From The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough
I’ve had a lot of trouble with the universe. It began soon after I was told about it in physics class. I was perhaps 20, and I went on a camping trip, where I found myself in a sleeping bag looking up into the crisp Colorado night. Before I could look around for Orion and the Big Dipper, I was overwhelmed with terror. The panic became so acute that I had to roll over and bury my face in my pillow.
- All the stars that I see are part of but one galaxy.
- There are some 100 billion galaxies in the universe, with perhaps 100 billion stars in each one.
- Each star is dying, exploding, accreting, exploding again.
- Our Sun, too, will die, frying the Earth to a crisp during its own heat-death.
The night sky was ruined. I would never be able to look at it again. I wept into my pillow, the long, slow tears of adolescent despair. . . A bleak emptiness overtook me whenever I thought about what was really going on out in the cosmos. So, I did my best not to think about it.
But, since then, I have found a way to defeat the nihilism that lurks in the infinite and the infinitesimal. I have come to understand that I can deflect the apparent pointlessness of it all by realizing that I don’t have to seek a point; in any of it. Instead, I can see it as the locus of Mystery:
The Mystery of why there is anything at all, rather than nothing, of where the laws of physics came from, of why the universe seems so strange. Mystery. Inherently pointless, inherently shrouded in its own absence of category. . . .
(I’ve come to see that) mystery can take its place as a strange but wondrous given.
Shoveling Snow With Buddha – by Billy Collins https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u59Fnw6HRUQ
Last October my wife, Debbie, and I set off on a hiking vacation out West. We spent four days in Zion National Park, a stretch of spectacular canyons in southern Utah. On our first day, we took on one of its most famous hikes, an area called The Narrows. It is essentially a long slot canyon – stretching some four to five miles – that follows a sinuous path that is anywhere from 20 yards to 20 feet wide, bordered by sheer canyon walls on each side that tower to around 1,000 feet.
It is so narrow that some points never receive direct sun, and so twisty that you never get a clear vantage of where the trail is going. But what makes the trail especially challenging is that there is at all times a river running through it, which means that if you are going to hike it, you have to wade.
And this is no small feat, because the water is moving at a fairly fast clip, which makes it challenging to keep your footing, and the stream bed is covered with stones and boulders of various shapes and sizes – our guide called it “like walking on bowling balls.” Oh, and did I mention the temperature of the water? 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
The folks at Zion, though, have figured out how to help intrepid hikers make their way up this channel. You can rent waders that pull up to your waist with neoprene socks and sturdy hiking shoes plus hiking poles. Altogether it keeps you pretty comfortable, provided you can stay upright: thankfully we did.
The first few steps into the stream were a little disorienting. I’ve done enough canoeing to be comfortable wading into a stream, but I found something inside me rebelling as I plodded upstream. Because, of course, you can’t really get a firm sense of your footing or any clear idea of what’s ahead, and the coldness of the water is unsettling. I heard an inner voice asking, “What am I doing here?”
But in time I let that go. We found a rhythm in our slow stride, using the poles to steady ourselves and learning to avoid especially rapid or deep parts of the stream. And even though the riffling of the water obscured our view of the bottom, we gained a sense of how to negotiate our steps. In time we even gained the confidence on occasion to turn our gaze up to the amazing rock formations above us. Weird, alien, and yet so compelling.
Later I wondered about that fearful inner voice that I heard at the start of the hike, and I recognized it as that part of me that wants always to be fully oriented and in charge. We’re wary to enter situations that we don’t understand, and, of course, that can be sensible and wise. But it’s also true that we often have a mistaken notion about just how much we do understand or how much control we actually have.
I’ve never had a spiritual crisis quite like the one that Ursula Goodenough speaks of, though I remember a similar unsettled feeling looking up at the stars on learning something about the age of the universe, the distance of those points of light, and our place on the third rock of a middling star out toward the edge of a fairly average-size galaxy, itself one of uncountable millions dotting the sky.
Part of it is the old story of coming to terms with the ordinary insignificance of our own identities, our own lives in the grand scheme of things, and also the fact of our own deaths that await us on some unknowable day far too soon in the future, no matter how distant that day may be.
I think Ursula Goodenough would acknowledge that wrapped up within that feeling of terror that she described was also a hefty helping of self-pity and with it the fear that not only the universe, with its exploding stars and accelerating galaxies that in time will zip out of our sight, is pointless, but that perhaps our lives may be as well.
It is one of those sobering moments that many of us confront at some point in one of those dark nights of the soul, whether we’re looking at a sky full of stars or just wrapped up in the covers of our beds. Is there any “cosmic” meaning to any of this? We can fret about this for some time, circling back to the question time and again before at some point our mind turns on the question itself: why am I asking this anyway? What exactly do I gain from this inquiry?
Well, meaning, purpose . . . That’s important, right?
Sure, but how would it change things if you had an answer?
Well, I guess everything would just seem more . . . meaningful.
And, I don’t know, then I could feel more confident that I’m organizing my life the right way.
OK, perhaps that’s so. But here’s the thing: we humans have been at this for some time. We’ve come up with all sorts of inventive notions of what this cosmic purpose may be, and each of them eventually turns up a chink somewhere where we find ourselves wandering into wishful thinking or logical inconsistencies.
Now, we can have at it again, or work at solving the problems of some particular system, or stay on the search for the one who we think might have solved all the complexities. Or, Ursula Goodenough suggests, we can choose to step away and stop asking the question.
The more we learn about the world, she says – and as an accomplished scientist she knows a fair amount about what we know of the world – nature comes to “take its place as a strange and wonderful given.”
That is to say, we come to see it as something that requires no particular explanation for its existence: it just is, and that’s enough. For her, she says, this realization was an epiphany. She didn’t need to answer the big questions that were bedeviling her. Instead, she says “I lie on my back, under the stars and the unseen galaxies and I let their enormity wash over me.”
And instead of being gripped by anxiety, she says, she is filled with wonder and awe. As she puts it, “the gasp can terrify, or the gasp can emancipate.”
In her case, Goodenough says, it freed her. She came to realize that she doesn’t need a sense of some cosmic purpose to feel awe. It is simply the product of her experience. That doesn’t mean that her busy mind stops processing all that she sees, but she views it through a different filter: not as something that has an ultimate point, but as, in her words, “the locus of mystery.”
Mystery is a word that can seem unsettling, but for her it simply meant letting go of the need to seek out an ultimate reason behind all things. Instead of working to find transcendent forces at work, she marvels at the enormous subtlety and complexity of the world as it is. And it is a source of wonder at every turn. Each thread we pull takes us deeper into it.
Instead of limiting our imagination or understanding, mystery invites us into more expansive awareness. It’s an awareness that to my mind leads us not away from religion but into it, religion that accepts the givenness of the world, a source of wonder and awe, religion that calls us to celebrate and to live attuned to the world’s rhythms, that invites us to appreciate each other and all life as an interdependent whole.
It’s a perspective that we see in this famous passage from Walt Whitman: I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars, and the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, . . . and the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven and the narrowest hinge in my mad puts to scorn all machinery, and the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses any status, and a mouse is a miracle to stagger sextillions of infidels.
Each of us sorts out how to make our way in our lives in how we interface with the world of our experience and the circumstances of our upbringing. The result is a faith that orients us in our lives.
For her purposes, Goodenough says, she finds her faith in “the existence of all this complexity and awareness and intent and beauty and my ability to apprehend it.”
“The continuation of life,” she says, “reaches around , grabs its own tail, and forms a sacred circle that requires no further justification, no superordinate meaning of meaning, no purpose” other than continuation itself.
Each of us comes to frame our own sense of where our heart rests in our astonishing encounters with the world around us.
But there is something to be said for stepping away from the purpose puzzles, for ceasing to worry about the firmness of our footing and turning our gaze to the weird and wonderful world around us as we wade with uncertain steps into the mystery that is riffling around us and tugging at our knees.
Billy Collins’ imagined interchange with the Buddha offers one perspective on the question. There’s Collins with his non-stop commentary on the wonder of snow shoveling, the stark beauty of that winter day, all the lessons it teaches on the brilliance of sunlight interrupted by the barking of snow geese high overhead.
And there’s the Buddha, silently with single-minded energy throwing himself into the work, “as if it were the purpose of existence.”
And, perhaps at that moment it is: his presence, his attention to that moment, opening a window to life lived drinking in each sensation, each action, each awareness, needing no purpose other than its own completeness, as if a gesture in the dance of all things.