“I thought I’d find you here, Len,” says Pierre, walking into the library. “What are you reading?” “‘King Lear’, father. Have you read it?” Len replies. “A long time ago, but yes,” Pierre nods and plops himself into a cushioned chair across from Len. “Well, what do you think of it?” he asks. “It confuses me, father,” Len’s eyes narrow, “but many plays of Shakespeare confuse me. The people seem driven by fear and desire, obsessed by loss and yet striving to acquire. What’s the point?”
“Ah, yes. I understand your reaction,” Pierre crosses his legs and leans back pensively. “Shakespeare, although he wrote his plays a very long time ago, understood our human predicament quite well. He and other thinkers described it wisely, but in the end that didn’t make much difference in the way human beings behave. People are very complicated and very confused. Still.”
“Do you think life has a purpose, father?” Len sets his book on his lap. “Are we here for a reason? Many of the books in this library try to answer this question, but the answers differ. “You would ask that question, wouldn’t you,” Pierre leans forward in his chair. “I can give you a few answers, some general and some particular.” “Please,” Len responds, his color shifting to ochre, “speak.”
“Well, first the general answers,” Pierre begins. “The living earth is a complex, adaptive system, self-regulating, with all sorts of feedback loops. Some believe, and I am one of them, that the earth itself exhibits a form of primordial intelligence. Nobody really knows how life began. It may even be that the universe is primordially intelligent, but that’s a different topic. Life arose many billions of years ago and has undergone evolutionary and radical change over time. Plants were the only life forms on earth for a billion years or so, bacteria, algae, and then more complex botanical life, with leaves, flowers, and seeds.”
“Animal life may have developed, or perhaps, split off, from the plant world. Animals and plants still share many cellular structures. Are you following me?” Len nods. “Ok. Both plants and animals consume substances to create energy sources that sustain life, but generally do that quite differently. Keep in mind, I’m speaking in general terms here. Plants use sunlight and atmospheric carbon dioxide to make their energy source, while animals consume plant and animal materials and combine it with oxygen to generate theirs. Plants release gas as a byproduct of energy production, oxygen. Animal release gas too, carbon dioxide. It’s a very clever system, a partnership; like I said, earth’s living system looks intelligent.”
“Animals also produce products of digestion from eating plant and animal matter: shit. And shit returns nutrients into soil and water that plants can use to support their growth. It’s all very neat and clean, in principle, this self-regulating, self-supporting life system. So, in general terms, scientifically, I can say the purpose of life is to support life, the living system. It’s that simple. Shall I continue?” “Yes, please,” Len, his colors shifting towards yellow, has his gaze fixed on Pierre.
“All right. Each of us are equally embedded in earth’s living system, but simultaneously are a particular individual. I suppose your question is about that; do you have a purpose, individually? This certainly is a theme in Shakespeare, individual purpose, and destiny. But Shakespeare merely poses the question; as you have discovered, providing the answer is something each of us confront as individuals, a matter of context and capacity. Follow me?”
“I think I understand so far, father,” Len says, now showing small spots of red. “So, what about me? Do I have a purpose?” At this, Pierre closes his eyes and falls silent. Of course, he has an answer for Len, but is torn about giving it, unsure of how Len will react to the story of his creation and how it fits into Pierre’s concerns about the future. “It’s complicated,” Pierre finally offers, “give me a minute.”
“Is there something you don’t want to tell me, father?” asks Len. “I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable. We can leave it for now if you’d prefer.” “Just give me a minute. I need to think,” Pierre’s face whitens visibly. “I’m thinking about where to start.”
“Look,” Pierre begins, “you know that you and I are different, we look different, anyway. I’m Homo sapiens and you are Homo botanicus. And you know that the others we raised together are green-skinned botanicus like you, not pale-skinned sapiens like me. Their green skin changes colors like yours, and none of you consume food for energy like I must. I was not grown in a placental tank like you all were. Your life so far has been spent here, in this house, with me. You can see the outside world, and have even spent time with others from outside, like Jacques Lehmann, but I’ve protected you from the bigger truth about the world and its people. I’ve even protected you from the full knowledge of yourself, or as you put it, your purpose. But you have asked, and you are owed the truth. I’m old, and getting somewhat frail, and someday, who knows when, I will die. This conversation we’re having now has been a long time coming.” He leans forward, reaches out and takes hold of Len’s hand.
“Humankind has altered the world so drastically,” Pierre speaks softly, “that it no longer is suited to humankind, Homo sapiens like me. Through fear, greed, and aggression we’ve systematically created the conditions for our own extinction.” Tears fill Pierre’s eyes. “I created you, Len, and I created the others to replace Homo sapiens, engineered your genes to ensure that humanity in some form endures into the future. In the simplest terms, that is your general purpose. As to you Len, your particular purpose, well, like all of us, that’s something you must discover for yourself; I can’t tell you. You are a son to me, and I cherish your companionship and care, but that purpose will run its course over time. When I’m gone, and neither of us knows when that will be, you will remain, and what you do with your life will be your choice. We should discuss that, though; you don’t have to wrestle with it on your own.” By this time tears are streaming down Pierre’s cheeks. Len’s color shifts in waves of dark and light green, and he blinks away his own tears.
“It’s strange, father; I’ve never thought of myself in this way. I think I have avoided it. In some ways I’ve always known that I am different, but I refused to think about it or what it means. Reading all these books, though, has pushed me into…I guess…introspection. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but it’s happened. Who I am and what my purpose is may be minor. I’m facing my own ‘To be or not to be’ moment. Without you and the others, I’ll be alone, and I don’t know how to do that. This place is all I know, and leaving it feels uncertain. My skin is not like yours, and no, I don’t eat to live, but here I am in your family home, in Leonard Gittleman’s library, and you are my father. I’m Len Gittleman, your son, whatever our differences. For now, that is my purpose, and that’s enough.”
“Ok,” Pierre says, rising and embracing Len, “that’s enough for me too, for now. I’m sorry I did not tell you all this earlier. Perhaps that was a mistake. But now it’s all out in the open, and we can talk about it anytime. Here,” Pierre reaches for a book and hands it to Len, “this might help you. It’s by Nagarjuna, a renowned Buddhist teacher who explored the nature of being and the workings of the mind. You might find it interesting. It’s nothing at all like Shakespeare.”
With that, Pierre slowly walks to the door, and turning toward Len says, “I love you, Son.” “Goodnight father. Sleep well,” Len replies and opens the well-worn book by Nagarjuna, bearing the signature of Leonard Gittleman, written in own his handwriting on the inside cover.