is “Reality,” and how do we define it? Does absolute reality exist independent of our observations? And how do we coexist in society if our personal realities conflict?

A year or two ago, I was fascinated to learn about the double-slit experiment, which sought to determine the fundamental nature of matter and whether it consisted of waves or discrete particles.

In the experiment, first carried out by Thomas Young in the early 1800’s, light (a form of matter) was sent through a wall with two narrow slits. Behind the wall was another wall which captured the light coming through the slits. The experiment showed that when light went through the two slits, it behaved like waves, with the light from each slit interfering with the other and creating a rippled pattern on the back wall.

Double-Slit Experiment - light as waves

This in itself was not too surprising. However, the real shock came when a measurement device was set up to determine exactly how the light went through the two slits. When observed in this way, the light then behaved like particles, passing straight through the two slits.

Double-Slit Experiment - light as particles

In conclusion, experimenters found that matter behaved both like waves and like particles, and the mere act of observation could change it from waves to particles. This finding revolutionized the field of quantum mechanics and still remains unexplained today, leaving in place large unanswered questions about the nature of matter and whether objective reality even exists.

The fact that our observations can change the nature of matter calls into question everything we perceive to be real in this world. This phenomenon, also called the observer’s effect, suggests that what is “real” is whatever we perceive to be real, and there is no objective reality independent of our observation.

If this doesn’t send your mind into a tailspin, I don’t know what will.

Most of us go about our days treating our personal realities as if they were the absolute reality, and indeed society would fall apart if we all went about questioning the existence or truth of everything. At the same time, that is what causes people to live in alternate and conflicting realities, even as they share the same households, religions, or socio-economic status.

We humans are a social, relational creature, and we are constantly organizing and labeling ourselves in ways that both unite and divide. But right now, the sense of division is at an all-time high in the world, both in my home country, the United States, and my birth country, South Korea.

In both countries, political divisions have become so heated and so deeply personal as to become an epic battle over reality itself.  Each side is so fiercely entrenched in their own version of reality that they cannot see anything from the perspective of the other. In such a divided environment, how can we ever find common ground for people to work and live together?

I think the greatest source of hope lies in the very phenomenon that gives rise to this conflict; if our perceptions dictate our realities, and we can choose what we perceive, then we can always choose to perceive in ways that harmonize and don’t conflict with the others.

Double-Slit Experiment - light as particles Dems Repubs

Easier said than done, I know, but I think the mere awareness of this choice alone will radically change the way we relate to each other. If we don’t pay attention to the differing versions of reality and talk at each other in a messy undiscerning environment, all we will get is a chaos of waves and ripples with conflicting and interfering beliefs. But if we take a moment to see through the lens – or the slit – that the others are seeing through, maybe we will find an orderly procession of thoughts and beliefs that can run parallel to each other, even if they never coincide or merge.

Differences among people are inevitable, and therefore a certain level of conflict is also inevitable. But the same exact thing can be said for similarities and harmony, and it’s up to each of us to decide what to focus on.

At the intersection of our differing truths is a mutual truth, or mutual reality, a common ground upon which we can find mutually beneficial solutions to our problems. That is my truth, and that is how I choose to see it. Venn Diagram - My and Your Truths