I went to the library for more books on mathematics today, and was annoyed to find someone standing in front of my section. He was thirtyish, olive skinned, well dressed, and had a heavy accent. His name was Alberto, and he said he was from El Salvador. He spoke with a child’s enthusiasm about his love for learning, and we discussed the various books he was perusing. After awhile, I shook his hand and went to run another errand.
As I rode, I couldn’t get Alberto out of my mind, and the thought came to me that maybe he was a gift—or at least a lesson—from the universe. I was tempted to go back, but since I don’t believe in a purposeful universe, I refrained, albeit it with the thought that I would always regret my decision.
After my final errand I did return to the library. It was my way of making a token effort to cooperate with a universe that I don’t believe requires cooperation. I found Alberto in the language section. He said he was interested in Greek because he had seen Greek writing on campus, and didn’t know what it meant. I said that the writing had probably been on the front of fraternities and sororities. He had not heard of such things and asked many questions.
Later, he told me of the prejudice he experiences in Eugene because of his accent, and I told him that I have experienced the same. We talked until the library closed. Alberto had just finished a cup of coffee, and I asked if I could buy him another. He said he was supposed to go meet someone, but would call to see if the person could meet us instead. The line was busy, so he offered that we might have coffee another time.
I have known people who believe that every event carries a lesson. Such people often see individual objects, events, and creatures as facets of one inseparable entity, and they say that the lessons we encounter come from the wisdom of that entity and are meant to awaken us to our true nature. For those who persist in this belief, it is a source of comfort, but I have not known anyone who was so convinced that he approached life impartially.
I picked up a library book at random today. A certain page was marked, and I opened to it and read:
“On a cold indescribable day,
When it does not want to become dark and not bright,
The eyes neither want to open nor shut
And familiar sights don’t remind you of your old familiarity with the world…”
This describes life in the Willamette Valley since last fall, and the thought hit me that maybe the universe didn’t bring me to the library to meet Alberto, but to read this poem. But if the universe is, in reality, an indistinguishable whole, and all lessons exist within that universe, then are not all lessons likewise indistinguishable in terms of priority? I continued:
“Where does the last contradiction survive?
Where is the sight to revive you?
But all questions have become rhetorical,
routine memories of real questions…
from Nonsense and Happiness
by Peter Handke
One problem with seeing the universe as a series of benevolently taught lessons is that I can never know for sure what the lesson is. I can tell myself that, like an onion, the lessons contain layers within layers, but I find no comfort in guesswork. What I do find is reproof for my need that there be more to life than there seems to be. Could this be the lesson?
Those who believe in the oneness of the universe and in the illusion of separateness, say that how we interpret things makes no ultimate difference because we all came from a unified whole and we will all return to it. This is true, I believe, yet if that whole lacks awareness—and I see no reason to think otherwise—what is the difference?
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