Wisdom Wherever You Find It: In Between

Many years ago, my wife gave me a copy of Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman.  I was captivated by the vignettes that Lightman imagined were dreamt by Einstein as he tried to understand the nature of time. 

If you haven’t read it, get a copy. But I offer two cautions. 

The first is, don’t read it quickly. Like another of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, the short length of the chapters seduces you into reading just one more before you put the book down. 

Force yourself to. There is so much to think about in each description of time that you will regret it if you do not pause sufficiently to reflect.

The second is, when you finish, you will want to read everything else Alan Lightman has written. And you should do that too.

Lightman is a physicist and a writer who held appointments in both on the faculty of M.I.T. When my daughter had the opportunity to study engineering in the graduate school there, I asked her as a favor to meet Alan Lightman and tell him what a fan-boy I was. He welcomed her into his home and signed a lot of books for me.

He is an atheist, but both spiritually and faithfully unparalleled among the many atheists I know. His poetic abilities to describe our physical universe are exquisite. Many times I have sighed with delight as I read his explanation of some aspect of physics I might otherwise never have approached.

That brings me to the words of Ernst Gombrich: “The most basic fact of aesthetic experience [is] the fact that delight lies somewhere between boredom and confusion. I had never heard of the guy until he was quoted in an essay in Probable Impossibilities titled “In Defense of Disorder.”  

Gombrich is an art historian who believes that the space between the human being’s penchant for order and the experience of some level of chaos in the world is where we find delight. Alan Lightman uses the insight to illustrate the paradox of a universe that follows rigid rules of physics yet seems to be hurtling into entropy. (We have only a few hundred billion years left before things begin to get bad.)

It is in that gap between order and disorder that we live our lives, both on a macro level and a micro level. Our expectation that everything is predictable—sunrise, gravity, the second law of thermodynamics, Oreos—is matched by our desire to be surprised by the unpredictable—falling in love, the colors of a sunset, roller coasters, Pop Rocks. 

I don’t know that Gombrich, who had very defined tastes, would have enjoyed Vonnegut, but one of the delightful details in his novel Slapstick is the discovery that gravity is variable. It is a silly detail, but worth a giggle every time it appears.

I find it wonderful that Gombrich reminded us that two aspects of our individual lives that generally provoke complaints—boredom and confusion— are existential constants that allow for meaningful life in between. I find it more wonderful still that Lightman found that observation to help him explain the place we occupy in the universe, bounding and rebounding between order and entropy, structure and chaos, reliability and complete unpredictability. 

Unlike Alan Lightman, but like Neil Diamond, the Monkees and Smash Mouth, I’m a believer. A place has been carved out between two contradictory constants that are ultimate truths to make room for us.

Each of us in our own way can reach to both places at once and become the conduit from one to the other and back again. That’s where I find my faith. That’s where I find my delight.