There’s a scene at the beginning of Annie Hall that shows Alvy (the Woody Allen character) as a child in a therapist’s office. The young Alvy has become depressed and indifferent. The cause of his malaise – he has just discovered that the universe is expanding which means that one day, everything will end. I imagine that anyone who has watched NOVA has been confronted with the same dilemma as young Alvy. Our world is an infinitesimally small speck in a vast universe that will one day end – maybe in fire maybe in ice, with a bang or a whimper, but it will end. When all is said and done, our time here, both as individuals and as a species, will have been a barely perceptible blip in the history of the universe. I can see how pondering that reality could make one depressed.
And yet we all know this and very few of us curl up in the fetal position and give up. In fact there’s something strangely comforting about sitting back in the soft chairs at the Adler Planetarium, gazing up at simulated galaxies on the ceiling and listening to the narrator’s tranquil voice trying to explain quantities of space and time that are incomprehensible. We’ve probably all googled our address on google earth and then panned out until we were able to see the whole planet. I’m not sure if there’s any practical use for this application, but it’s cool. The handful of astronauts who have experienced seeing the earth from space didn’t come away from that experience distressed by their new perspective, but rather they described it as a spiritual experience. I think that’s because a more distant perspective, whether spatial or temporal, makes us focus only on what’s important and the petty stuff that normally occupies most of our energy, disappears. You can’t see the crooked shingles on my roof from 1,000 feet. At age fifty-three I can listen to whatever music I like without worrying whether it’s cool. The more you zoom out, the more stuff disappears. From space, not only can’t you see my house’s imperfections, but differences between nations vanish. I think I have a decent grasp on the whole work-life balance thing now, but I’m sure when I’m ninety (God willing) I’ll appreciate the “life” part of that equation even more than I do now and wonder what on earth was so important that it made me stay late in the office while my son was playing soccer. Ultimately, if we zoom all the way out, everything disappears. Everything except love.
I like NOVA and science and logic and reason, but I’m also open to the possibility that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy. When my kids were little I knelt by their beds and said prayers, told them stories until they fell asleep and then stayed there watching them – at those moments I felt God’s presence as real as my fingers feel this keyboard. I’ve worked with people who have devoted their lives to helping others. I’ve lived on a planet with Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, and countless other good, if less famous people, who it seems to me were obviously channeling something that was bigger than themselves and that is not transitory. I watched my daughter’s friend and classmate transform a community in the thirteen short years he had among us. Hundreds of people will never be the same because of the witness of a remarkable kid named Patrick McNamara who embodied joy, love, and courage throughout his eleven year battle with brain cancer. I don’t think the world will end on December 21st, but if that’s the plan – bring it on. To paraphrase Paul, there will still be a few things that remain, and the greatest of these is love.