One of the saddest discoveries for some of us is that the world indeed was not made for us. It exists whether we do or not, and it did not create anything for our needs or our enjoyment. The stars and wheeling constellations are not ours, the sun does not shine simply to warm us, nor does the rain come when we want it and stay away when we have a picnic planned. For these people, when something happens to them that they neither planned nor wanted, the response is shock and indignation. "Why me?" they cry, "Why did this have to happen to me?" And somehow, even when their minds know better, their souls think that that is a legitimate question. Given that unpleasant, even tragic things happen, the only legitimate question is, "Why not me?" None of us is big enough -- not the richest or most powerful -- to be an exception to the rule that bad things can happen.
One of my favorite cartoons, which is now defunct, was Bloom County, and my favorite character in it was the little African-American intellectual, mainly because of one strip in which he was sitting on the roof looking through his telescope, and saying through three panels, "The universe goes on, and on, and on, and on, and on...." And in the last panel he is in bed saying, "Infinity is best contemplated from in bed all covered up." Amen, child, amen. When you consider the size of the universe, even if it is the closed curve of Einstein's mathematics, it is simply not comprehensible. We are on a small planet, orbiting a mediocre star on the outskirts of an undistinguished galaxy with billions of stars in it -- a galaxy which is itself only one of billions, trillions, who knows how many? It is definitely best contemplated from in bed, all covered up. And we think that we, not only as a race, but as individuals, are uniquely important -- important enough that our wishes and needs will be attended to. I don't think so.
Not only that, we think we're in control. We can't even control ourselves completely. I used to play bridge with someone who knew -- absolutely knew -- that he could never possibly make inadvertent errors. He was not so sublimely confident that he thought he never made mistakes, but they were ones that he made by his own will through insufficient data, or simply errors of judgment. He never -- no never -- suffered from a slip of the tongue, or a trip of the foot, or a lapse of the mind. He was, as you can imagine, somewhat contemptuous of those who tried to excuse an error on those grounds. Even those of you who don't play bridge probably know that each hand begins with bidding, with each pair of partners trying to set the final contract of the number of tricks that they will take. Each bid tells the partner something about the bidder's hand and is taken into consideration by the other in his or her next bid. Well, one night he said spades when he meant hearts, and, as you can imagine, the final contract was not a happy one. He could not understand why I had bid as I had, until all three of us pointed out his error. I assure you that it needed all three of us to convince him that he had misspoken, and even then he could scarcely believe it. He was a bit like a burst balloon, but for at least a week the level of his hubris was somewhat lowered. I was not disappointed when he found another bridge partner, but although he was an extreme case, like Warty Bliggens, he was not alone in his beliefs of infallibility.
When we are so likely to misstep or misspeak, it seems odd that there are so many people who believe that they not only have complete control over their own lives, but equal control over their universe. There is an ancient philosophical fallacy, supported by recent research on the ways in which our perceptions affect, and even seem to create, the world in which we live, that we are the creators of our own universe, and that what we believe we can bring to pass. That is just true enough that those who wish to believe it can find certain evidence to support their belief. We are told -- and it is often true -- that our expectations create their own results. Research indicates that those who visualize a desired outcome are far more likely to achieve it than those who do not. Suddenly, however, in our hubris, we elevate such useful and helpful psychological insight to new absolutist philosophies and religions in which we can bring about magic results by the mere process of deciding that they will be true, expecting them, visualizing them. "Visualize World Peace," says the bumper sticker. How about visualizing that you can fly or disappear? The Celestine Prophecies, on the best-seller lists for months a few years ago, The Course in Miracles, and now most recently, The Secret suggest that those are real possibilities.
One of the primary problems with this kind of hubris is that it gives a whole new way to blame the victim. If each individual is the creator of his/her universe, then if anyone is sick or poor or unhappy, we can tell where the fault lies. If you are homosexual or black and experience negative stereotyping, it's because that's what you were expecting, so you created it. It sometimes feels odd to me when someone like myself, who is so determined to preach that as free individuals we are responsible for our own lives and thoughts, is so angered by this kind of solipsism. It is unquestionably true that people who organize their lives around their own victimization simply remain victims. It is just as true that when we take responsibility for our own lives; when we learn and work and create without blaming others for our inability to do so, that we are far more likely to succeed and fulfill ourselves. Nevertheless, there is a significant difference. You can believe in personal freedom and its other name, responsibility, without denying the existence of a real world that exists independently of you, was there before you existed and will be there after you are gone, that is far greater than you, and that impinges on you. You can take responsibility for your own life without assuming that you somehow created your own attack of the flu, chose to break your ankle, or welcomed the cancer invading your body -- or that anyone else did either. You need not even understand, much less take or assign responsibility for the devastation of a tornado. You can know that you are small, compared to the universe, that you are finite, that even your name will probably be forgotten in a far shorter time after you die than most of us could wish, and that this is simply the human condition. Visualize the whirling galaxies and you will gain the saving grace of humility. It is a saving grace because it enables us to understand and forgive the errors and weaknesses of those who are made of the same stuff as ourselves, who share our condition, who share our tiny existence. It enables us also to forgive ourselves.
There's another side of this, though, and that is that small and weak and finite as humankind is, prone to error and violence and hubris as we are, we are at the same time a marvel. We are sometimes inundated by the evil that human beings do. We see the ignorance and violence and oppression that we can be heir to, and we forget what a continuing wonder we are. Although only a short way out from the earth (galactically speaking) all traces even of our existence, much less our creations, are no longer discernible, our creations are awe-inspiring. I am most reminded of this each time I fly in an airplane. Every time it takes off from the ground seems a new miracle to me, and it was human ingenuity, the human desire to fly, having no wings, that made it possible. The earth below is a thing of fascination and beauty, both of nature and of human pattern, and while flying at night you see the lights we have created to oppose the darkness like clusters of jewels. The most marvelous flight I remember was a landing at Logan airport in Boston one evening just at dusk. The flight pattern, created merely to reduce the noise to residential areas, took us, as it seemed, almost between the high office buildings, still discernible in the last light of day, but starred and patterned with the lights within. It was awesome in the word's original sense.
How much of human creation is awesome! We have existed less than an eyeblink even in the history of the world we live on, much less that of the universe, and it is amazing what we have done. We have built lasting monuments to the human spirit in Stonehenge and on the Nile, though they, too, will eventually fade to nothingness as will our earth and sun. We have learned to speak and write and print and now we communicate electronically. We have unleashed the power of the atom both for good and evil. We have built monumental structures of religion and philosophy, of science and mathematics. We have made our homes warm in winter and cool in summer, and found ways to provide summer fruit in the dead of winter for those who want it. We have written novels and poetry and symphonies, and we have read and performed them. We have gone to the moon and probed beyond Pluto.
And there are little things, too. Have you ever been awed by the experience of watching a child who is learning to talk or considered the complexity of whistling a tune? Not to mention zippers and velcro and indoor plumbing. We create magic every day and greet it with a yawn and a shrug. It gets old after a while to see a miracle every time you recite the alphabet or set an alarm clock. Yet it really is a miracle that human beings, a tiny, unimportant life form whose only lasting impression is likely to be the rearrangement of the molecules of the universe that gave us life, can reason and create and build. No wonder we are sometimes overwhelmed by our own power.
And then the real world impinges, and it is that which saves us. No matter what we do, how useful we are or what structures of beauty we create, the real world still impinges upon us, still reminds us that we are finite and error-prone and almost infinitesimally small. It is the futility of literature, the fact that whatever the depth and breadth of conversation and reason, the spider will still eat the fly that resolves the paradox of our littleness and bigness, and carries us beyond the place we are to something greater and more meaningful. The grace of humility teaches us about love and compassion and forgiveness. It reminds us of justice and leaves us trembling in the face of beauty -- beauty both of the world around us and of human creation. It opens us to the power of transcendence, the sense of our own smallness which allows us to serve those ideals which are greater than creativity and power, and in that service become great ourselves.
It is the futility of literature that makes it a path to the holy, the uselessness of music that opens the way to the transcendent, the insignificance of beauty for survival that teaches us who we are and what really matters. It is our own futility, uselessness and insignificance that makes us truly significant, because through the humility we learn we are empowered to love. That is a structure greater than any we can build, but when we learn how small we are it is ours for the building.