The master of the house beckoned me into the living room.
“Some schnapps?” he asked.
“No thanks,” I replied, “Ten in the morning is before my drink time … but I’ll take a cup of coffee, if you don’t mind.”
My future father-in-law seemed a little peeved. He was a man who liked to drink in pairs. Then he stared at me for another moment, and posed a second, more pressing question: “Why?”
I had never met this deeply troubled man, but I knew enough about him to know he wasn’t inquiring about my schnapps demurral. His question was rhetorical, and yet it wasn’t; it was dense, multilayered and fraught with a lifetime of shame and regret. Why am I here? That’s what he wanted to know. Why I am here when the rest of my beloved family lies buried in the mass graveyard once known as Nazi-occupied Poland? Why do such things happen to innocent people? Why?
I was ready for the question. “Just maybe,” I said, pointing to his daughter and my fiancé, “it has something to do with her.” I was trying to make him feel a little better, but he was having none of this penny-ante speculation. He wanted a big answer to the eternal question, a sweeping, all-encompassing, blockbuster of a response flush with certainty and authenticity. He wanted Meaning. Capital-M meaning.
He was addressing the wrong guy.
I stopped looking for that kind of meaning many years ago. I’ve seen what that fruitless search does to people. At best, it’s a waste of time and emotional and intellectual energy. At worst, you wind up drinking poisoned Kool-Aid in a Guyanese jungle.
I think we can all agree that shit happens, and at least half of it is bad shit; more than half if you count reality television. And I believe we can further agree that the overwhelming empirical evidence suggests that the universe behaves in a way that displays utter indifference to suffering, human and otherwise, on an immense scale. To gaze into that bottomless heart of darkness and attempt to divine a holy purpose is, to me, the height of arrogance and folly.
And yet, my faith remains strong. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I persist in the belief that there is a reason for everything: for the death of six million European Jews, the Ebola virus, even Ted Cruz. I just stopped trying to find those reasons, because they lie far beyond human understanding.
Why keep this irrational faith in a grand plan? Can’t one find meaning in daily life; work and play, family and friends, love and sex and the whole damn thing? Live a good and decent life and hope that you and your loved ones don’t get hit by an asteroid or a falling cinder block. Sure, you can. I know plenty of people who believe in no power higher than themselves and they do just fine, thank you.
I choose to believe otherwise because it is more pleasurable and less stressful. I get to combine the peaceful acceptance that comes with acknowledging that which cannot be known, with the comfort of feeling that the shit that happens isn’t just a meaningless series of random occurrences. It gives me more motivation to get up in the morning after an excruciating evening of watching my New York Giants play football.
Twenty-one years ago, I attended the funeral of a nephew whom I loved like a son. I remember looking at his body lying in state and being convinced that the person who had inhabited that body so beautifully had left the building. Robert was somewhere else now, and I gave not a thought to where that was. I figured I’d find that out soon enough. All I knew was that the kind of journey my nephew was undertaking requires advance planning. Wherever it is that we’re all headed, I thought, that’s where we are meant to be.