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What it Means to be Human

Although robins are among the most abundant species in North America, the Chatham Island Black Robin and the Norfolk Island Robin are distinctly endangered.
frances schmechel, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Although robins are among the most abundant species in North America, the Chatham Island Black Robin and the Norfolk Island Robin are distinctly endangered.

Richard Powers has given readers another forceful novel titled Bewilderment. Written during the height of the Covid pandemic and published in 2021, this book joins the pantheon of art produced during the lockdown, stay home early years of the virus that changed the world.

While creating a work of fiction Powers weaves in real life current themes bound to loom largely in our future. His previous book “The Overstory” has been described as a big, sprawling book and indeed it is. “Bewilderment” takes us onward and upward with the main narrator being an astrophysicist working on a next generation space explorer akin to the James Webb telescope currently transmitting mind-bending interstellar images.

As the widowed father of a nine-year-old son, Theo invents planets for bedtime stories and fanciful diversionary tactics when the child struggles with his overwhelming, ever shifting emotions. At the heart of the story and in the hearts and minds of both is the woman who meant everything to them. Alyssa was killed two years before but is a main character in their lives.
Undone by his grief at her sudden death, Theo is doing his best to cope with their son Robin’s behavior and keep him in school as he walks a tightrope between child protective services and
the principal who wishes she could mandate that Robin be medicated.

The two of them find solace in nature and the cosmos and by continuing Alyssa’s bedtime mantra “May all sentient beings be free of unnecessary suffering.” Robin - named after his mother’s favorite bird - is an artistic, creative child who notices, feels and experiences everything at the deepest level of his soul. Deep enough to take on animals suffering and grieve for their mistreatment and endangered status.

Just when Theo and Robin are battling over Robin’s school attendance, a neuroscientist who knew Alyssa throws them a lifeline. His research into neurobiofeedback is taking on human subjects and Robin may benefit. Robin quickly masters the technique and begins to find his way forward with help from his mother’s brain patterns. Newly calm and confident, Robin accompanies Theo to Washington, DC where the scientists have gathered to plead for funds to continue building the Next Gen explorer they’ve worked on for years.

Unfortunately, the political climate has shifted and a dictatorial regime is in place. There’s even a questionable election and a President who refuses to leave office and pulls the plug on both the neurofeedback training research and the space telescope that’s been 35 years in the works.

While learning more about the author I listened to an interview in which he spoke about his single word title, saying he’d wanted to write a book with that descriptive noun at its core for many years because “bewilderment is a bedrock of the human condition.”

As a retired psychotherapist who’s always found the mysteries of the brain fascinating, I was drawn to the neurobiofeedback storyline and reminded that no matter how much we learn about the human brain, there continue to be new findings and marvels to discover. Robin’s brain is uniquely wired, like each of us.

The author succinctly stated in the interview that his book is “trying to help us understand about being human by going beyond what it means to be human.” He’s done an admirable job of moving readers closer to acknowledging our shared humanity and interconnectedness with nature as well as space and the future.

I’m Linda Allen in Amarillo for HPPR Radio Readers Fall read.

Fall Read 2023: Wisdom of the Natural World 2023 Fall ReadHPPR Radio Readers Book Club
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