"We are often confronted by questions
which we cannot answer
because the time for answering them
has not yet come."
-- Thomas Merton
Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Recently, a friend lost his dear wife to cancer. My friend is a man of science and is thus a pragmatist by nature. There are many others like him who look at the world as a technical problem awaiting a technical solution. Within them, there is a gnawing frustration that science could develop the technology to travel to other planets and map the human genome, but has yet to find a solution to cancer. The knowledge that evidence is mounting towards an eventual cure is cold comfort to someone who is dealing with the acute pain of the loss of the most important person in their life.
Scientific knowledge is a progression of sorts. Each discovery is added to and enhanced by succeeding generations gifted with much better technology and improved processes, and in some cases, better brains. Leonardo Da Vinci was a brilliant scientist. Unfortunately, he was trapped in the 15th century. It is reasonably stunning to project what his accomplishments might be if he were brought forward in time and equipped with even your average desktop computer and CAD software. If any of the physicians who struggled against the Black Plague of the 14th century knew as much as the average Mom today about infectious bacteria, the plague might have been slowed or even halted.
There are about a hundred thousand questions we ask today that future generations will look back upon, shake their heads, and say sadly, "If only they knew..." We have to have patience, dedication, and a firm belief in the premise that there are no unanswerable questions, given enough time.
Time, though...that's the kicker. A human life is brief enough, against the timeline of the universe, or even just our planet. So the average brain has only a few decades in which to explore, research, and think about answers to even one of those questions. But that life span is increasing steadily. In 1950, there were only 2,300 centenarians in the U.S., people who reached their 100th birthday. In 2010, there were over 53,000. In 1907, the average lifespan of an American male was just under 46 years. Today, it is passing 75. Researchers expect that by 2050, most people will live to 86, and by 2100, that age will be encroaching on 100.
What has changed is the cause of death. At one point, it was far more likely that you would die in the jaws of a lion. But as the world has become more civilized, and medical technology has improved, more and more people will have "old age" as the cause of death on their certificates.
But even a useful worklife of 60 years will probably not be enough to close the door definitively on the big questions. The cure for the major diseases, cardiovascular, cancer, diabetes and chronic lung disorders, might take centuries before they are brought to heel. Obviously, that becomes a multi-generational research project. But every cure thus far has been the result of that kind of dogged patience. Measles, mumps, rubella, typhoid, smallpox, polio, yellow fever, malaria, tuberculosis, tetanus, diphtheria, and chicken pox which in the past were responsible for millions of deaths have all been tamed, and in some cases, eradicated. There are still major challenges besides cancer, ebola, influenza, Lou Gehrig's Disease, lupus, AIDS, and the common cold, but most of us have learned not to bet against a motivated scientist.
There are other questions, such as those aspects of humanity and human behavior which lie at the root of wars and revolutions, but that is a different kind of problem, one where wisdom becomes more vital than knowledge. But even so, we like to think that at some point humans will finally mature to the point of realization that most of the things we fight over...really aren't worth fighting over. Again, that will take time.
The toughest thing, in the meantime, is knowing that those answers are out there waiting to be discovered. All we need is the right combination of technology, knowledge, and the power of one unique human brain. That we want that to happen right now is largely irrelevant.
Answers will come in time, but probably not within our lifetime. Perhaps our grandchildren, or great-great grandchildren will someday celebrate the vanquishing of cancer, and that will be their blessing. But in the meantime, we need to accept that the answers we seek will continue to elude us for no other reason than "their time has not yet come."
Take comfort in the idea that, as Thomas Merton also said, "This may be the end of the book, but it is not the end of the searching."