A cold, uncaring universe

On one end of a spectrum of beliefs, they say life is guided by an anthropomorphic deity in the sky. On the other, the universe is cold and indifferent. I'd say both miss the point.

It became clear to me early in life that organized religion (or at least Catholicism) was snake oil: a poor remedy for man's (sometimes invented) problems. I wasn't raised this way; I was born into a family of believers. But the day the possibility arose in my mind of religion being not a law of nature, but a myth man made up, a funny thing happened. I didn't become anti-religion or an atheist. I didn't turn to satan or start thinking that life had no purpose without a “big man upstairs.”

No. Instead, I became free. Free to discover for myself what life was, and what it was about. Free to learn about the world and how to do right by myself and others. Without pre-selected “authorities” on the subject of existence who gave answers like “because God said so,” I could ask all the questions I wanted. And unlike a priest, the universe would answer.

And it's taught me a lot since then.

But there was, of course, another camp waiting for me when my mind left religion's loose grasp back then: the “cold and heartless universe” camp. The comedians like to joke about this, and the way they tell it shows the subtext in this thinking: basically, “The universe doesn't care about me, so why should I care about it?” And when you consider that you exist within the universe, this easily translates to “why care about existence?” Or colloquially, “life is shit.”

While I bought this general idea for a while, I quickly found it got me nowhere in life, and much later found out why. The revelation happened while I was hiking on the John Muir Trail in California. We'd been out in the woods for about 4 days. As we passed through Ansel Adams Wilderness and approached our next ascent, the skies were growing darker. The world rumbled. We waited under some trees for a bit, but without any apparent nearby lightning we kept going, and made it over the pass to our next campsite without getting struck.

Soon the skies cleared up, and I went to the edge of our site to look out into the valley below. Here I realized how easy it would be to take a wrong step and go tumbling down the rocky mountainside, breaking and bruising things along the way. Of course, there were also trees along the way that might stop my uncontrolled descent — or maybe a small plateau that would provide a little break from the steep slope. It was there I realized that the universe really does provide for me. Sure, some epic hand might not descend from the clouds to grab me before I fall to my death or get a bad boo-boo. But the trees and boulders might save my life, even if it hurts a bit.

In fact, trees are the quintessence of a caring universe, if we had to pick one. You or I didn't invent trees — no human did. Yet they grew and contributed the air on this planet to help create the perfect conditions for us and other animals to be born and thrive. Now, their hanging branches and leaves provide the only natural relief on a sweltering July day. They breathe opposite us, inhaling every time we exhale. They together continue to grow, even when we chop them down, turn them into paper, and use them to wipe our human asses — never holding a grudge.

Put simply, to think that the universe is uncaring is to invent an ideal universe in your head and be mad when reality doesn't match up. It is to say, “Don't strike me, lightning!” while standing tall in the middle of a field in a thunderstorm. It is to leap off a cliff and expect to fly, merely because you believe it. It is to ignore your senses and the world you are a part of.

If you find yourself despairing over a cold and heartless universe, stop. Look at the trees. Listen to their leaves blowing in the wind — really listen. See what they tell you. Find a river, lake, or ocean and listen to the water. See what you discover — not about the universe, but yourself.

If you pay attention, you might hear the truth you've been looking for.