“F. W. Myers, when asked what question he would put to the Sphinx, if he were given only one chance, replied that he would ask, ‘Is the universe friendly?’” (Fosdick, 1918, p.51).
When only a little boy I wrestled with a related question. I evaluated the odds of getting in trouble for my assorted misdeeds as opposed to the chance that I would be appreciated for my good intentions. I found myself wondering, “Am I more likely to be in trouble or to be happy?” I wasn’t sure. And I worried about it. I knew I was not man enough to resist the temptation to tease my sister or steal homemade English toffee from my Mom’s stash. I imagined a lifetime in prison.
Youthful misdeeds increased my anxiety. For example, my childish amusement of throwing apricots at passing cars had not turned out well. Though, to tell you the truth, my blameless brother suffered more serious consequences than I. He innocently answered the door when the angry driver came to the house. I hid in the woods while my brother cleaned the apricotted car. Yet I lived in dread of being busted by the law for years thereafter.
Some years later, it seemed to me like an innocent study in science to light matches and throw them off the rock outcropping in the fields near Aunt Mary’s house. The matches made a lovely trail of smoke as they dove to the ground. It never occurred to us that we would start a brush fire.
It seems that life conspires against little boys.
But childhood held more than mischief, anxiety, and unwelcome consequences. My siblings and I grew up in the mountains of Utah. We had a stream to explore, mountains to climb, dragonflies to admire, and all of nature to discover. Imagine a pet skunk, a pet squirrel, and a cheerful collie companion named Pretty Boy. All of that was part of childhood for us.
Life was glorious. Most of the time.
Same tune, second verse
The issue of the nature of nature was still not settled for me when adulthood reluctantly arrived. I found that life also conspires against adults.
I tried to support myself in college with a combination of part-time work and full-time frugality. For example while many of my friends had cars, I saved money by driving a motorcycle, a Honda 175 named Mildred. Mildred and I loved going everywhere together. And most girls I dated (with a couple of notable exceptions) thought my wheels were funner than a Volkswagen—though we were clearly at the mercy of the weather. A skiff of snow or sheet of ice could upend one’s travel plans when a motorcycle is your only means of transportation.
One winter Mildred languished. She would start as usual, run nobly for a while, and then lose power. I assumed that a logical guy majoring in physics could conquer her balkiness. So I spent hours scouring the manual, adjusting the timing, and checking the wires. Admittedly I had no experience at this special application of physics—but how hard can it be to fix a motorcycle?
Very hard. I ultimately got Mildred so messed up that I had to drag her to the shop. It was scant comfort that the mechanics could not find the problem any better than I. They tinkered with this and replaced that. All at my expense. Mildred had betrayed me. I might as well have bought the Volkswagen.
Several hundred dollars later, the shop discovered that Mildred had a temperamental spark plug. It worked some times and failed at others. After all my frugality I paid a terrible price for a $2 spark plug.
The universe didn’t feel very friendly to a scrimping college student after being betrayed by his “faithful” companion. Goethe’s words might be too dramatic to describe the exorbitant expense of a spark plug, but we have each—at one time or another–felt like a “troubled wanderer upon a darkened earth” (p.64).
Good from bad
As I was finishing college I dated a kind, gentle, and lovely woman named Nancy. She loved Mildred in spite of her occasional balkiness. On our first date I picked Nancy up early one Saturday morning to go for a motorcycle ride up a glorious canyon. But, as we entered the canyon, the clutch hung up. I was humiliated by Mildred. Another point scored for entropy and general anarchy.
But Nancy knew how to turn bad into good. She cheerfully offered to push the motorcycle the seven miles to the shop as I sat on it and steered. I was amazed! I offered to push while she steered but she insisted on taking her turn. Nancy turned a chore into recreation. Score several points for a benevolent universe.
Nancy and I married.
We had been married about a year when we got pregnant, a burden which one of us bore disproportionately. Pregnancy wasn’t fun for Nancy. Weeks of nausea then swollen ankles. Yet she rejoiced in the growing life within her. When it was time for delivery, I rubbed Nancy’s back for hours and hours. Through the night, the morning, and the afternoon. Finally little Emily emerged. I never remember a time when I felt more amazed. I exulted to Nancy, “Wow! This is a miracle! We should have more children!”
But in time we did have more children. Delightful Andy and Sweet Sara. Interspersed between the joyous arrivals, we also had more than twenty miscarriages. This is not a picture with a clear message. The universe gives and the universe withholds. Is nature a friend or a foe?
As a parent of little children I found that it is quite natural to be chronically irritated. We may be glad for children in principle, but babies spit up, toys accumulate, and shoes track vast mud reserves into our lives. And there are mumps, measles, chicken pox, and, in time, dating.
So our children grew up. They were people we loved and cherished. That is a blessing. Yet we worried. Would they make good choices? Would they be healthy? Would they do good things with their lives?
I thought maybe I could retire from fretting when our children started families of their own. It hasn’t worked that way. We love more little people while having even less direct influence. We worry about them learning to walk, learning to read, getting hurt by friends, managing their vast energy, and getting jailed for throwing apricots at passing cars. It seems that there are so many hazards in this world.
Sometimes I think nature is our friend. Sometimes I fret.
So life doesn’t provide a simple definitive answer to the big question. Is life a burden to be borne or a blessing to be celebrated?
It is tempting to say it is both. Or maybe life is simply indifferent. Or maybe it is what we make of it. Pat answers don’t do justice to the complexity of experience.
Laws and lawgivers
The laws of thermodynamics seem to suggest that our bodies will fall apart, toys will break, machines will mock us, and sickness will dog us. But I have a growing suspicion that there is a lot that thermodynamics can’t explain.
Physics can’t explain the feeling I had when Emily was born. Physics can’t explain the pure joy I feel when I sit next to my beloved Nancy. The laws of nature don’t explain the yearning I feel for the grandkids to come over and wreck our house. The laws of nature cannot account for love, joy, peace, and everything that seems to matter.
I suppose I learned that once again when Max, our first grandson was born. Natalie struggled through a long night of labor while Andy comforted her. Every minute seemed to stretch her soul to the breaking point. Exhilaration of impending arrival had given way to exhaustion by the time tiny Max arrived. Natalie was bleeding so the nurse handed Max to my sweet Nancy while all in the room but Nancy and I turned their attention to Natalie.
Nancy held Max close and began to whisper to him. “Welcome to this world Max. Welcome to our family. We love you. We always will love you.” The tears streamed down my face and I knew what I believed.
Life conspires relentlessly to bless us. Even our pains add meaning to our joys. I have what Fosdick (1918) called an “irrepressible impulse to thank somebody” (p.53).
The Sphinx has spoken to me. I know what I believe. Life is good. The universe is friendly.
Harry Emerson Fosdick: The Meaning of Faith, 1918, NY: Association Press.