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The Real Six Degrees of Separation

by Hal Houser

The city bus screeched to a halt at the traffic light. Those of us standing in the aisle clung tightly to the handrail trying desperately to keep our footing. Even the most adept still couldn’t keep from occasionally shouldering a neighbor. A short, but quick, ‘pardon me’ usually sufficed. After all, when you’re in a tin can sharing the same space and breathing air with sixty other people, naturally, certain protocols must be observed.

Staring out the window at nothing in particular, lost in my own musings, I suddenly became aware of someone speaking.

“They’ve got it all wrong you know,” said the stranger next to me who was hanging onto the same pole. He had been my neighbor for about five minutes now, but we had not yet made eye contact.

Normally I would just nod and smile, preferring to mind my own business as did most of the other commuters rushing from one place to another. But this time for some odd reason, before I could stop myself, I found I had been drawn in. “What do you mean?” I asked.

He pointed to a poster over the window. It was an ad for a TV show called ‘The Six Degrees of Separation’.

Instantly, I knew I was having a ‘Chance Encounter of the Third Kind’. This wasn’t going to be my usual quiet, uneventful ride.

“When talking about the Six Degrees of Separation,” he continued, “most people think of it as a mathematical extrapolation showing how each person on earth is acquainted with every other person by no more than six intermediaries.”

With my stop still being several blocks away, I could see no graceful way to avoid the conversation. “Well, isn’t it?”

“Not at all,” he said. A sly smile told me a dissertation was coming.

“Right now,” he began by making a sweeping hand gesture, “we travel in different circles. Except for this serendipitous meeting, our paths may never have crossed. We would not have met and would never have had this conversation. I call that separation by Community, and it’s purely spatial. That’s the Sixth and final degree of separation. My name is Harry by the way.”

As I shook his hand, Harry’s expression took on a more contemplative look. Clearly he was sizing me up to see if I was worthy.

“The Fifth Degree is a result of how we think of ourselves,” he continued. “We think of ourselves as individuals, separate and apart from the others in our community, not to mention the rest of the world. Sure, we’ll let a few others get close to us and then say ‘we’, as if of one mind. But even so, it’s still a ‘me and you’ world. We can’t help it. It’s a function of ego.”

I saw no need to interrupt, and nodded for Harry to continue.

“When we think of our individual bodies, we think of them as a single unit. The body is in fact, an amazing bag of bones and organs, each separate and distinct from each other, and yet conscious in its own way. The Fourth Degree describes the individuality of the contents of that bag.” Harry looked up at the roof of the bus, searching for an example. “What happens when, say a kidney is transplanted? It still functions merrily as a kidney without any regard for whose body it’s in. Organs know a degree of separation from each other by function.”

Harry paused briefly. Not to catch his breath I was sure, but more likely to see if I was glazed over or ready to run. Seeing that I firmly intended to stand my aisle, he continued.

“Cellular specialization defines the Third Degree. We all begin as a single cell. Stir in some DNA from another cell and that cell suddenly knows it must divide, and those new cells know that they must divide again and become separate tissues. Don’t you wonder how they decide who gets to be what?”

By now, there was no stopping him. Harry instinctively knew that anyone who had gotten this far would hold out to the end.

“In the Second Degree of Separation, we see that living cells are a curious stew of non-living molecules, some more complex than others. The Second Degree has a mystery we have yet to understand. Making a stew of molecules does not in itself create life. Yet to make a cell, driven by the Second Degree Mystery, each molecule knows its place and function. If each type of molecule holds true to its own purpose, we have a living cell.”

At this point, I was fully prepared for Harry to try to baptize me into some new religion or give me the rights to some secret Knighthood, but I had no desire to insult Harry.

Pausing a second time, and seeing that I had not yet called for the transit police, he launched into the radix of his dissertation.

“At the very beginning is the First Degree of Separation. Every molecule is comprised of a combination of atoms. With the building blocks of every atom being the same, atoms are the First Degree of Separation in matter. Since at the bottom of it all, we are made of atoms, it is our First Degree of Separation as well.”

When he finished his sermon, I wondered what would follow. His last statement left me wondering what the First Degree was a separation from.

Screeching brakes signaled the next bus stop and the sudden inertia sent a few fellow riders stumbling toward the front of the bus.

“My stop,” Harry said, and then brushed past me to the door.

“What’s before the First Degree of Separation?” I shouted.

Halfway through the door, he turned and smiled. “It’s the same thing that’s after the sixth. It’s unity.” The door closed and he melted into the crowd, leaving me to ponder his last clue.

A few moments went by and then I finally looked up and read the poster over the window.

The big bold type stared back at me. “Six Degrees, see it tonight.”

Copyright © 2007 by Hal Houser

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