What is the point of this plant

By Jon Hillenbrand In Photography, Stories

cactus - 005

I can look around at the little lives around me and see their purposes. The small black flies I kill in the bathroom are just trying to mate before they die. The spider I don’t want to kill is trying to catch those flies. Maybe the spider looks small and insignificant to some, and maybe compared to a person, it only serves a mini-purpose, but to the spider, his life is his own and it’s a big deal to him. And as these micro lives interact with my own macro life, I can see a second purpose that relates to me. How I treat these insects impacts how I feel about myself as a person. The moral choices I make around killing them or not, how I feel about the frustration of seeing another fly, all of these feelings cause me to look inwardly at who I am as a person and how I am living my life.

If you have studied Rene Descartes, you might be familiar with his Discourse on Method in which he poses the possibility that he is alone in the universe, and a great mind or superbeing is playing a trick on him. The idea is that everything that he knows is a lie, that the world as he knows it is a false illusion pulled over his eyes. I battled against this seemingly preposterous idea when I was in college and wrote a strongly worded paper listing reasons why Descartes was the most ignorant of philosophers. Of course, I was missing the whole point which was to open my mind past the point of what I already knew “for certain”. I swore that Descartes was wrong about this “trick” because I could feel and taste and touch the world around me. But I never agreed to question my own senses. I was unwilling to let go of the last rock of “known reality” in the flood of questioning everything.  For if I did, what do we have to judge anything against?

As a portrait photographer, I have greeted and captured many faces and expressions throughout my career. Could all of these people have been furnished to me purely for my own purposes? All of you out there reading this blog right now, do you all cease to exist outside the narrow range of my own vision? Even if you are insulted by that or protest it, perhaps those protestations are simply broadcast to me because I am being tricked by another into thinking that you exist, and your very protest is generated by a computer to help sell the idea to me that you exist.  Of course, our senses are fooled all of the time.  Trick photography fools people all of the time.  There are solid color, when placed together, look like gradations.  Is it two people kissing or a candlestick?  The stoplight was green, officer.  I never saw the biker that I just doored.

The flip side of this is that all of existence, if I can’t prove it through my own fallible senses, must be taken on some kind of faith. And if I am that faithful, faithful enough to will into existence for myself all of the people and animals and insects and rocks and plant on this planet, faithful enough to will into existence the stars, systems, galaxies, dark matter, black holes and universe in its entirety, then for what purpose would I do this? Unless I really like fooling myself, for what goal or aim or end would all of that belief hold existence as real within the confines of my skull? I can be lazy about some things, but I can’t be lazy about the reality of all existence. That is, if I am to believe that this computer I’m presently typing on is real, then why would I do that? Why would I believe that? Does it follow that the universe serve some purpose? And if so, does every object in that universe serve a purpose, a place in the grander scheme of the whole kit and caboodle? What is the purpose of light-bending gravitational wells? What is the purpose of the Earth? What is the point of this plant next to my computer?

My sister gave me this plant as a gift. And because I’m bad at watering plants, she gave me a “maintenance-free” plant, namely a cactus. The instructions that came with this cactus said that I should water it about 6 times a year. That’s about the same amount of water that a rock needs. Every day, I sit here and look at this plant…existing. It doesn’t get larger, it doesn’t get smaller, it never moves toward the light. It just is. I’ve tried ignoring it, I’ve tried watering it. But it never changes. Fake plants which they had the same dedication.

So perhaps the point of the plant is its lack of feedback. I’m sure a botanist would say that the point of the plant is to simply sit there photosynthesizing. But perhaps it serves the same purpose all of the objects in my life serves. Sure they have their own inner purpose important to themselves, but there’s a second purpose that relates exclusively to me (since I am the perceiver). The fact that I exist, and the plant exists and we together interact, that interaction is a purpose. It’s as if it exists so that I can now write about it in this blog. Or maybe it exists to teach me that change is subtle, yet there. Perhaps I’m to be reminded of the diversity of life, and that though it is shiftless, it lives.

And for all of you out there, if you really do exist, perhaps all of the things around you also serve the second purpose of meaning something to you. Or maybe your existence and your interaction with someone or something else serves a purpose to that thing or object.  Even a rock has a destiny if nothing more than to be ignored by you on your way to your car.  A favorite pen, an ignored rock, even the air you pass through can all have meaning and a point if you think about it for a moment. And if you combine those meanings to you, and those meanings to me, and those meanings to everything in all of existence, the complexity of that system takes on a whole grand purpose.  And in those moments, the universe and all of existence beyond the universe makes sense. Maybe in the end, it’s not all about us, and it’s not all about others. It’s about that great coming together of all existence at the largest party of all time, and all of us, big and small, animate and otherwise, are here to contribute to the great unnamable meaning.

  1. Sarah November 5, 2009

    That lovely plant is providing you with pure, clean oxygen, removing your carbon dioxide and helping to clean the air in your place. It also is a reminder of stillness and patience. If you water it slightly more often or perhaps give it fresh soil or more direct sunlight it may reward you with more growth.

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