A few days ago, on a magical Chesapeake evening, I watched a small tug pull a heavy barge up the bay. It noiselessly made its slow but steady way northward, probably heading for the canal and then maybe on to Wilmington or Philadelphia, Day was almost done; our hosts called us to dinner.
All things have weight, substance. And, like that tug, we haul them along behind us through all the days of our lives. Maybe it’s the weight of the past: the toiling of our ancestors or, more recently, the demands and expectations of our parents, or our place in the family birth order, or episodes and people that have indelibly shaped our character and being. Or maybe it’s the weight of the future: the anxiety of all the tomorrows to come or even the existential dread imposed upon us by that extremely stable genius and his motley crew that have a disproportionate influence on our lives these days. But rarely is there the serenity of a present moment, an inhalation and exhalation of the now, detached from everything that was or will be. (No, Eggman, I’m not smoking anything.)
A friend came to visit us for Chestertown’s Tea Party. He brought with him chocolate chip cookies, a bourbon cake fat with butter, and a bottle of Hendricks gin and all the necessary accompaniments. (Needless to say, he is welcome anytime.) Early on Sunday morning, as is our wont, we were sitting on the porch, discussing whatever came to mind. I mentioned to him my thoughts on that little tug, the barge, and the weight of things—the past, the present, and the future. “21 grams,” he said.
I looked at him blankly.
“It’s the weight of our souls,” he said. “The difference in weight between a body pre-death and immediately post-death is just a bit over 21 grams. It must be what animates us, makes us human.”
21 grams is about three-quarters of an ounce. Just think: all our individual human histories, all the experiences of our lives, all our hopes and fears, our expectations and dreams…all weighed and measured at a bit more than 21 grams. No way…
So I did a little research. The concept that the soul has mass and therefore weight is derived from an experiment conducted in 1907 by Duncan MacDougall, a Massachusetts physician who weighed six patients at the moment of death and found one lost 21.3 grams. But even MacDougall was skeptical: he knew his sample was small, that only one of his six subjects showed a measurable loss of weight at death, and that his methodology was likely flawed and his results were selectively reported. He hoped to do more experiments and to even photograph the human soul, but he died in 1920 before publishing any new work. Nevertheless, the idea that human soul is 21 measurable ounces took hold in the popular mind and persists to this day. Now it has even made its way onto our porch. Ergo, it must be true.
I must admit that I like the notion that there is something measurable that adds individuality and personality to common existence; something that makes us, us. And it’s all the more remarkable if the difference between you and me, between a long, well-lived life and a life cut tragically short, between a male life and a female life, between everything that separates us one from another, is a common little 21 grams.
Quite a load and a long haul for one beating human heart.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com