“A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.”
In A Short History of Nearly Everything, the endlessly fascinated Bill Bryson reminds us of our entanglement with the Bard: “We are each so atomically numberous and so vigorously recycled at death,” he writes, “that a significant number of our atoms—up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested—probably once belonged to Shakespeare. A billion more each came from Buddha and Genghis Khan and Beethoven, and any other historical figure you care to name.”
Looking into the science behind this factoid, I learned that there are two main ways a person emits atoms: by decomposing after death, and by releasing waste during life (either gaseous, as when we exhale; or liquid or solid, examples of which I’ll allow you to imagine on your own). I also learned that we release far more atoms through waste than through decomposition, because we emit waste over the course of an entire life.
In less scientific terms: we commingle with one another, we participate in one another, only by letting go of what we don’t need, by shedding what we cannot use, by releasing the exhausted stuff of ourselves. When we do this, the biosphere transforms our waste into something useful for others, and then they receive it as gift. (The biosphere even transforms Hitler’s atoms, which move within us, too.)
The process happens incessantly. Our cells are constantly metabolizing and releasing gases and whatever else they don’t need. Our skin is constantly shedding depleted organic matter into the environment. Our lungs are constantly sending carbon dioxide on its merry way. The very nanosecond we let these things go, they start becoming gift. We are living, breathing masses of unceasing self-giving, and in so being we and others become more alive.
Because this pattern is folded into our existential DNA, it happens on a macro level, too. I’ve seen it happening several times on our campus in recent weeks, as a matter of fact.
I’ve watched the Typewriter Rodeo poets metabolize an offered idea (“my dog Jasper,” “the Cubs,” “Nancy who’s retiring soon”) on their clackety Smith-Coronas and then release into our hands original poems that they, the poets, might never see again. Sheer gift.
I’ve watched students bake bread—sifting the dry ingredients and kneading and shaping the dough with their own hands, shedding molecules into the mix as they did so—and then offer that bread to one another as Eucharist. Sheer gift.
I’ve watched a student lovingly hold an old wooden clothespin of her grandmother’s, sculpted smooth by the oil, sweat, and friction of self-giving hands over many years. Sheer gift.
What I notice about these “macro” examples, though—unlike the micro ones—is that they are intentional. We must choose to share what we make. We must choose to feed others. We must choose to labor in love.
We can also choose not to. On the micro level, when we don’t release the stuff of ourselves, that stuff becomes toxic. We get sick, we suffocate, we die. This happens on the macro level, too. When we hold on to “Shakespeare atoms” we no longer need—habits, beliefs, grudges, fears—we not only become less vital, but we deprive others of gifts only we can give. We deprive them of the “genius” (from gignere, “to beget”) of ourselves. And there’s nothing the “biosphere” loves more than transforming our depleted matter into new life for others. So why not give it a hand?
What “Shakespeare atoms” are you holding that need to be released?
What conscious actions can you take to offer those atoms to the universe?
Who do you imagine will receive these transformed parts of yourself as gift—both now, and far in the future?
Dr. Claire Colombo is the director of the Center for Writing and Creative Expression at the seminary and has served on the seminary’s adjunct faculty since 2012. As a freelance writer, she develops religion and language arts curricula for Loyola Press of Chicago. She is a regular contributor to their “Finding God” magazine and newsletters.