Cellular Memory and Human Survival

When I was four years old, I asked my mother if we were all just little specks inside a giant’s thumb. I imagined these tiny, glittering specks that covered every inch of the giant’s massive body, and that lived in the same way within every one of us––a matryoshka doll version of a never-ending universe. I spoke with the infinite awe of a four-year-old trying to work out the wonders of existence.

I don’t have any memory of my mother’s response. But I’ll always be grateful for whatever it was, because I know it didn’t stop me from believing it was possible. And so, to this day, while I may not still picture the matryoshka doll universe, or the giant with glittering dust-specks of life, I do still believe in the real possibility that each of our cells holds the knowledge of the universe, passed on like memory from the beginning of time.

As we grow, it becomes less acceptable to wonder. We’re told that it’s much more important to know. Somehow, this enduring educational ideal continues to cut with the one through the other––it extinguishes wonder with knowledge of the world. But why does it have to be one or the other? The more that we know, the more we should wonder.

Reading about COVID-19 these past weeks, I found several articles that speak to where we are as a global community in the midst of this crisis, and to the choices we face as we look to respond. In “The world after coronavirus,” Yuval Noah Harari identifies two especially important choices: between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment, and between nationalist isolation and global security. Judy Blair, a racial equity expert and thought leader, shared some ways that white supremacy culture is showing up in our response to the pandemic. There’s a sense that the crisis is exposing our behavior, our personal feelings of trust and connection, and how we present to the world as individuals, as local communities, and as nations of people. We’re learning about ourselves––but what will we do?

The article that most struck a chord with me personally was written by Colleen Echohawk, Executive Director of Chief Seattle Club, and titled, “To get through a pandemic, remember the lessons learned by your ancestors.” My own ancestors are Māori (Ngāi Tahu). Growing up, I didn’t know I was Māori until I reached my mid-teens. Now, I try to remember the lessons passed on from the wahine (female) warriors––the values of family, looking after your people, stewardship, knowledge, right action, and leadership. Those values were developed through trying experiences. They guided my people through crises now past, and they can guide us again through our crises today. We’ve learned what it takes to survive and to prosper. The world can’t forget what it already knows.

I wonder if energy ever truly dies, or if it just changes shape as it moves through the universe. I wonder if the energy of ancestral memory settles in the fabric of our bodies and minds. I wonder what the study of matter and cells alongside indigenous knowledge of the world would do for our students who still don’t remember, who haven’t been shown all the memories they’re made of. I know that revealing our cultural identity and tapping back into our ancestral experience can change people’s lives and the world for the better. I know it from personal and collective experience, passed on like memory from the beginning of time.

Let’s not use our knowledge to close doors, but open them. Let’s never stop searching for new opportunities, means of survival, and ways to improve. Some of that knowledge is already in us, and maybe we’ll use it to lift up the world.

Because it may well be accurate that knowledge is power. But wonder is a superpower––so don’t let it go.