A Poem by Robert and Me
I shall be telling this with a sigh
somewhere ages and ages hence
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
chose neither and climbed a weathered fence.
and made my way o’re untrod ground
a destination to be found.
I love this poem by my dear friend, Sharon Lester. Inspired by Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” at first glance, we might think it’s about roads. But it’s not.
A road is a pre-determined route that ends up at a pre-determined place. A road implies that someone has been this way before. The road that diverges, even though it is less traveled, is still a road. You are following in the footsteps of those who have gone before.
This poem isn’t about roads; it’s about the fence. A fence marks a borderline; its whole purpose is to divide and separate. In this case, the predetermined path is divided from, well, we don’t know, do we? Call it untrod ground. Call it the unknown. That the fence is weathered indicates it was put there a long time ago. We might not even be aware of it anymore. As things do when they’ve been there a long time, it might have become invisible to us.
There are physical fences that one might clamber over, but there’s another kind of fence much harder to spot, never mind climb over, and that is the weathered fence inside your head—the one that keeps you on the straight and narrow, and discourages you from venturing into the unknown.
We spend many years in school being rewarded for the right answers (those answers the teacher wants). We learn, through humiliation, low test scores, and bad grades, to shy away from the wrong answers (the answers the teacher doesn’t want). We dread being called on in class and having to utter the foul words, “I don’t know.”
If you’ve had a religious upbringing, you’ve also possibly been both shamed or frightened into staying on the road. Threatening children with an angry God and punishment (either in this world or the next) if they go over the fence is a very old tradition.
Bit by bit the fence is constructed that keeps us on the road, following the footsteps of those who have gone before. Of course, folks do spot the fence. Some look over it. Some yell and scream about the dangers that lurk on the other side. Some climb over and bushwhack a bit without straying too far from it. Others climb over and wander off.
Doubting Thomas and Questioning Jane
In my Catholic upbringing, I was taught that some things must be taken on faith. Doubting Thomas was used as an example and a warning. But I always related to Doubting Thomas. Guiltily, I knew I was like him. I understood exactly why he wanted to put his finger in the holes in the resurrected Christ’s hands and feet. People like me and Doubting Thomas want to really really know. (Although, being on the squeamish side, putting my finger into Christ’s wounds was further than I’d go—but I’d definitely want a good look.) And why not, with so many liars and tricksters around, go that extra step and eliminate the possibility of fraud? And once it was proven to Thomas, did he not accept fully and completely?
I don’t know if there’s a difference between a Doubting Thomas and a Questioning Jane, but I have always been a natural question-asker. Although I had already climbed over the fence before I began writing The Universe Within Us, I had always kept my eye on it, not wandering too far off, knowing I could go back to the road if need be. But when I began my research in earnest, my footsteps slowly led me further and further from the fence.
No Idle Curiosity This
The fact is, we are all going to die sooner or later. We can divert our attention from this truth for awhile, but it periodically catches up with us. It caught up with me when my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It was during this time that I realized that the end of life is no time to sort out the meaning and purpose of life, and whether or not we have a future life to look forward to. When one is dying all energies are focused elsewhere, so it had better be sorted out while I was young and well.
My Personal Obstacles Were Weaker than My Desire to Really Really Know
Obstacle 1: Common Knowledge
I had heard all my life that the meaning of life can not be truly explained.
Obstacle 2: Myself
Who am I to try to answer questions that the greatest minds have yet to answer?
Maybe I’m not be the “right” person to investigate an unanswerable question. But, on the other hand, aren’t we all the right people, and don’t we each have a responsibility to try to understand exactly what this life is all about? With that in mind, I proceeded, and The Universe Within Us is how I answered these questions (among others) for myself:
- Can the existence of the soul and a world beyond this be rationally proved?
- If I am only a material being, why does a strictly material life leave me feeling empty?
- If I am a spiritual being, why couldn’t God just put me straight into the spiritual world, and bypass this world altogether?
- What is the value of this physical world and this physical life? What, exactly, is the point?
- Why do science and religion seem to clash? If they are both based in truth, shouldn’t they be pointing in the same direction?
Early Days of Disorientation
I still remember those early days of disorientation (with an undercurrent of fear—was this the path to hell?) when I began looking really hard at what I thought I knew.
Have you ever repeated a word over and over again until it becomes a meaningless sound? (rock rock rock rock rock rock rock rock rock) It was like that—if you look at something really hard it falls apart and turns to mush. Take a rock, for instance. Just pick up a rock and look at it. Simple, right? It’s just a hard, cold, solid rock. Right? Or is it? Here are some questions to think about while looking at said rock:
• Does this rock experience time?
• Does this rock know I’m holding it?
• What atoms compose this rock?
• How are those atoms being held together?
• What exactly is an atom?
Now, try to answer those questions as completely as possible. By the time you’re done it’s not just a rock anymore. It’s a configuration of atoms, with electrons that simultaneously disappear from one orbital and appear in another. The atoms themselves are held together either by sharing electrons, or by their electrical charges. Maybe you’ve been thorough enough to identify the exact kinds of atoms that make up your rock, and can even picture them clinging together in their particular configuration.
The rock in your hand is also a fragment of something larger, maybe the mountain you found it on, bedrock that has been exposed and eroded over vast stretches of time. It’s a piece of history, having formed millions of years ago under great pressure and/or heat. There is nothing permanent about your rock—it is undergoing erosion, although it’s too slow a process for you to see. Even if you’ve taken the rock indoors, that hardly counts as an interruption of the process. What is a year, a century, or even a millennia, to a rock? What are you, from the rock’s point of view (if a rock has a point of view), but the flicker of a shadow falling across it, existing for less time than a fraction of one inhalation?
Oh, and good luck figuring out what an atom actually is. Scientists are still figuring that one out.
These days, when I pick up a rock, I see it as a world unto itself, formed and held together by processes and bonds I barely fathom. It’s not just a rock anymore, but some kind of miracle.
And thus one steps away from the fence, question by answer by question.
My Particular Journey
Wanting to understand the purpose of life and see the overall picture, including my place in the scheme of things, I began at the beginning, with the sciences, which have done so well in explaining how the physical world is constructed. If I had ever goofed off in school, now I studied in earnest: physics, chemistry, geology, microbiology, biology, and genetics.
From there I studied the stages of human development, from conception to birth, through infancy, childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
I studied the virtues, a definitely neglected area of my education. (How little I knew about the very thing that is heart and center of every adult’s current phase of development!)
Next I studied various religions, narrowing my focus to the core holy books of Judaism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Bahá’í Faith. I focused on the central figures of these religions: Moses, Krishna, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, and Bahá’u’lláh. I first researched their lives—what a journey into confusion that was! Depending on the author they were praised or vilified, magnified or minimized, made fantastic or ridiculous. I tried to compare accounts and find the points of agreement.
Then I turned to the holy books with these questions:
• What do these men say about themselves?
• Where do they say they get their knowledge?
• What are the universal themes that remain consistent between the holy books?
• What do they say the purpose of life is?
• How do they describe God, the Creator?
I read and looked about me and thought. I thought a lot. Most thoughts weren’t keepers, but some were. When my spirits flagged I leaned on this passage for support:
“Look at the world and ponder a while upon it. It unveileth the book of its own self before thine eyes and revealeth that which the Pen of thy Lord, the Fashioner, the All-Informed, hath inscribed therein. It will acquaint thee with that which is within it and upon it and will give thee such clear explanations as to make thee independent of every eloquent expounder.” (Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, pp. 141-142)
I turned to this passage almost daily, to remind myself that all I needed was to open my eyes, my mind, and my heart. I struggled onward. I bore with oft-repeated disorientation; I allowed what I thought I knew to dissolve into mush. And out of the mush I rebuilt and gained a new understanding of the purpose of life that is more in-depth, vibrant, and alive than the disjointed concepts I had learned growing up.
Out of Chaos, Order
Admitting both my stupidity and ignorance is liberation to me. I have learned to live with not-knowing. I have learned how to be patient when what I think I know falls apart. The disorientation, while uncomfortable, is temporary. I have learned to trust this phase—it is a necessary part of the ongoing process of getting a grip on reality. The mantra I developed for that period is, “Out of chaos, order.”
Unlearning and Learning
The Universe Within Us represents my own process of unlearning and learning. I expect, if I live long enough, and my ignorance continues to be replaced with knowledge, these ideas will change and be further modified. Unlearning and learning is an entirely exciting lifelong process that shows no sign of ever letting up.