“You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you." - Thomas Traherne
"I think life is a brief, meaningless event in a random universe that doesn't care." - Dilbert
Are we, each of us, centers of our universe, as the 17th Century metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne maintained? Or are we, as Dilbert believes, simply meaningless life forms spinning through an uncaring and random universe? I have spent much of my life vacillating between these camps, sometimes so quickly that it seems I occupy both of them simultaneously.
The other day I was walking along a street in Manhattan with Alex, my son's girlfriend, as she fought back tears and questioned the Meaning Of It All. She had been dealing with a series of disappointments: turned down from her "dream job"; struggling, along with my son, under a mountain of debt, their precarious financial situation growing more alarming by the day; watching her boyfriend graduate from one of the top law schools in the country without a job; and to top it off, a beautiful and affordable apartment they had fallen in love with had just gone to another couple.
She said, "I keep thinking I'm getting a sign that things are going to get better - you know? And then it doesn't work out. Like that apartment - it was so nice, it would have been so perfect for us; and I knew I shouldn't get my hopes up but it just felt like maybe, finally something was going to go our way, you know? I couldn't help it - I just saw us living there, so clearly." She stopped talking and wiped away the tears. "I just really need something to go right, for once."
On a basic level, she was wondering: Is the universe on my side, or not? Does God have my back at all? Or are we just floating in a random, meaningless universe that doesn't care? Can I trust that this will get better - or is this just the beginning of the shit-storm?
I've been struggling with the same question for the past several months, as I've gone from the near-top of my profession, to being unemployed and watching my savings slowly evaporate. On the one hand, I've never felt closer to God - and yet, so far, nothing is breaking my way, and I find myself struggling to believe this will ever turn around. I tell myself, "Just keep on trusting in God. Trust in God and all will be well." But the other voice cuts like a piercing scream: There's nothing to trust in! There is no magical rescue. The cavalry does not exist. You are headed for bankruptcy and homelessness! Stop deluding yourself into thinking it's all going to be okay! Homeless people line the streets every day - do you think you're so special you won't end up just like them?
On some fundamental level, I think, both of those voices are true.
The day after Alex's breakdown, we were at a picnic with family and friends, celebrating my son's graduation, and I fell into a conversation with a woman whose faith in God, she said, had never wavered since her earliest memories as a child. She was a successful attorney with the bright, sunny disposition of someone for whom everything tends to works out well. "I don't know why; I can't explain it," she said, "but ever since I was a little kid, I've been talking to God. We talk all the time. I've been praying since before I can remember."
She can't help but think that her success has something to do with this relationship with God. And she knows that not everyone is so lucky, or has that innate trust. Her God-daughter, she told me, had lost her parents at an early age; she had gotten into drugs and was pregnant before she turned 20, and now finally, at the age of 30, she was beginning to get back into school as a single parent of two boys, with a full-time job. Her God-daughter was struggling to keep it all together, and was often overwhelmed by the difficulties. She said, "I told her, 'Just pray to Jesus! Pray to Jesus! I guarantee you: He will answer your prayers!'"
I found myself thinking two contradictory things simultaneously:
1. "Yeah, right: and now explain to me why hundreds of people just died in that earthquake in Nepal, all of whom were crying out to their God."
2. "Yes, I've experienced the power of prayer; I have known, in humbling, unmistakable ways, the presence of God, showing up, giving me strength, getting me through tough times, and seeming to make things happen for my benefit. I know on some fundamental level that I am not abandoned."
And yet, nothing about #2 makes any kind of sense in light of #1. If God answered the prayers of all the desperate people in this world, we wouldn't have anyone suffering or dying.
My Catholic priest / Roshi in San Francisco told me about how, for months after his enlightenment experience, his Zen Master was very annoyed with him. It turns out to be a common experience after a powerful kensho experience: one becomes a "Zen drunk." He was filled with joy, sparkling with celestial pixie dust and thoroughly obnoxious, convinced that he was at the absolute center of the universe. "But of course, I wasn't," he said. "But it sure as hell felt like it!"
On the night before my most recent job interview - for the Job of My Dreams - I had a fantastic dream. God, in the form of Al Pacino, was looking deeply into my eyes, his hand on my shoulder, smiling broadly. "Yes," he said. "This is your time. I love your ideas. I am committed to you. I will make it happen!" I woke up dazzled and joyful. All morning, it felt like God was carrying me along with a laser-like vision for my ministry. As I made my way to the meeting, a series of bizarre coincidences unfolded, reinforcing my sense that I was "in the groove" and meant to be there.
And then I got to the interview, and it was over before it began. My future prospective boss told me he had just found out that the funding for my Dream Job had fallen through.
So what do you do with that?
This is what I think now: there is no past. There is no future. There is only the present moment. All our efforts to read the signs, predict the future, lasso meaning from the bucking bronco of the present moment, convince ourselves that God is "on our side" and everything is going to turn out fine - these are all escape attempts - escaping from the present moment.
In our anxiety, we want the universe to tell us that we are in some way protected from tragedy - but that desire is yet another attempt to escape from the present moment, which is guaranteed, on some days, to include tragedy and deep suffering. But in the meantime: what is happening now? Is there air enough to breathe? Can you hear the song of a distant bird? Is someone calling for your love? Yes: this moment is calling to you. Answer it.
It is entirely possible that, five minutes from now, this building will fall on top of us, and for the love of our lives we will fight until we can fight no longer, and then with our dying breath we will hear ourselves say, "Okay." Nowhere in that scenario is there room for anxiety and fear. And so, we trust, (breathe), trust, (breathe), trust, (breathe), trust...