F. W. Myers said that if he could ask just one question of the Sphinx, he would ask, “Is the universe friendly?”
When only a little boy I wrestled with a related question. I evaluated the odds of getting in trouble for my assorted misdeeds or being appreciated for my good intentions. 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.
My childish amusement of throwing apricots at passing cars did not turn out well. I lived in dread of being busted by the law for years. But childhood held more than mischief, anxiety, and unwelcome consequences. For me and my siblings it meant a stream to explore, mountains to climb, dragonflies to admire, and all of nature to discover. Life was glorious. Most of the time.
The issue of the nature of nature was still not settled for me when adulthood reluctantly arrived. As I finished college I dated a kind, gentle, and lovely woman named Nancy. She loved Mildred, my Honda 175, in spite of the occasional balkiness. On our first date I picked Nancy up early one Saturday morning 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 for entropy.
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. She settled for taking turns. Nancy turned a chore into recreation. Score several points for a benevolent universe.
Nancy and I married. In time our family was joined by Beloved Emily, 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 takes away.
Most of us are glad for children in principle, but babies spit up, their toys accumulate, and small shoes track vast mud reserves into our lives. Yet our three children also taught us the vital lessons of being human and experiencing joy.
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?
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, when I sit next to my beloved Nancy, or the yearning I feel for the grandkids to come over and wreck our house. The laws of physics cannot account for everything that seems to matter.
The Sphinx has spoken. I know what I believe. Life is good. The universe is friendly.
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