I was listening to the radio as the sun was coming up Saturday when I saw a rusted-out car on the road. I was driving through a fairly wealthy community, so it stood out a little. I thought about the rust – iron oxide, to be precise – and it occurred to me that life on this planet could not have evolved without global-level symbiosis. You see, plants take in carbon dioxide, CO2, and they expel oxygen. We learned this in 7th or 8th grade, I think. Oxygen is kind of destructive, when you think about it. Without it, old, beat-up cars would not fear for rust. On the other hand, of course, animal life could not exist.
Humans and whales and tree frogs need oxygen to live. And we expel CO2 as waste, the very thing plants need. It would not be possible to have plants without animals, nor vice-versa. Symbiosis was part of the evolutionary process from the beginning. Perhaps in earth’s extreme distant past, the atmosphere was very different, and plants were able to thrive before other life emerged. But it is undeniable that we need each other to survive.
It is the same for our relationships. Symbiotic relationships exist in nature, plant-to-plant, plant-to-animal, and animal-to-animal. For instance, certain flowers would never be able to flourish without bees and other insects to pollinate them. And the bees benefit from the pollen and nectar collected and converted to honey. It’s a win-win. That is until something upsets the balance. If the plants are killed off, the bees die, and so on.
Human relationships can be symbiotic, but not in such an obvious, tangible diorama. We all give and take in our relationships. In a perfect world, there would be balance, equilibrium. But many of us are out of balance. Some take more than they give, and give more than they take. On the surface, giving more might seem healthy, but extreme selflessness can make a person more needful than could be predicted. You may know someone like this. They do “too much” or give away everything to their own deprivation.
Years ago, I read about a man who had won a lottery jackpot of $50 million. Within three years he was bankrupt. At first I thought it was one of those cases where a person had spent lavishly to the point of being broke. But this man, as it turned out, was generous to a fault. His “needy” relatives bled him dry. In his defense, I would probably have given away millions to my parents and others. I dream of being able to build a mountain lodge for my dad to retire to, and my mom could have a small rural home where she could plant vegetables. The man who won the lottery was likely no more careless than the average person. His sin was in being too generous, giving to anyone who asked.
What’s wrong with that, you ask? The “teach a man to fish” maxim comes to mind, but does anyone want to invest time in being the finance minister to their family? My wife and I actually have a plan in the (extremely) unlikely event that we should win a jackpot. It may seem as rational as building a rocket in your backyard, but people do win, and often they are unprepared. Be that as it may, we are going to give away a lot of money without condition, and we don’t expect anything in return, should it actually happen.
Unreciprocated donations of money and property, however, are not going to drain your spirit like being the on-call, go-to, knight in shining armor for your family and friends. There are times when we answer a call or accept a request from someone without thinking of our own needs. Don’t misunderstand me – I will always be there for my friends and my family. But I have to take care of myself. A good example can be found during the moments before take-off in a commercial airliner. Flight attendants give instructions to passengers about the “unlikely event of loss of cabin pressure” by demonstrating how the oxygen masks work. Most importantly, they are sure to point out, do not worry about helping the person next to you until you have secured your own mask. The reason is that if you pass out from lack of oxygen, you are going to be a liability, unable to help anyone.
Likewise it is with our relationships. I know people who are great at taking care of others. But they are completely incapable of basic personal care, like getting enough sleep and so on. (How many nurses do you know that smoke?) Being healthy isn’t simply looking fit. Health is holistic, encompassing body and mind. Your body is a host for millions of bacteria, mostly helpful. The microbes in your gut literally keep you alive by protecting the tenuous balance of your bodily systems. Likewise, the bacteria on your skin surface are like the sentry at the gate. Unfortunately, Staphylococcus bacteria will kill you if they make their way to internal organs.
This brings me back to that rusted car. Oxygen, it turns out, is actually harmful. Too much oxygen in the atmosphere and plant life could not exist. The air we breathe is about 21% oxygen and 78% nitrogen. The rest is argon and carbon dioxide and other gases. That balance is what makes this planet how we see it today. Cut down all the trees, and bad things will begin to happen. Really bad things. But what if you got rid of all the humans? That delicate balance will still be affected. You see, we’re all part of this living machine, earth. We need each other to survive.