Walking Up the Ramp

Life is a ramp. We—all things alive—are walking along ramps that slope upwards at various angles, angles that change during our lifetimes. The climb may be easy or arduous. The ramp begins at birth and ends at death.



The angle of the ramp depends on the difficulties we are faced with, both from our circumstances in life and our inner struggles. For humans, it is not an index of how unhappy we feel. Instead it represents the total of the obstacles, limitations, frustrations, stresses, discomforts, opposition, tedium, and loneliness that a person faces. It is a snapshot of the “uphill” nature of a person’s daily living.

My own ramp has sloped up only slightly most of my life. As a white, upper-middle class, male, educated American, I have not struggled very much, except at those times when, as for all of us, personal problems raise the ramp, often drastically, for a while. Otherwise, the long-term angle of the ramp rises progressively if one is female, poor, a persecuted minority, uneducated, chronically ill, imprisoned, a refugee, or a victim of violence. It generally rises less for those with resilient personalities and more for those with depression.

Animals and plants too are on ramps. Lack of food or water, disease, injury, tilt their ramps upward.

Can the ramp ever slope downward? Not in this metaphor. The ramp is always sloped up at least slightly because living is never completely free of limitations and difficulties of some kind. Darwin and the Buddha were right: life is struggle.

When our ramps tilt upward and the walk is tiring, we think about how to make our lives easier or better, and we may or may not actually take the steps to do so. If we do take them, we sometimes find that the steps were mistakes—bad decisions about jobs or relationships, for example—although they were the best we could do at the time, and that our ramp has not changed much or that we have inadvertently raised it. We may or may not try again.

We can easily, through meanness or indifference, raise the ramps of others, making their lives harder.

But we can lower the ramps of others too, always slightly, sometimes a great deal. And by some strange mechanism, lowering other ramps always lowers our own as well.

5 thoughts on “Walking Up the Ramp

  1. I like this metaphor. It teaches a widening circle of care. It emphasizes commonalities rather than differences while recognizing difference. But it might leave one with a sense that not only is life a struggle, but it is a pointless one. Climbing the ramp seems to only be about struggle and not about gaining altitude which, after all, is the other effect of climbing a ramp.

    Of course, we often think of gain as fleeting. “You can’t take it with you.” is a cliche for a reason. We look at our technological gains and see the side effects, climate change, deforestation, unsustainable population growth, radioactive waste, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Gain begins to turn into a four letter word, so to speak.

    But deep time teaches another perspective on gain. 600 million years ago, our ancestors were sponge-like creatures huddled around deep sea volcanic vents on a world covered in ice pole to pole. Geologists call the time, the Cryogenic or ice making time. But during their time around those vents they gained complexity and diversity and when the ice melted (I time I like to call the Conflatorium) they emerged as complex and diverse forms of animal. That was a gain would could keep. It was a gain, not just in diversity and complexity but also in beauty. These new living forms made the world more beautiful, more precious.

    And this process continued as adversity caused one trait to emerge after another. Animals gained mouths, senses, teeth, bones, legs, amniotic membranes, wings. Plants gained leaves, veins, roots, wood, flowers and fruit. From amongst the animals, corals emerged and from corals, the world gained reefs. From amongst the plants trees emerged and the world gained forests.

    All of this arose through natural selection and genetic mutation but it also arose because all of these animals and plants struggled up ramps for generation after generation. The gain of individuals is fleeting but the gain that results from all of this struggle taken together is much more lasting.

    And the struggle isn’t all competition. Much of it is a struggle to find ways to cooperate (most often in an effort to out-compete other groups of cooperators). There is a trend toward mutualistic symbiosis; creatures living inside one other to the benefit of both. Like the algae that provide coral with their photosynthetic abilities while the coral protect the algae with their hard exoskeletons.

    Deep time isn’t something that happened a long time ago. It is still happening today. Evolution is still working its quiet magic, slowly turning predators and prey into mutualistic symbionts from which new possibilities arise. Humanity specifically technological humanity is a new species emerging and as with other new species in the past, we are an adversity for much of the rest of Life on Earth. Certainly we are causing a mass extinction the likes of which has only happened a half dozen times before in the history of the Earth.

    But we are also living beings, part of the unfolding of Life on Earth and as we emerge we are also giving Life new abilities. These gains may be more permanent than humanity itself.

    My point is the ramps are worth climbing. The ramps give us birds and dolphins and Space X.


  2. Thanks so much for this. I’m cautious about such an optimistic view of evolution and prefer to think of the incentive or the “gain” as the experience of being alive in and of itself, the satisfaction of survival, as opposed to the particular evolutionary changes. But I also find that the increase in cooperation in various forms over time is very exciting and hopeful.

    I like the term Conflatorium. Remember that there were 3 billion years of life on the planet before it, though. Single cells coming up with such big gains as the cell nucleus and sexual reproduction.

    Thanks again.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Agreed (in terms of the gains made by single cells). I like starting with the Ediacaran 600 million years ago but really whenever you start is arbitrary. I like your starting point also with the invention of life 3.8 Ga ago. But, for instance, you could start with the first heavy elements with the death of the first stars if you wanted to. A lot of people find the “we are all star dust” meme to be a very spiritually inspiring.

      I admit to being a bit of a Life chauvinist, finding the creativity of Life to be more inspiring than the creativity of the universe as a whole but from one point of view they are just two expressions of the same thing. Being a macroscopic creature without natural microscopic senses, I just find, my subconscious identifies better with Life once it becomes big enough for my eyes to see it.;)


      • That’s a great phrase–Life chauvinist! I’ll use it. I know many people are inspired by “we are star dust” and I was too for a while, but my spiritual needs have shifted as I’ve gotten older (I’m 72). For the last decade or so I’ve wanted a perspective that offers, for example, consolation about dying (returning to star dust is no consolation to me; being part of the long history of life is) and some kind of grounding of morality (cooperation and competition–Life again). Life chauvinism it is!

        So thanks again. Please keep in touch.


      • Glad to stay in touch. It is a pleasure to have discovered your blog. I too find consolation in the face of death an important spiritual need in that so many close to me have died. And yes being part of the long and ongoing story of Life in the Universe fits that bill. I too find that a grounding in morality is needed. I like Jonathan Haidt’s take on that. I also like Daniel Quinn’s take on it. Jonathan gives me the freedom to choose my morality. Daniel Quinn (or something close to him) is the one I choose.


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