A journalist once asked Albert Einstein: “What is the most important question we can ask?” Albert’s reply: “Is the universe a safe place?”
Got to hand it to Albert. He knew how to ask the big questions. Important. I have no idea what Meister Einstein meant by it or how he would have answered it.
What I do know is, 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 after other people’s thoughts rather than being playful with my own. Answers insist on being clear, concise, rigid. Answers are either right or wrong. Either alternative scares me.
Good questions can never be nailed down, never really resolved. Not satisfactorily. They merely open the door to bigger questions. Like the sign hanging over a Customer Service counter:
“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 elusive and ephemeral like those little soap bubbles with oily marbled skin turning in the sunlight that we expel into the summer air. 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 lingering soap-bubble questions come to mind:
“Is there a God?”
“Does my life have a purpose?”
“Will my children find me as delightful and endearing 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 whimsically by? Do I feel wiser and empowered for having confronted them, or diminished and shamed?
Back to Albert: “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, all 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.
A few more reflections arise: I am sitting on my father’s knee trying to be brave as he explains that he is not coming home anymore. Decades later I gather my two children on my knees and attempt to explain to them why I am 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 abiding 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 those questions by referencing the past nor forecasting the future. I can only answer them for myself from inside the vagaries of this day, this moment, this fragile bubble of time and place.
Secondly, these are intensely personal, subjective questions. They are meant for me to answer for myself alone. I cannot answer them for my children or my wife or anyone else I might want to swaddle with glib assurances of cotton-candy futures.
So I turn off reports on the daily news of wars and famines and corrupt governments and I turn inward to listen to the rhythms of my body. I become mindful of the unrelenting constancy of my breath, rising and falling, supporting me by a force greater than 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, in my own little bubble, all around 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, “The universe indeed feels like a safe place.”
Thank you, Albert, for being thoughtful enough to ask. Thank you, family and friends, for helping me answer.
Photo credit: Pixabay