[The universe is] neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent.
The universe is not required to be in perfect harmony with human ambition.
-Carl Sagan, in Cosmos
Not long ago, I wrote about “Delicious Ambiguity” and the importance of “Embracing the uncertainty of life –heading into that delicious ambiguity with abiding curiosity, an open mind and a willing heart – makes life exciting and worthwhile and beautiful.” Well, with the exciting, worthwhile and beautiful sometimes, necessarily, comes the frightening, insensible, sad and ugly. Fear, pain, loss and sorrow are part and parcel of what Carl Sagan called an indifferent universe.
Where some may find this a disconsolate consideration, I find it reassuring and reasonable. Life can be challenging and difficult, but neither fate nor gods have been testing my mettle in recent weeks as I’ve dealt with the unrelated deaths of friends, and my sweet little dog, and with a disconcerting car accident and the aftermath of attendant pain and discomfort. The friends were elderly, as was my dog. And the car accident was the result of a driver distracted by a cell phone who failed to see me. All of these things were natural consequences, even the one that was clearly avoidable. There are natural, explainable reasons these things happened: age related illness, the limits of a dog’s life, and the limits of human attention.
The immediate inclination is to protest, especially in the case of the car accident and the little dog. I did nothing wrong in either case. Why me? Why the little dog? Why both within a week? I fought the juvenile urge to cry out “It’s not fair!” And these are small losses compared to what was recently, and senselessly suffered by many others in a movie theater and in a temple. Certainly it isn’t “fair” to lose a child who has simply gone to the movies, or a loved one who has gone to pray in what should be sanctuary from the world.
But at the same time, in these same weeks, I’ve watched incredible history being made, in the Olympics and on Mars, and seen beautiful things and met wonderful people. Here on Earth, my friend, O’Neil Jacobs’ , service was a lovely one. He was 90 years old when he died. His wonderful wife of 62 years was serene and amiable as ever, flanked by her amazing sons, all of them exuding warmth, friendship and love. Was it “fair” that their remarkable father was gone? Fair was always a big part of the Jacobs’ vocabulary, but only as it applied to how they felt we should all treat one another – with regard to human kindness, and our capacity to love and share equally. They fought for universal health care for years, and we were all happy that O’Neil got to see the Affordable Care Act signed into being before he died.
We can certainly work to be fair to one another. But to expect “justice” or “fairness” from the universe? To believe that if we live well, believe the “true” story, live the “right” way, we won’t suffer adversity? And that if do, we’re being “tested” or disciplined? I believe we delude ourselves with that narrative, and worse, that we abdicate our personal responsibility to make our own lives and the lives of those around us better.
But that the universe is “indifferent” – neither for nor against us, but rather providing us with the tools and resources to meet and, whenever possible, to overcome the challenges of being alive, that’s heartening, and exciting and reassuring. Knowing that life just is and that it’s totally up to me to get up each time I get knocked down, that it’s completely within my power to not only forge ahead but to forge a better path along the way, is empowering.
We just go until we don’t, and the universe unfolds before us in both stunning sorrow and breathtaking beauty, in an elegant indifference where both joy and sorrow are human constructs, nothing more and nothing less, and the life we make with our joys and our sorrows is completely up to us.