Friday, September 3, 2010

the universe, dust and ashes

Stephen Hawking says we don't need God to explain where the universe comes from. Back in his Brief History of Time days, he was saying it's a mystery what got this whole thing started, our universe. But I guess he's figured out a way maybe we don't need God. He's not saying God doesn't exist, just, there's no particular reason to think he does.

Just what I needed to hear.

This year we learned that our four-year-old son has a heart condition that may require open heart surgery during his childhood, and will likely require open heart surgery during his lifetime. We also learned that our seven year old has Aspergers syndrome, a neurological difference that means that he will need extra help to learn skills that other kids learn more naturally such as how to perform a gross motor task and how to figure out social interactions. For our son, it means he struggles a lot at school despite being bright and insightful and wise.

When my husband was subsequently laid off from his job ("It's not you, we all think you're great. We just needed to restructure our business," they told him) I was beginning to wonder what the universe was trying to tell us.

So this news from Stephen Hawking comes as a kind of a confirmation: the universe isn't telling us much. Things just are the way they are, we don't need God to explain it.

My second thought about Stephen Hawking's new book was about his disability. I thought, "it's interesting that someone with his disability and long-term prognosis would figure a way that we don't need god, rather than a way that we do. I mean, shouldn't he be wanting there to be a purpose, meaning, afterlife, God, etc.?" A patronizing thought, considering we're talking about Stephen Hawking. But still, it's what I thought--I wondered about Stephen Hawking's suffering and whether it would trouble him to believe there might not be any God at all.

In the last few months as I've researched my children's disabilities, I've done a lot of thinking about this question of why. Why did this happen to my beautiful children? Why me? Was it because of something I did during my pregnancies? Is it because I'm not a good enough person?Are we being punished somehow?

These questions led me, at the encouragement of a spiritual teacher, to re-read the book of Job. "Read it slowly," she said. So I read it in several sittings, including two that involved paying a babysitter to let me get a black & tan and read the Tanakh at a local Irish gastropub. I took notes.

One of my favorite passages is when Job says (21:23-26)

One man dies in robust health,
All tranquil and untroubled;
His pails are full of milk;
The marrow of his bones is juicy.
Another dies embittered,
Never having tasted happiness.
They both lie in the dust
And are covered with worms.
The story of Job is that he is suffering, horribly sick, his livelihood destroyed by misfortune, and his friends gather around him to comfort him, but all they can think to say is, in effect, "God has a purpose," and "Repent -- the righteous are rewarded, the evil punished."

And Job rejects that. In effect, he says, "I want God to come to me RIGHT NOW, and explain why I am suffering. I have been blameless. I have been loving to my family and generous to those with less than I have. I have been a good person." And he has.

So God does come, and says, basically, "Who do you think you are, Job? I'm before everything and stronger than everything, I know more than anyone and can defeat anyone who is against me."

But then he turns to Job's friends and says (in so many words,) "you don't know what you're talking about either. I should smite you -- you deserve it for being such blithering, thoughtless, sanctimonious idiots. But I won't, because Job is right, he's a good person. And since he's your friend, I'll spare you."

And Job repents, with one of my favorite lines in all of literature:
I spoke without understanding
Of things beyond me, which I did not know.
Hear now, and I will speak;
I will ask, and You will inform me.
I had heard You with my ears,
But now I see You with my eyes;
Therefore, I recant and relent,
Being but dust and ashes."
In my notes from the pub, I wrote, "Job is blameless in his suffering, and he doesn't know shit.

I hear about Stephen Hawking and I focus on his suffering. What an incredible contradiction, that I would feel sorry for Stephen Hawking. That I would feel sorry for someone because he lives his life in a wheelchair, despite the fact that he has a mind that can comprehend the structure of the infinite. A man whose books are read by thousands of people and who influences the ideas of millions.

I'm just a mom in an apartment in the U.S. -- a person who attends PTO meetings and stresses about bills. A person who feels sorry for those I imagine have it worse, and a person who feels sorry for myself. A person who wonders if it matters whether my children have disabilities because of a scientifically-explainable genetic codes or whether it's just the cruel hand of unseen fate.

Everyone suffers. It's just the truth. We make ourselves feel better by thinking, it could be worse. We feel sorry for others. We promise, I'll be better and different and then my future will be different. If I try hard enough maybe instead of dying embittered I can die with "pails full of milk."

In the midst of our despair, God may appear to us out of a whirlwind and tell us to shut the fuck up. But more likely we will discover in some mysterious and ridiculously undramatic moment that we are loved, as Job's friends are loved, despite our imperfections and dumb ideas about the universe.

Like today, as I sit at a table with two children in bed and my husband doing the dishes; with a vase of roses in front of me from my mother-in-law, who thought I could use the cheer, and knowledge that tomorrow we will go to a museum and look at art made entirely out of legos.

We don't need God, and yet meaning appears. I believe in transcendence, and believe I am dust and ashes. Somewhere between those two beliefs is where I'll have to live.