Shakespeare’s Dilemma

Lichen 2

“Consider the lichen. Lichens are about the heartiest visible organisms on earth, but among the least ambitious … they particularly thrive in environments where no other organism would go, wherever there is only rock and rain and cold and almost no competition. Lichen are in fact a partnership between fungi and algae. The fungi excrete acids that dissolve the surface of the rock, freeing minerals that the algae convert into food sufficient to sustain both … Those that are the size of dinner plates are likely to be hundreds if not thousands of years old … they simply exist, testifying to the moving fact that life, even at its simplest levels, occurs simply for its own sake. The lichen’s instinct just to be is every bit as strong as ours, arguably even stronger. Like virtually all living things, they will suffer any hardship, endure any insult for a moment’s additional existence.”

  • Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

“I rather like living.”

  • Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones

Years ago when I was the overnight watchmen at the Pet Hotel, I listened to the audiobook A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson and the passage above stopped me in my tracks. It’s a fantastic book that, when I was searching for my free download for April at Audible, I suddenly remembered that book and am close to finishing it now. I downloaded it almost exclusively because of that passage as since that day, I have deleted the book from my ITunes and then life happened and I had a vague memory that that book held the short-term answer to my questions of late.

I have my own issues these days with the opposite sex, my earning potential, my own Rocky v. Apollo rounds with depression, my body image and on and on. And who doesn’t have their own equally perplexing and complicated bouts with those issues and so many more? Nobody, that’s who. I think that’s one of the reasons that the program of AA preaches the real and mammoth value in being of service to others. It’s the root foundation of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism that all address suffering and its cessation. It’s part of one of Andy Andrews’ 7 Decisions, this serving of others. Really, built into the spine of all those things is what Bryson was trying to point out.


Namely, that the lichen is onto something. When we break it all down, everything in our life, when we strip away all of the job’s not acquired, the riches that elude, the love we crave and yet don’t have, and every single obstacle, hardship, vile task and tedious chore that we face every day, even when you consider all of that and, more than that, wallow in it, well, we’re just not paying attention. One of Bryson’s overriding themes in the book is the complexity of life from the subatomic level on up to the age and nature of the universe. He investigates the cosmos, the quark, the age of Earth and all the different configurations of amino acids that make up proteins and reaches one pretty clear conclusion. To wit, as Einstein said, there are two ways of looking at the world. Either nothing is a miracle or everything is a miracle.

At the end of the day, one would be hard pressed to find a better organism one should aspire to emulate, at least in terms of that one personality trait, than the lichen. And yes, I did just assert that lichens have personalities. Go ahead, prove me wrong. The lichen ain’t talkin’.

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