For centuries, humanity has attempted to glean meaning from the horrid and unfair things that happen in our universe. The job of comprehending the big picture has often fallen to religion, which — frankly put — has had to rely on some pretty incredible stretches of the imagination to explain why this place is so hostile and unforgiving. The best answer most religions can muster is that it’s all a part of some grand scheme that’s unknowable to humanity: if some violent or awful thing occurs, we as a race are unable to understand it only because our minds are too puny to grasp “God’s greater plan,” as it were. “Everything happens for a reason,” is the wearied refrain often repeated by pious individuals. Perhaps that’s true — nobody can know for sure what’s going on inside the Grand Eternal Mechanism — but based solely on the evidence at our disposal, it seems as though the exact opposite is more accurate: nothing happens for any reason, and the key characteristics of our universe are apathy and randomness. Here are a few examples of why this may be the case.
A girl, let’s call her Maria, is born in a crime-ridden area of the Old Country. Her father (name: Jose), fearing for their lives, makes an extremely risky decision: to flee the country and apply for asylum in a neighboring country — the New Country — where hopefully their lot will improve. Some time passes and their asylum case is denied, so Jose, faced with the prospect of returning to a home that would endanger his daughter’s life, decides to cross the border illegally. It’s not what he would have preferred to do, but given the circumstances, he felt as though he’d exhausted all other options. So Jose and Maria set out on an arduous journey to make it to the New Country, and as fate would have it, they cross the line without even a hint of suspicion. They settle in a small border town called Maroon, where Jose lands a job as a plumber. Working 60-plus hours per week, he’s able to save enough money to purchase a two-bedroom house in the middle of the desert. It’s not much, really, but more than Jose could have dreamed of in the Old Country: a steady job and a decent home in a relatively crimeless area. It’s a happy time for both Jose and Maria, and if you look through the family photo album Jose kept during these years, you’ll see a lot of smiling faces and other indicators of genuine happiness.
They settle in a small border town called Maroon, where Jose lands a job as a plumber. Working 60-plus hours per week, he’s able to save enough money to purchase a two-bedroom house in the middle of the desert. It’s not much, really, but more than Jose could have dreamed of in the Old Country: a steady job and a decent home in a relatively crimeless area.
Fast forward some years later: Maria has grown into a smart and beautiful 22-year old college student who’s on track to become a medical doctor. She’s learned to fluently speak the language of the New Country, and has built a rich life for herself there, full of friends and music and good times. She has no memory of living in the Old Country — in fact, she’s never even returned for a visit. All she’s ever considered herself is a full-blooded citizen of the New Country. And for the longest time she’s treated like one, thanks to her status as a “hoper,” which means she’s protected from deportation because she’d been brought into the New Country before her 18th birthday — and in her case, before she was even able to formulate meaningful memories of the Old Country.
Life for Maria went pretty well for a long time, but then a man comes to power in the New Country hell-bent on ensuring that generally upstanding citizens like Maria are sent back to the places they were born in, even though they weren’t the ones who chose to come to the New Country illegally in the first place. To further complicate the issue, the man in power — an insufferable narcissist — grew up richer than Maria or her father could ever comprehend, and thus is completely oblivious to what it means to truly suffer.
Jose has quite a strong opinion about all of this, saying: “If they want to send me back to the Old Country, fine. But Maria? No. She has done nothing wrong.” Not two months after Jose utters those words, officials from the New Country detain him and ship him back to Old Country. Maria is heartbroken that her father, who had sacrificed so much for her to live a better life, has been exiled from the New Country forever. Her depression is compounded when it’s announced that the man in charge is pushing to rescind the “hoper” label and send people like her to a foreign land that they know nothing about. Around this time, the man in charge goes on a social media platform known as Spitter and writes the following words:
Many hopers, no longer young, are far from “angels.” Some are dangerous criminals. This is why we must do away with the hopers NOW!
Maria doesn’t doubt that some of her fellow hopers haven’t turned out as well as she has. “But a lot of people who are born in the New Country grow up to be bad people, too,” she thinks to herself. To see the leader of her country, a man who should be inspiring hope and unity, lump her in with persons of ill repute seems, in her mind, callous and unjust. Perhaps it is, but that doesn’t stop the Man in Charge from having his way: he successfully removes the “hoper” status from Maria and her contemporaries, and within months, many of them are being rounded up like cattle and exiled from the New Country. Maria, terrified of when her number might be called, becomes immeasurably anxious. Though she continues to go to school, she spends most of her time sleeping and occasionally crying, silently praying that today isn’t the day that someone knocks on her door and says, in ominous tones, “Come with us. It’s time.”
Person A starts smoking cigarettes at the age of 12, drawn to the practice by his older brother, who convinces him that sucking toxic chemicals into his lungs is equivalent to being hip. “Babe Ruth did it,” is the brother’s argument. And somehow, the argument works. Person A is hooked soon after he picks up his first “fag” — as they’re called in England — and in no time he’s smoking multiple packs per day, not out of any desire of his own, really, but due to a full-blown addiction that he has little control over. Oh sure, he tries to stop here-and-there throughout the years — a few times in his 30s, then again in his 50s — but none of the methods stick, so he continues to puff away despite the fact that he knows that the habit will most likely lead to an early death. He resigns himself to what he sees as an inevitable fate: years of breathing issues and insufferable hacking, followed by the necessitation of an oxygen tank and perhaps even a stoma. And then death by way of lung cancer. He makes peace with this path, accepts it as his own. “If this be my lot,” he often thinks to himself. “Bring it on.“
He makes peace with this path, accepts it as his own. “If this be my lot,” he often thinks to himself. “Bring it on.“
But then a funny thing happens: that is to say, none of that awful stuff happens. He never has a hole cut in his throat. Nor is he placed on oxygen at any point. Even the shortness of breath and lung congestion that he believed, at the very least, would be unavoidable, never progresses to the point where it interferes with his life in any significant way. Person A watches in utter surprise as his 60th birthday comes and goes, and then his 70th, 80th and — yes — even his 90th. He dies lying on his couch two days after his 93rd birthday, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and The Price is Right blaring from the television at a volume only tolerable to the aggressively geriatric. An autopsy reveals that smoking in no way contributed to Person A’s death, that his demise could be traced to entirely natural causes: that is, he was just flat out old, and it was simply time for his body to leave this mortal realm.
Person B is born two months after Person A’s death, in another country far away from where Person A called home. For the first five years of Person B’s life, everything seems fine: she is a healthy child, and her presence brings joy to her parents, who had been trying to have a kid for many years before the universe finally got on board and lobbied the Divine Powers That Be to allow for her birth. But not long after Person B’s sixth birthday, a doctor delivers terrible news that no parent anywhere should ever have to hear about their child: brain cancer. Say it with me: Brain. Cancer. The doctor has no idea what could have caused the onset of this awful disease, especially in somebody as young and otherwise healthy as Person B. “Sometimes these things just happen and there’s no real scientific explanation as to why,” the doctor tells Person B’s parents, as if this verbal “throwing up of the hands,” as it were, would somehow make them feel more comfortable with the situation. The prognosis for Person B is not good: six months to live on the short end, a year if she gets lucky and the treatment takes.
The treatment does not take. Person B’s parents are forced to watch their beloved daughter wither away before their eyes over a period of just four months, before — tragically, terribly — she succumbs to the awful brain cancer, within the confines of a universe that doesn’t seem to give much of a damn about being a cold-hearted, hateful bitch. Person B’s parents never attempt to have another child. They divorce a year later, and nobody pays attention to what happens to them after that.
Jesus Christ, that was depressing. Why are you still reading this? Honestly, why don’t you go on a hike or something, get some fresh air? I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer, but this kind of crap happens every single day on Earth, and the more you notice it, the harder it becomes to believe that there’s rhyme or reason to anything at all. Who knows, though: maybe there’s an underlying logic. Maybe the religious folks out there are right. Maybe we, as a race, should accept that our minds are far too small to grasp what’s going on behind the scenes. Maybe, as a sort of salve, we should chock these numerous injustices up to “fate” and move on about our mortal days as if there’s nothing to be done about any of it. Maybe we should choose to focus on the positive aspects of existence so we’re not sucked down into the muck and mire of unjust deportations, child cancer and the like. So here goes. Let’s try to bring some light back into this gloomy selection, shall we?
You wake up around 9:45 a.m. because you’re on vacation so why not sleep in a little bit. The cottage you’re staying in has been built on a pure white beach: you can walk out the front door and look out over the crystal clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The ceiling-high windows in the living room allow in so much natural light that you can feel your skin plumping with glorious vitamin D. It’s 79 degrees and there are no clouds in the sky. The breeze from the Gulf enters through an open window and tickles the hair on your arm. “This,” you think to yourself. “Is living.”
You walk into the kitchen and begin making a pot of coffee. The smell is rich and earthy and brings to mind a world in which only good outcomes are possible. The first sip is heaven, and as the caffeine begins coursing through your veins, the universe opens up to remind you that there are no limits to existence, that today is a gift, and that — if you really wanted to — you could do anything. Right this instant, you could make a decision to become, say, a pirate, if you really wanted to, and all you would have to do is follow the logical steps to becoming a pirate, and VIOLA!: you’d be a pirate (a benevolent one, of course), and life would take on a sense of meaning that it seemed to lack before.
Can you feel what I’m talking about? That urge to be a pirate? What the pirate represents is life without boundaries, an existence where all of the boring daily tasks that we have to slog through to simply live in the world — going to work, enacting general social niceties, fulfilling responsibilities to other people — would be eliminated, and we’d finally to be free to live entirely on our own terms, without having to answer to anyone about who or what we should be: a pirate, on the open sea, free of confusion, and loyal only to one’s desires.
This vision is a fiction, of course: it can never unfold in real time, at least not in total. Yet it still serves a meaningful purpose in the sense that it gives us an ideal to strive for, a sense of hope in a universe in which we have to deal with, say, cancer, and all that other awful shit. Everybody’s pirate — that is, everybody’s vision of the Good Life — is different. Maybe your pirate is surrounded by family and friends, and feels deeply fulfilled on a cellular level. Maybe your pirate is a writer of books. Hell, maybe your pirate does wake up every morning in a beach house on the Gulf Mexico, because why not. What I’m saying, I guess, is that we have to allow the pirate to exist out there on the horizon, because if we cut off its life force, then we eliminate one of the most essential and crucial human experiences: that of hope. If we don’t have hope, we end up dwelling on the apathy and randomness that surrounds us, and for goodness sake, when has dwelling done anything good for anybody? Seriously, name one time that moping and pouting has made the world a better place. I’ll wait for your answer.
I’m not one to believe in vague portents, but after living through a year as awful as 2020, I’m not really sure what to believe anymore.
On the opposite end, there are the forgotten. The lottery nobody wants to win, but must be won by some. The unluckily lucky ones, the one-in-a-million that nobody wishes to be.
Jo never thought of himself as a river guy, per se, yet one morning he awoke in a canoe, floating down a body of water that clearly was a river.