Why This Blog is Called "Pluripotent"
The meaning behind my publication name and Twitter banner
I was a huge biology nerd in high school. Nothing fascinated me more than stem cells; ‘pluripotent’ describes a particular type of stem cell that could become any type of cell if and when needed. The fact that nature created a precursor that is capable of becoming anything is the most miraculous thing in the entire universe.
Nature appears to be just mathematical enough for the rational mind to grapple with, yet just miraculous enough for the soft soul to observe and marvel at. And this wonder is not unique to me. Metamorphosis, or, transformation by means of magic, is as extraordinary as fire. Magic hyptonizes us.
You can tell by the way we’ve embedded it in our religions and mythologies. Zeus turned into a swan. God became Man (“The Word became flesh”, John 1:14). In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Nick Bottom is magically transformed into an ass. In The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa wakes up as a vermin.
This is also why we are highly entertained by fictions that include a character of the Jungian Magician archetype; this appeal transcends culture, history, and language because it’s deeply planted into our collective psychology. This is why when we see a wizard-figure appear in a story, we instantly know that something magical is about to happen to our protagonist. Think of the wizard from Oz, the three witches from Macbeth, Ursula from The Little Mermaid, and Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, among hundreds of examples. No wonder Jung called this archetype the “God in us”.
The metaphor of the butterfly is another thing we don’t need to explain (when describing someone’s personal development); we all implicitly understand that the significance of a butterfly lies in its seemingly magical ability to change from a colorless worm-like pest used to feed chickens into a majestic work of art painted by the heavens. Same goes for the swan from The Ugly Duckling.
Anything, but not everything
We, as a species, are obsessed with the ability to change into something else. We describe our divine ideals as being able to metamorphosize because it’s something we mortals wish we could do. But reality is actually not that far off from fairytale. We, too, are able to transform. There is just one difference between us and the gods: they are infinite while we are not.
“The meaning of life is that it ends.” — Franz Kafka
While the gods are infinitely more powerful than we are, we have one thing they don’t: death. We possess a finitude that they don’t have. We’re a fire that can be put out anytime—we’re vulnerable.
We can become anything we want, but not everything. Because there is an end to our story, every decision we make is therefore a tradeoff. A decision to do X is simultaneously a rejection of Y and Z. Making sacrifices is the mortal form of magic: while wizards can conjure up something instantly, we must do so with wise decisions and patience. Sacrifice, therefore, is just magic happening across time.
But it’s this vulnerability that gives life its zest. We wouldn’t be so passionate about the things we love if we had forever.
“Is life actually short, or are we really complaining about its finiteness? Would we be just as likely to feel life was short if we lived 10 times as long?” — Paul Graham
Waiting to become
The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (1490–1510) is one of the few paintings I’ve stared at and studied for a long time. It is what’s called a ‘triptych’, which is a painting that is divided into three carved sections that are hinged together and can be folded shut or displayed open (not unlike a middle school science fair poster). Triptychs often display Christian art as they were purposed for altars during the Middle Ages.
The general story depicted by this painting is the decay of mankind and the nature of Christian Sin. As your eyes move from left to right, the plot becomes increasingly depraved: we go from a calm oasis of creation to a hysterical orgy to a dark hellscape. Sin turns innocence into shamelessness into death. The beauty we were given is abused, polluted, and trampled on until dilapidation and lifeless dirt are all that’s left.
I’ve taken the the midground of the middle panel of this to be my Twitter banner:
Look closely. What do you see in the center?
An egg. This is the only egg in the entire triptych that is unhatched. It is not a coincidence that it has been placed in the dead-center of the entire painting:
This is a common pattern in Renaissance paintings: the intersection of the crossing lines was usually the point of focus. Another example:
Eggs symbolize life, fertility, birth, and new beginnings—they symbolize potential. In Bosch’s painting, all the eggs except for the central one are shown to have not only hatched, but having hatched something sinister. In the middle panel, the optimism symbolized by the unhatched egg is juxtaposed against the dirtiness of sin: eggs are seen giving birth to beasts that slither into the lake. Men and women are seen doing unspeakable things with their naked bodies half-hidden in empty shells.
Only the egg in the center remains untouched, unbroken, and seemingly unbothered by the surrounding chaos. It’s the only thing that remains whole since the time paradise was created on the left panel. It’s a piece of purity that is caught sitting still in the center of a circus that has lost its mind. Despite the decay of the world, the egg remains full of potential: it still has the power to become something, to defy the entropy that is destroying everything around it.
The center is a significant place to be, physically and metaphorically. It’s the point in which two extreme ends are balanced. The center is where decisions are made—one slight shift of the fulcrum tips off the entire balance of the lever. The egg—the potential of a new beginning—sits in the center of chaos. Decision presents itself when it is most necessary to make one.
Entelechy is that which realizes or makes actual of what is otherwise merely potential. It is the necessary counterpart of pluripotentiality.
According to Aristotle, mere potentiality is not what’s most impressive; the important part about having potential is so that it can become real when conditions are right. In contrast, it’s the motion of change that allows for the fulfillment of a possibility. If one wants to live, then change is the only constant.
So, what does this all mean?
We are not just being, we are becoming. Being is constantly happening. Possibilities are spontaneous, we must make something out of our potential before our time is up. The greatest gift you have in the present is the ability to choose who you want to be next, and act on it. Sacrifices are, therefore, inevitable if you want to achieve competency in something. The Latin aphorism, ars longa, vita brevis, describes exactly this: skilfulness takes time and life is short. In order to become anything, you must eliminate everything else—life is about choosing your sacrifices, you don’t get to not make any, but you get to choose which ones.
“Man is free to choose to not to be conscious, but not free to escape the penalty of unconsciousness: destruction.” — Ayn Rand
Pluripotent stem cells are valuable, but they don’t serve a particular function until they are differentiated. Stem cells will either differentiate or die, as they deteriorate with age if left unused. And once differentiated, they don’t go back. Potential is great, but it must be used and is also non-reusable. Time flows in one direction.
The genesis of meaning lies in the seizing of every passing unit of time and the potential it offers. The universe may be indifferent to the human condition but we are fully responsible for carefully deciding how that potential turns into something worthy of us. Who you are may not be your fault, but who you are becoming is entirely your responsibility.
The point is, you have to try no matter how difficult it gets. You either differentiate and become something or you decay into nothing. The first isn’t promised but the latter is a warrant signed by Mother Nature herself.
Until next time,
Thank you for reading Pluripotent. There’s good stuff on the way…I’ll let you know when it’s here 💌👇 If you have once made a pledge, I appreciate you very much :)