‘Why are we here at all?” is probably the most consequential question after “Are we alone?” If you grew up Catholic, the answer was presented to you at a very early age:
Q: “Why did God make you?”
A: “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.”
(Baltimore Catechism, 1950s, instruction manual for Catholic children)
There it is: the answer in one sentence. Back in the day, there were only two kinds of people: “Catholics” and “Publics” (so named because they went to “public” school). Catholics were going to heaven. Publics were not. We wore this certainty like a freshly ironed shirt of shared beliefs. “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child …” (St. Paul)
But as we got older, we grew into bigger shirts. Our parents provided these during our childhood, each successive one looking much the same style and color as our older ones. Then, somewhere along the line, we noticed that everyone did not wear the same kind of shirt. While we wore “blue shirts with buttons and collars,”others (Lutherans?) wore cream-colored shirts, while still others (non-Christians) wore different colors of pullover shirts — with pockets.
As birthdays came and went, we started to choose and wear the colors and types of shirts we liked that were a comfortable fit for us. Sometimes, they were very much the same as the ones we grew up with. And before we knew it, our shirts became our “team jerseys,” even suits of armor as we did battle intellectually, morally, politically, sometimes even physically with those who wore different jerseys.
As humans, we need social connections. We need our groups, our “teams.” And we find these connections in multiple arenas. We identify as liberal or conservative, labor or management, black or white, straight or gay, Irish or Cuban or Chinese; Hindu, Jew, Christian, Muslim, or none of the above. Based on these team identities and beliefs, we find both our reasons to live and how best to do so. We grow into our own answers to “why” we are here. “But when I became a man, I put away childish things …” (St. Paul again)
The problem is that “teams” create an “us versus them” world. We’re right, you’re wrong. We’re good, you’re bad. We care, you don’t. The Bears hate the Packers. The Cubs hate the Cardinals. It’s this very enmity that holds members together — and keeps groups apart.
In the heartfelt defense of our group’s shared answers to the ultimate question of “why,” we rub raw the irreconcilable differences between us, differences that lead to endless arguments, fighting, even bloody wars. We have way too many irreconcilable differences, fights, and wars. Way too many.
To seek a definitive answer to “why,” a universally accepted reason for our existence here on earth, is futile. We need a better approach.
In his book, Until the End of Time, Brian Greene, mathematician and particle physicist, asks us to imagine sitting on a park bench next to a rock (don’t ask why). The rock goes through its entire existence as a collection of atoms happily being a rock. But we, another collection of atoms, have what he calls “agency.” We can create and destroy, love or hate, be charitable or miserly, teach and learn, explore, invent, and most importantly, imagine things that do not exist. And we can foresee our own “end of time.”
For Greene, whether this ability to do all these different things originates in “free will” granted by an almighty God or is simply the explainable result of our uniquely evolving set of organic compounds, is impossible to prove. Getting mired in “the beginning” avoids dealing with the “present” — and turns a blind eye to the amazing beauty of all that we are capable of, no matter the answer to why.
Unlike the rock, we can evaluate, act, and change. We can get off the bench. That agency, that ability to impact the world around us, is what makes us more than a rock, more than just a collection of chemicals.
And it is this exclusively human ability that renders priceless how we deal with the present, what we do when we “get off the bench.”
There are people who believe with all their hearts that the ultimate answer to “Why?” lies in a personal, almighty God. There are people who believe with all their hearts that we are the lucky, and temporary, result of evolving and conglomerating organic compounds. And there are people who believe every nuanced position in between. But no matter our beliefs, shirt, or team, four things are true:
First, we do indeed have this power to act; second, these actions affect both ourselves and others; third, we are fully aware of both our actions and their consequences; and fourth, we have only a finite amount of time. So hanging over my desk is an Indian proverb that goes like this:
Every time you wake up and ask yourself
“What good things am I going to do
today?” remember that when the sun
goes down at sunset, it will take a part of your life with it.
The hope is that we will do good things. The certainty is that we will have one less day in our lives to do so. Are there at least some things we can all agree are “good”? Is this a shirt we could all wear, to any event, at any time — no matter how we answer “why?” Is this a shirt that would put us all on the same team? Can you imagine the difference it would make? Is there really an alternative?
Looking forward to many more wake-ups and sunsets with you, no matter the shirt you wear. (FYI: I buy my shirts at Goodwill. Name brands, perfect condition, $5! All blue.)
Bill Sieck is a resident of Berwyn who frequently works in Oak Park.