A journalist once asked Albert Einstein:“What is the most important question we can ask?”
Albert’s reply: “Is the universe a safe place?”
That is a big question.
I have no idea what Mister Einstein meant by it or how he would have answered it.
I am not sure how I would answer it.
I love questions.
They create space. I can turn them over and over in my mind like I am playing with a kaleidoscope. They never look the same way twice. Every new image surprises and delights. And there is no right or wrong perspective, simply light refracted in infinite ways.
Questions are way more fun than answers. Answers require me to think other people’s thoughts after them rather than being playful with my own. Answers insist on being clear, concise, rigid. Answers are either right or wrong.
Good questions can never be nailed down, never really resolved. Not satisfactorily. They merely open the door to bigger questions. Like my philosophy professor used to say:
“We do not have all the answers. In fact the answers we do have have raised a whole new set of questions. In many ways we are as confused as we were before, but we believe it to be on a deeper level and about more important things.”
Questions are like those little soap bubbles that we expel into the summer air - elusive and ephemeral, the oily marbled skin turning in the sunlight. So pretty I want to possess them, gather them in and hold on tight. But the moment I reach out to grasp hold they disappear.
Some soap-bubble questions:
“Is there a God?”
“Does my life have a purpose?”
“Will my children find me as delightful and endearing when I am in diapers, as I did them?”
I can’t answer these questions. The best I can hope to do is to explore how they make me feel. Do they excite me, intrigue me, depress me? Do I admire their beauty or recoil at their offense. Do I want to grab hold as they float mystically by? Do I feel wiser and empowered for having confronted them, or diminished and shamed?
Is the universe a safe place?
As I sift through childhood memories, Albert’s question evokes positive and negative responses.
It strangely warms me, first off. It snuggles in tightly around me like the flannel blanket I had as a child that made my world feel safe and secure, smelling of mother’s breast and father’s musky shirts and lilacs and spruce gum and smoke from birch logs crackling in the fireplace, bringing assurances of belonging and being loved.
And it chills me. My body tightens with the memory of the night when a predator entered the bedroom, or the afternoon when our dog was killed by a car on the highway, or the last day of the school year when my best friend moved away into the city.
I revisit a few more reflections: I am sitting on my father's knee trying to be brave as he explained that he was not coming home anymore. Decades later I gather my two children on my knees and attempt to explain to them why I was not coming home again.
“The universe is an illusion - albeit it a very persistent one.” Another wise quip from Albert.
There are no certainties or guarantees. Nothing lasts forever. All the assurances I counted on as a child have proved as permanent as soap bubbles. Some have been popped for me, some I popped for myself.
So how am I feeling now, looking back over six decades of bubbles burst? Or looking forward to greater uncertainties to come?
Two insights I have gathered from this exploration:
First, I can’t answer that question by revisiting the past nor anticipating the future. I can only answer it for myself from inside the vagaries of this day, this moment, this time and place.
Secondly, this is an intensely personal, subjective question. I cannot answer it for my children or anyone else I might want to protect from pain and harm.
So I turn off reports on the daily news of wars and famines and corrupt governments, and turn inward to listen to the rhythms of my body. As flesh and blood, I become mindful of the unrelenting constancy of my breath, rising and falling, supporting me without my intention. By a force beyond my own will, I am being upheld, supported and nourished.
I venture out beyond my skin. I explore the interior of our beautiful home, safe, comfortable, warm. I marvel at the singular blessedness of sharing it with the love of my life, Patricia.
I look further, out the window onto the backyard and watch the nurturing rain soak into our garden. There too is life and growth and abundance.
In this moment, all around there is security and safety and love.
On this, the 63 anniversary of my launching out into the world, sight unseen with no guarantees, my conclusion is, “My universe indeed feels like a safe place.”
Thank you Albert, for being thoughtful enough to ask.
Thank you, everyone else, for all your well-wishes.