There is something about engineering — and being an engineer in that regard — that I cherish: bringing into existence what fills your soul and inspires your spirit. There is another crucial aspect added to that union. And that is your body (your hands, your eyes, your ears). In unison, these elements unveil the secrets of the universe; they bring forth the metaphysical realities of being, the space in which it exists, and the time of which it is put to test — the test that, in the end, is agonizing and mysterious, painful yet glorifying.
It is the power of the spirit, the body, and the mind, therefore, that dictates our lives; it is such element that gives us the conviction to search for the meaning of our lives; apply their mesmerizing beauty for making the world a better place; suppress the inner demons for the sake of humanity, and invent an Eden in the Kalahari. No wonder the motto of MIT, the best engineering school in the world: Mens et Manus, Latin for Mind and Hand.
I was in an engineering school myself at some point in my life, and as part of the training to become a computer engineer, we did a project to design and build a bot. This bot would do every fundamental thing that a modern autonomous vehicle does: Move in a straight line (seemingly easy task but, trust me, a complicated one); cut corners, detect obstacles, and communicate with other bots by sending some signal commands over a remote server that they must undertake.
I had a great time executing this project. My bot, which I nicknamed Faru John, became my baby. I thought of its existence, and, piece by piece, it came to being. The wire pins and microchips on the breadboard decorated it. And, eventually, after making all connections, life — the electric current — flowed through the pins, carrying a message from each component: “You are important to me. You are important to me.” You remove one wire carrying that message throughout the board, and the motor no longer makes the rotating noise, the flashlight ends the colorful celebrations, and everything becomes numb, sadly looking and crying to you: “She is important. She is important.”
It’s in such a moment that I think about life, my longtime project, that I have yet nicknamed. You are born as a blank breadboard, with no connections on it — nothing, nothing at all. What you have are the parts that would make your project successful. Lucky you if you have a good, organized instructor to provide you with the details of the necessary resistors, capacitors, microchips, power sources to ensure your project is a success. Others are not born with already existing means — access to quality education and health care, shelter, et cetera — to support them. You will have to hassle to get the correct ‘parts’ for your ‘project’. This struggle could be a rewarding experience in the end, however, especially when you see your bot cutting corners and avoiding obstacles correctly. Every commands it sends successfully to another bot adds a second to your life, appreciating your glorious struggle with a beautiful sigh: “I made it, regardless of the difficulties.” And that, indeed, is a sweet feeling, which gives strength to dry bones. The only issue is that not many get to that point.
And there’s another pressing matter, one that is out of your reach: the battery running ‘dry’. Worst enough, it is non-rechargeable and the only battery you can have. At the last moment of its vitality, the universe seems to collapse. The flowing life no longer produces the glory the bot once had. Nothing makes sense at this point: What was the benefit of all the connections I made? The wires, the chips, the ultrasonic sensors? And all the colorful memories the LED's made?
And that’s probably the question one asks the self in a death bed, silently crying: “Meaningless! Meaningless!… Utterly meaningless! Everything is… chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” The songs the birds make are nothing; the rainbow in the sky is nothing; the peals of laughter and cries are nothing; my breath is becoming air, enclosing hugging couples who are full of life. “They are chasing after the wind,” I remind myself of that fact as I breathe my last. After all, “everything is meaningless… Utter meaningless.”
But, as crazy as it is to think about the death bed, the truth of the matter is we are all on that path. That we are fighting against time, trying to make the best of every moment life produces. And that our lives are like non-rechargeable batteries: we have only one life, whatever that means to you. It is not a negotiable deal. I think now I understand my professor more when he emphasized that “you have gotten only one battery, so, use it wisely!” Meaning that I can only live once; therefore, I ought to make the best of it. Because death is “agonizing and mysterious; painful yet glorifying [you cannot see heaven without it, unless you are Elijah, no?].”
Death, you carry the deepest secret of the universe. But, hey, are you also meaningless? Please don’t answer me now or any time soon: My project is not over!
PS: This piece is my reflection on the death of my uncle. He breathed his last earlier this week. His lively personality will be greatly missed — May his soul rest in peace!