Loving the Mystery

There’s a lyric that’s been trapped in my head for nearly a decade. It’s from the song “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel. The lyric is this: “Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all.” It’s the last line in the song.

The reason it’s stuck in my head didn’t have a lot to do with the song, really. The first fifty times I heard the song I didn’t pay much attention to its specifics, just that line. The line resonated with me because it so clearly states a deep truth: it’s really “strange to be anything at all.”

We take it for granted most of the time, but it’s the central unanswerable question of our existence. We exist, we know that. So clearly we’re a thing. A thing with the capability to think of itself as a thing.

But we can’t, as people, all agree on from whence we’ve come and to where we’re going.

Some of us — me included — think we came from a process which spans billions of years and a universe so vast we hardly have the ability to understand its size. Some of us think that the story of the Bible: it all started six thousand years ago in the Garden of Eden when God created the first people, Adam and Eve. Many doubtless know or believe in creation stories I’ve never been exposed to, never mind have the ability to summarize in a sentence.

Some of us think we die and get buried in the ground, where we decay and live no more. Some think that we separate from that body that’s buried and ascend to a place to be judged and separated. Some think that we return to this planet, to become a person, or whale, or dear, or fly.

All of these are attempts to answer this unmistakable feeling: it’s so strange to find ourselves here. As anything. At all. For some people the feeling of that strangeness — I’d describe it as having a vibrating warmth — is called “God’s love.” For others, it’s called “the mystery.” For others still it goes unnamed. Some call it “Allah.” Some think it can not be named. And some people have never experienced it at all.

However it works for you, you’ve got to think about it from time to time. I find it’s energy-giving, and an inspiration to try harder to be better. To be kinder. To be smarter. To be more me. To get all I can out of this strange existence. It is indeed “strange to be anything at all.” It is also fantastic.

Practical Philosophy

The Two Most Important Truths I Know About the Universe

Here’s something I know: both of the following seemingly contradictory statements are profoundly and undeniably true.

  • I am utterly inconsequential to the universe. It is so incomprehensibly large and vast, its time scale so unfathomable, that it is utterly certain that I don’t matter.
  • Everything in the history of the universe, this entirely galaxy, this entire solar system, this entire planet, and all the people and creatures that have ever lived on it have led to this. This thing — right here, right now — when I’m sitting here writing this, and you’re sitting reading it.

To me, this is a remarkable and important pair of facts. Continue reading

Practical Philosophy

The Ultimate Question

What is this?

Alternatively: What is this? Or: what is this? Maybe: what is this?

Each of these variations are deep, profound, and everlasting questions. They’re relevant in literally any situation. And they’re each different in pretty clear and distinct ways. And any other questions that we might suggest as the ultimate question can pretty cogently be reasoned into one of the four above.

So we just need to answer it, I suppose. What is this? Well its the concrete result of a twenty-something first-world white male clicking at a computer for somewhere between two and seven hours, thinking all the while about how best he can communicate an idea he thinks matters. And yet it’s not really that.

This is a series of dots, pixels. Depending on context, they may be a variety of colors. But some darker areas and some lighter areas are coming together to give you the experience of letters, which are then congealing in your brain into words which relate to ideas that were already there. And that process makes this essay’s paragraphs either coalesce into understanding or confusion. But it’s not that either.

This is a series of ideas recorded in time in an effort to communicate an idea. The ideas were made of words, and recorded using them. Would the ideas exist without words?

Regardless of the words, this essay is just a derivation. The ideas in it are pilfered sloppily from an array of sources. This is simply an echo of the author’s experiences of other’s expressions of the things inside of their heads. Whether it is more or less successful than others’ expressions of the ideas they’ve communicated from the ideas inside their heads is a matter that could end in literally years, decades, millennia of debate. Or none at all.

“What is this?” is a question we can answer. But we can only ever answer it in terms of a complex flow of relationships to other things. All questions are answerable in some frames of reference but those answers become completely nonsensical in others.

Consider yourself, asking of the world this question: What is this? “This” can be interpreted to have meant an infinite number of different things, in an infinite array of contexts. What is this object or lack of object? What is its form, or lack of form? What is its nature?

“Is” is tricky too. The gathered remnants you collect after a glass has shattered on the floor are in some sense still a drinking glass. But what it is now isn’t really a glass as we typically think of them—it doesn’t hold water in such a way that I could drink with it. So what it is is a collection of shards made of glass. What it is is a collection of molecules, which are themselves made of atoms, which are themselves made of protons, neutrons, electrons and more empty space than we regularly fathom. And yet you hold a broken glass.

And “what” of that glass? What of any of it?

As you may sense, the point I’ve driving at is that this is simultaneously everything and nothing. Everything that exists can be described in a literally infinite number of ways, and so is simultaneously and necessarily indescribable.

And that’s how it all is. What is life? What is my purpose? Where is our civilization headed? What is our greatest accomplishment? Are we masters of the universe or servants to something we can’t begin to understand?

It’s all so slippery and yet graspable. Every question can be answered, but no answer can possibly end the questions. There is, it turns out, no question we can answer and then  say with certainty and completeness that we understand it all.

We’ll never come to the end of our questions. We’ll never know the final answer. We can’t.

personal, ruminations

The Joys of Life, the Moon, and Reading

Source: eye of einsteinMoon Sliver

Last Wednesday evening, as I got up from the computer, I looked out the window. There in the sky, fragile and held aloft by what seemed to be nothing was a sliver of the moon. The horizon I could see over the nearby houses was an enchanting shade of mild orange, which melted into a thin rainbow of yellow and green under a sky of beautifully darkening blue.

To improve the image, the trees, long since little more than needle-like lines in the sky, pointed up everywhere. And below, a thick layer of recently fallen snow made the evergreens look like the quintessence of winter.

Were I feeling vulnerable, I though, I might just have to shed a tear or two at this sight. A sight made all the more valuable because of all the times I know I’ve forgotten to look out the window and say “My God, it’s grand to be alive.”

It’s exceptionally easy to forget what a wonder life is, as we bustle from meetings to errands to television and bed. And it’s when we lose sight of these sights, that thin sliver of a moon held aloft over a perfectly darkening horizon, that we begin to stress about things unworthy of our care.

Getting a raise, or a Christmas bonus, are perhaps not trivial concerns. Making certain you’ve got a shelter for warmth, and food and water to keep you alive certainly are not. But when I stood there and looked at the moon, not a single thing in the world seemed to matter much at all.

Were I to have died, right then, right there, I would have been satisfied. Sure I haven’t accomplished all I’d like. I’m not confident that the world’s a better place than it would have been without me. But to know I got to fully enjoy that view of the moon over my horizon when no one else did was enough. And that can alway be enough.

It’s that feeling, that deep awareness of the importance of that moon over that horizon, that has inspired my undying love for both The Little Prince and the poems of William Stafford. Like no other writers, Saint Exupéry and Stafford seem aware of the amazing power that’s contained in watching the last flickering momemts of the sunset, as the thin moons floats aloft exactly where you want it to be.

Sharing that feeling of love and peace communicated by those men is perhaps the highest ambition of this man.