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Ancient Rituals, Intergenerational Gifts, and Scientific Research

April 05, 2016 • By Amy Northcutt Ancient Rituals, Intergenerational Gifts, and Scientific Research

When my son was four years old, our beloved family cat became ill and was lost to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma—or "the poopy phoma," as my son called it. He grieved that our beloved kitty was "going to bones" but lovingly painted dinosaurs on the box my husband built to hold our lost kitty. Carefully holding his candle as we spoke words of gratitude for all the joy and goodness our kitty brought into the world, my son stood attentively by the graveside. Even in our small, simple setting, this ancient ritual provided the means for us to mark the passing of a family member. So too, did the wisdom and contributions of a four-year-old child. 

Such intergenerational gifts and the power of time-honored rituals can seem far removed from the scientific research that orients my professional life. How do these spheres of wisdom and reason intersect to inform the enhancement of life? 

Although the specific language of The Enhancing Life Project was new to me when I agreed to serve as a “public interlocutor," the project's focus of inquiry is familiar. Public interlocutors are experts from outside the academy who were invited to attend the seminar and help the scholars think broadly about the public relevance of their research. In my work, I support an enterprise committed to the power of the scientific method. Inspired by the potential of science to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare, I employ modern tools and methodologies to increase the organization’s efficiency.

I begin my days, however, by driving the carpool to school. These early-morning journeys over the Potomac River anchor my daily rhythm. As the contour and personality of the river changes, so too does the spirit of our carpool. Monday mornings are particularly rich:

"What do you get if you combine poison ivy and a judge?" 

"Rash decisions."

Giggles all around, followed by a long pause and then, "Nobody knows how old God is."

"God knows."

"Jesus knows."

"Jesus doesn't know."

"Jesus is God."

"No. Jesus is God's son."

"Well, he is kind of both."

Conversation shifts to the next topic:

"I see the sun! The sun is SO BRIGHT!"

"If you look at the sun, it will blind you."

And finally,

"Do you know where I took my first steps?"

The relaxed pace of the conversation is set by the tempo of the children's imaginations.

After delivering my charges to school, I travel to my workplace. My role there is located at the intersection of information technology and internal operations.. I employ performance metrics, cost-savings mandates, risk management, business intelligence, cybersecurity, privacy policies and more to improve efficiency and effectiveness. 

Lazy wonderings and maximizing efficiencies … the magic of play and the "best practices" of a 21st century workplace. Are these activities and worlds utterly unrelated? Or might these contrasting and complementary elements be the stuff of enhancing life?

The Enhancing Life Project aims, as the principal investigators explained in an internal document, to make our "assumptions about the enhancement of life more clear and explicit … [and] to test their adequacy and develop their potential contributions to the flourishing of human and non-human life." In what some might consider a surprising twist, the principal investigators emphasize that "part of the task of this Project is to show … that one can … isolate the distinctive contribution of the religions to enhancing life analogous to the many other ways of enhancing life." 

As I write, scholars around the world are creating a new body of knowledge. Across borders and disciplines, they are exploring questions related to enhancing life, including the particular contributions of religion. Their scholarship will enrich our individual and collective inquiries about the "essential aspirations of human beings that move persons and communities into the future."

What do you get if you combine the principles of scientific inquiry with the rhythm of children's imaginations? Or if you bring together scholars with varied disciplinary questions and diverse imaginations?

Something quite other than "rash decisions." Perhaps new understandings of enhancing life. 

Amy Northcutt is a mother of two and public interlocutor for The Enhancing Life Project.

Photo courtesy of Joe via Flickr.