I am happy to admit I do not know what lies at the farthest reaches of outer space, I do not know what happens after I die, and I do not know how long my relationship with my partner will last.
No one knows these things. They are unknowable.
You might feel uncomfortable with these sorts of unknowns. Uncertainty might make you anxious. Infinity without end, your own mortality and the prospect of breaking up are scary – they challenge your sense of stability. The child inside you still craves stability, even if the adult accepts it is only an illusion.
For better or worse, nothing is more common in this world than infinity, decay and entropy. They are the building blocks of a universe that consists largely of vast stretches of emptiness with, here and there, some dust floating around.
A good parent behaves a bit like a con man, tricking a child into accepting a made-up world unreflective of the universe around him. A child’s ideal world is a fantasy – small, secure and numbingly repetitious. He goes to sleep at the same time every day and wakes up at the same time every day. Meals are always the same, and at the same time, too. Friendly imaginary characters like muppets and cuddly purple dinosaurs are provided to reassure him things are okay.
As an adult, that type of environment would feel stifling. Leaving things unknown – and occasionally surprising – can be more fun. In part, that means accepting that expectations drawn from the reality of our daily lives might not be generalizable to the world as a whole.
For example, we live out our lives stuck to a round ball of rock by a mysterious force known as gravity. If we keep traveling in any direction, we end up back where we began. Just like your childhood neighborhood, that reality might feel safe and normal. But simply because the Earth is designed that way doesn’t mean the universe is – space may well continue on forever. Yes – without end. Forever.
Same thing with death. As a child, you got used to waking up each day and seeing the same friendly faces. But as you get older you realize that situation isn’t permanent – people die, and you will too.
You can cling to the familiar childhood notion of waking up and starting a new day each morning by adopting primitive imaginary belief systems like reincarnation, or a heavenly paradise. You can reproduce the familiar trope of a loving family with a strong parent figure through the invention of a god or goddess or a whole pantheon of imaginary deities. These comforting, commonplace notions might permit you to evade the concept of a permanent ending for your life.
It’s more satisfying, and more fun, I think, to admit you don’t know what happens next.
One of my fond memories of attending Harvard University was studying with Stephen Jay Gould, the brilliant paleontologist. Gould’s specialty was blowing his students’ minds by reminding them that their assumptions might not be generalizable to every situation. He gave a lecture on how things would look if you were only a quarter inch – or 40 feet – tall. My assumption – like a child’s – was that things would be pretty much the way they are now, except I’d be smaller or I’d be larger – essentially I’d be looking up at stuff or gazing down at it, but that would be that.
Gould explained that at 1/4 inch tall, gravity would no longer be an issue – you could probably jump from a great height and ride the breeze…but you might get your foot trapped in the surface tension of a puddle.
At 40 feet tall, your bones would be unable to support your body weight, which would be measurable in tons, and you would instantly collapse from the effect of gravity upon your mass. You would be well-advised to take to the seas, like a blue whale, in order to survive.
Things look different, depending on circumstances. As an adult, they are far more complex – and interesting – than they were when you were very young.
As a child, relationships were supposed to last forever. Mommy and Daddy – the two relationships that mattered above all else – were necessary for your survival, and you took it as a matter of faith that they had to be there or you would perish.
But as an adult, you begin to understand that the universe might have no end, that all life must draw to a close – and that a partner is only a companion for as long as you – and he – decide to stay together.
An adult’s world needn’t be child-proofed. It can be a bracing – and liberating – experience to see things as they really are instead of how we expect or wish them to be.