Pondering the Prodigious Perplexity of Life

Stephen Hawking, the great physicist and Black Hole scholar, has an interesting conclusion in his best selling book, "A Brief History of Time."  After 11 chapters exploring how the universe began, what made it possible, time and how it flows, quarks, black holes, antimatter, arrows of time,  boundaries and dimensions of space, his chapter 12 concludes with a surprising philosophical question. He asks "Why?"  Hawking asks, "If God created the universe, who created God, and why?" He asks, "Why are we here and for what purpose?"  His theme changes from scientific and cosmological to the simple philosophical question of why?  

His closing paragraph ends with this sentence. "...why it is that we and the universe exist? If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason -- for then we would know the mind of God."  

"...why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason --  for then we would know the mind of God."  

It is thus that I ponder the prodigious perplexity of life. The question of why?

In the life of each of us, every man and every women, there is a seed that can grow into a unity with the explosive power of the universe. Consider the times of your life when you have found the "zone," that area where you have such strong feelings of exhilaration, joy, risk, reward and you feel that you have found happiness. In those moments, perhaps you have seen the face of God.  For a high school athlete it may be the night he made a touchdown in a football game, or elected class president. For for a girl, the night she was named homecoming queen, or "most popular" or "most likely to succeed."  For some it may be the day of a proposal to marriage, or the day a child was born. For others, the day of graduation, or the day they became company president. For some people, the moments of being in the "zone" where they are one with the universe may be few. For some, perhaps only once or twice in a lifetime is enough. For others, such as a great composer, movie producer, poet or diplomat, perhaps the challenges for greater and greater achievements come through driven sacrifice. For some, their lives lose all joy and excitement, and their question is one of perplexity, of how their lives became so hard, so boring, so drab and so without meaning. 

No doubt, I am perplexed when powers of the universe seem to fight to hold a person down.

For I believe that every person has a right to achieve his or her destiny, and that destiny is a proximity to their "zone" of meaning in life.

I spoke to a beautiful women, honored at her high school, a leader in every group she joined. She was pursued, courted by a man who married her. Soon she was pregnant and they moved to another state.  Years later I saw her. She confided:

"I had so many dreams and things I wanted to achieve in life. I made choices that took the place of my dreams. I had to give most of my productive years to raising three children and servicing my husbands needs.  Now, looking back, I exchanged my 'zone' of joy for another set of things. Oh yes, I love my kids and my husband, but the things that were my 'dreams' were lost because of the needs and desires of others, who took much my life and demanded attention for their needs."

But then there are others, who focus on life, its hardships, challenges, waves of good and evil, and they somehow persist. For them, it is not to own just one company or to be the leader of one group, or to write just one book. For them, each success leads to another "zone" of unity with the universe. I call this one of the deepest areas of true joy and satisfaction.  Thus when I meet a successful author who has written hundreds of articles or published many books, or achieved great goals in life, I can see that even his memory of these things brings a form of deep security in himself and the universe. 

A few weeks ago I heard from a friend in Washington, D.C., who has worked for the World Bank and for other international agencies doing great things in economic development.  He said, "Ben, I am old now and have a 7-month-old grandson. I hope that when I am gone and he is grown, he will know of the great things we did around the world, and that his grandpa was a good man of many successes." That man, even though now up in years, still enjoys his days of unity with the universe, his successes, and wants his heirs to know and enjoy them, too!

One of the perplexities of life is that it is not fair.

Another perplexity is that there is evil in this world, and it causes people to suffer.

Another perplexity is that it seems that much of life is random -- without purpose or meaning.  Earthquakes, tornadoes, floods and famines seem to destroy and punish humanity on a whim. The prodigious number of things which are cruel, harmful, disastrous, murderous is without end.  

But as we ponder, we find that if there is meaning to it all, it is the enigma of the human spirit that seems to rise up in the face of every evil, every disaster, every tragedy.  David Letterman just returned from India and in face of the poverty, drought, crowded conditions he said: "I was so impressed with the optimism and joy of the people."   The human spirit tends to rise up, even as a World Trade Center building is destroyed on 9/11,  the stories of heroic men and women who saved lives inspire all to higher levels of existence.  


A city such as Aleppo is bombed, thousands killed, yet only 30 doctors who remain save lives and dig children out of the rubble even as bombs drop all around them. Those children will live to tell of the heroic people who saved their lives and gave them voice.

Consider this true story: A religious fanatic decapitates people in a town, leaves land mines one of which a child steps on, the blasts destroys her leg and arm. At a point of near death, a few good men in the USA, the Shriners, who run the Shriners Children's Hospitals, fly the girl to the USA, rebuilds her body, and the little girl in therapy learns how to paint. She now sells so many paintings to Americans that she supports her father and mother.

See, each of these stories has the energy to elevate us, to bring us closer to the mind of God, to a "zone" of happiness and achievement in life.  The perplexing fact that life is not fair, and that there are evil people in life, and that life is tragic and often hard, gives the stories of those who prevail even more power. Perhaps those stories provide enough energy and light to show the way for others to climb onward and upward to new heights. And perhaps elevating the human spirit is what we call civilization, or decency, or living lives of purpose and joy. 

None of us can answer all of the "Whys." 

But each of us can attempt to be sensitive and responsive to the nagging thing within us that whispers, sometimes yells at us to do something, do anything, do more to make this a better place. Do something to make the days better for another. Do something that is significant. A few of us will do great and terrific things. Some just a thing or two. 

I was high in the Himalayas of Nepal one day when I came across a forest watch tower with a platform for viewing. Perhaps it was a forest fire watch post, or a military guard tower. There was a boy there, in ragged clothing, and I asked him if I could climb up the tower to take a photo.  He led me up to the tower and showed me how to negotiate the metal ladder rungs. When I said, "Thank you, is there anything I can do for you?" the little boy looked at me, and with burning eyes of intense desire and hope said: "Yes, sir, just give me a chance." I said, "Excuse me?"

The young boy repeated it: "Just give me a chance."  

I have often thought of that boy, and the millions of others around the world, who believe that they just need a chance. I often am perplexed by the thousands of children (and adults) who don't seem to have much of a chance. 

12 years ago I was in Mumbai, India, and as is my nature, I awoke before dawn and went out beyond the streets for a walk by the gulf beach. At an intersection was a blanket on the sidewalk, and on the blanket was a mother and two little girls. One was nursing at its mom's breast.  It was beautiful and touching to me. I averted my eyes and walked on across the busy street and then noticed her husband was standing in the middle of the busy traffic selling flowers to the cars as they stopped at the light. Later as I returned, the sun was up, the two little girls were now dressed, the mother modest, so I stopped and said "Hello, how did you come to sleep here?" She answered, "Oh sir, we had a farm in the country, but the government and the World Bank decided to build a dam, and our farm was covered with water. So we moved here. We pay the police to use this corner of the sidewalk." She did not know it, but I was working as a consultant for the World Bank from time to time and had studied the thousands of people our "damned dam" had displaced. Now I was face to face with results of our efforts.

I handed the mother a $20 bill, and wished her and her family well.  About half way down the block I felt something tugging at my pants leg, It was the older little girl. She smiled at me, and handed me a rose.  I often think of her and her family. When she gave me that rose, it touched me deeply.

One day, the World Bank sent me back to Asia, and I found myself in Mumbai again. I made a walk near the same block and sure enough found the lady and her kids. "How are you?" She, a little older, some worn by life, recognized me immediately and smiled. "We are ok.  My husband was killed by a car in the street, but see my children how they have grown." Her little girls were bigger, hair combed, faces clean, although they were still in simple but washed clothes. I started to hand her a $20 bill, and she said; "Oh, no sir, you are a kind man, you are our friend, your kindness has been enough for us."  She handed me a rose and said: "We have remembered your smile and kind face many times and it has encouraged us." And then she said: "I must get back to work," and she walked into the crowd with her kids, selling roses. I gave $40 to a passing man and asked, "Will you give this to the flower lady and buy flowers from her for me?" He said ok, and I watched from a distance as she took the money, handed him flowers, and then, she looked back at me and smiled. I realized that somehow she and her kids would always be an encouragement, yes, even teachers to me along my life's path. 

The perplexity of life... alas it is so complicated. But I find joy and a tender memory as I share this true story with you.  I trust that you can find your way through perplexity to joy in your life.