Look, I’ll be honest: I don’t trust the universe. And this isn’t new.
In my defense, I have reasons. Some of them arise from the specific experiences of my upbringing. Without going into details, I’ll only say that I found emotional safety in short supply. Some spring from the bigotries and abuses and oppression, both past and present, that litter human history. It’s hard, for me at least anymore, to be a brown person in this culture and see the universe as benevolent.
And then, of course, we have the largest of reasons: the existential reality that the universe aims to kill us. All of us. Each and every living being. As a practical matter, this makes sense; the planet (and probably the universe) lacks the space for everything living that comes into being to continue to live indefinitely (eating, reproducing, defecating and urinating, etc., etc.).
But I can’t help taking it somewhat personally that the universe will someday enforce an end-by date for me, and I sometimes struggle with not knowing when that date will arrive (not that I want to know…I think).
Alan J. Pakula, one of my favorite filmmakers, died 19 years ago this month when he was driving home on the freeway and the car in front of him hit a metal pipe that flew up and through Pakula’s car windshield, hitting him in the head and causing him to crash his car. No, trust is not for a universe such as this; I feel justified in coming to that conclusion.
But I don’t often think consciously about the impact this distrust has on my life. Today, for example, I had a wonderful connection with a loved one, a connection that I didn’t expect. And at the time, I thought it happened only because I’d written them an email lamenting what felt like a distance between us. As it turned out, my loved one hadn’t read the email; they initiated this interaction because they spontaneously felt the same desire for closeness.
In smaller ways, too, I feel the hand of my distrust on my actions. Something so simple as coming to an intersection gives rise to the briefest moment of anxiety about whether the other cars will stop as they should. Momentarily my foot hovers over the brake, just in case.
So much of my anxiety about my children’s safety, my work, my writing, the quality of my friendships, my not-infrequent loneliness or depression, roots itself in my suspicion about what the universe might have in store for me next.
In the face of similar concerns, some people give themselves over to religion and the hope for another world, another realm that follows death, where certainty and safety and happiness will exist in infinite abundance. My one-time ability to believe in that is long gone. But I think there may be another way.
I can choose to maintain the sense that the universe doesn’t have the best intentions for me and still find meaning. I can do this by dropping my expectations (though not necessarily my desire) for how the world should be and focusing instead on determining, and acting on the basis of, how I should be.
I can choose an openness that makes space for the kind of spontaneous interaction I had today. I can choose to make art not because I know the world will accept it but because I know my life is poorer when I let my fear keep me from writing. I can choose to embrace love and connection and risk, knowing that someday I will lose those I love or they will lose me, because I want the kind of life that such choosing makes possible (but doesn’t guarantee).
Neither danger nor safety make life worth living, even if I could control them (which I can’t). The possibility of connection does. The possibility of transformation does. Not even the expectation. Just the possibility. Just that.