My mother used to say how glad she was to be an Earthling—an expression of joy. Tonight I was feeling just what she meant. In fact, I often do. There is something so incredibly ecstatic about existing at all. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there “me” rather than “not-me”? Yet there is something—there is a me, an “I”. I’m sure we’ve all wondered about these things, and that very wondering points to the heart of the matter, to the sheer mystery that lies at the center of who we are, and points us outward to the mystery of creation, and ultimately to the Mystery who is the origin and end and context of all of this: the Love that lures us out of ourselves.
Where to begin? On one end, try to take in the incomprehensibly vast magnitude of the universe, a universe in unending nativity (to quote from a medieval source)—the staggering size of it all. On another end, watch the tiniest little insect crawling on the inside of a flower; then let your mind dive into the atomic and subatomic inner world of the flower itself—as virtually infinite in that direction as the heavens are in another. And we are the embodiment of matter and spirit living at the crossroad of these infinities.
We do so many “crazy” things to try to take in what it means to live at the crossroad of infinities. I, for instance, became certified as a scuba diver so I could get some sense of what the 90% that we’re missing on the surface looks like; have jumped out of an airplane (in a thrilling tandem drive); have climbed to the top of Mount Whitney and hiked part of the Appalachian trail; and am currently contemplating a deep sea fishing trip on San Francisco Bay. And, as a theologian, I have wondered about these things in another, more intellectual, and also faith-filled sense. We mere mortals cannot possibly do enough to try to grasp the multiplicity of it all. The sheer beauty and endless variety of life (and lifeless matter) on Earth never fail to bedazzle us and to draw us in to new adventures.
But that is not all. There is music and art and literature and sculpture and architecture—organic expressions of the transcendence of the human spirit—all proportioned to the human body and our physical belonging to a planet, a universe. On a more mundane plane, there is the freedom of moving in water, of sailing on a bike, of strolling slowly through a rose garden, not to mention the thrill of watching a three-point basket that goes straight through the rim like magic. There are flowers and birds and dogs and cats, and also some very weird animals—in unimaginable abundance. And bread, and wine and cheese and chocolate and luscious fruit.
And there are people! When I look at any one person, much less thousands gathered inside a stadium, I try to contain within myself the sheer miracle that each of them—each of us—is a whole universe of feelings, emotions, thoughts, fears, desires, confusion, imagination, day-dreaming, aspiration, prayer: a whole universe gazing out beyond the center onto the world out there through the miracle of our eyes. Yet we are also like one another, no matter the variation among us, the uniqueness of each of us. We are seeing, in a physical sense, more or less the same thing, yet each from a unique perspective. We each have bodies, however imperfect and ultimately unreliable, that tie us down to the planet and remind us of our mortality. Yet, as Paul reminds us, they are also reminders of our immortality—another wonder. We are all in this together, yet also, each of us is ultimately alone.
That is why savoring solitude is so essential to happiness. We cannot spend all our time with one other, no matter how extroverted we may be; we need to retreat now and then, if not consistently, into the gift of our ineluctable aloneness. In that solitude, as much as in the crowd, we are reminded that, in addition to the good and the wonder, there is much darkness on this planet, too. There is the “mystery” of evil, of the fact that we humans, no matter how hard some may try, seem to succeed in befouling our green acre. There seems to be a “Satan” lurking among us. Perhaps it is not always good to be an Earthling. But there are also reminders that the way we find things is not how they are “meant” to be. I lived in the flat above a young man and his mother for years, Steve and Rose. Steve was a sweet person whose intellectual and physical capacities were severely diminished. He was incapable of sin. Imagine that—a human being incapable of sin! Yet they, too, exist, as part of this incredible planet, and I have known one or two. Theirs is an even better state than that of the angels (if you believe in them, as I chose to). Only an Earthling could see that.
Despite the worst forms of evil imaginable, the worst that human beings can do, the worst tragedies we can endure, we have some remnants left of the capacity to love, a capacity that we carry with us, a treasure on which we can freely draw. I am speaking of a love that runs deeper than mere perseverance, although it involves that; a love that comes as gift, and only grows through time, as we choose to allow it to do so. It is really possible to love someone over the long haul, through the ending, and into death itself. It is possible for the dying to say in the twilight of the final moments of consciousness, “I love you, and always will,” and to let themselves die into this loving. Only an Earthling can do that. Only an Earthling can know tears of sadness, tinged with the joy of a gratitude too deep to fathom. I have known this; I have been given this gift from the dying. And that’s why, looking at the sway of our otherwise vain natures, I know there to be God—God who frees us from ourselves by the power of a love so powerful in its offer that nothing can overcome it.
I think my mother saw all this, which explains to me why the dominant tone of her final years was joy.