Of Guesses, Gambles and Dreams

There is a line of reasoning—one I find quite compelling—in some Christian theologies, and it is summarized by this very simple statement: Love must be chosen. To elaborate a little bit, this reasoning is typically employed in the construction of a theodicy, a defense of God vis-à-vis the existence of evil. One version of it would be something along the following brief presentation.

The foundational motivation behind all of creation is for love to exist outside (so to speak) of God, that love may be shared with God. In order for love to be love in any real sense, love must be choose-able. A creature must choose love; not have love forced upon it. The down to earth example would be that if you could create and program a robot to be your life partner, you could program it to act just like it loves you, but this would be different from it actually loving you. Love has to be chosen, and this is what makes it love. Think about it, and I think most of you would agree. It’s pretty straight forward. And so, the idea goes, for this reason God had to give his creatures the ability to choose love or not. Hence, free will. Some people choose (chronically and/or acutely) not to love. Hence there is evil. And so on.

Now, what is fairly, but not plainly, obvious about this view is something very, very profound and beautiful. No matter how unsettling, detestable, tragic and horrifying evil can be, we can trust that in the end of all things, we will find God’s Love to be in goodness far greater. In other words, no matter how horrible life appears, in the end, the horror is worth the beauty. This is very powerful. It also happens to be what I’m not going to talk about here, but there is another implication when the theory is taken a bit further, as some do. If you really believe there is true free will, you believe that God does not exercise absolute, minute control over the universe. Furthermore, if you’re an open theist, as I tend to be, you believe that creation is unfolding, as is God with it. God doesn’t have a detailed master plan carried out in each moment of life. God always wins overall here and there as necessary, but things aren’t set in stone. I believe that an honest reading of the Bible reveals that biblical writers believed this as well. But overall, this means that creation, and being a part of it, is a bit of a gamble. For a born existentialist like myself, this not only makes sense; it is completely intuitive. Few or no things are ever known for sure. We do the best we can. Along the way, things are sometimes pleasant, and sometimes not. In the end, everything will work out (this is held in faith). But for now, life on a cosmic scale is about odds versus cost and payoffs. It works this way from the foundation of Creation all the way down to the tiniest of things. I say all this simply to note that although my thinking in those areas is much more expanded, it’s briefly presented here so that it is understood as a backdrop for posts such as my early post on Spadefoot frogs, and posts such as the one that follows presently…

Flooded with thoughts today, thoughts all swirled together in a soft, hazy spiral. Who knows from whence these come; why, unbidden, they come to mind in the multihued tapestries they do. And who knows what to do with them, but to watch them, as if from the outside, and to feel them—feel them with an odd and awe-like curiosity. Life. Living. A life. One life. A single perception of living. Unique in all of history. The only thing that is mine and mine alone. Existing because and only because so many people, so many places and so many things, are a part of it; having formed it, shaped it, colored it and given it meaning. But the whole is greater than the sum. It is a life of shared parts, but its whole is only mine. Nobody else will ever know it. This is the meaning of tragedy, in all of its most glorious, most poignant, forms. It is our majestic connection to all of life, and it is our great loneliness.

In this present moment, there’s an area of the swirling cloud, right around me, within me, over here where I pause to turn my mind’s eye. It began recently when I spent the day with my daughter at a space exploration expo. It’s a wonderful thing to watch her at such events; her most genuine grins and laughter always appear when she is in the middle of such things. From all appearances, she loves space engineering, geek-like activities. Days and sometimes a week of space-related stickers and patches, NASA badges, model rockets and Mars missions inspired by coneheads and nerd-gods; those who care not about bad hair days and who are more needed, more at home, in unearthly places. I share with her these feelings, as though there is always someplace else we should be—a place not here, a place always undefined. Perhaps we dream that rockets will someday take us to wherever it is, but at my age now I tend to think they will never expend fuel for my sake. I tend to think instead that the places we seek, she and I, are somewhere more in the vicinity of the simple and shared joy of the flight of a model rocket, than any place an Ares and Orion will ever take us. I always grin when a model rocket flight is true; no roll, no oscillations of any kind. Straight. Perfect. Joyous. And I always ask myself, what is it in those fractions of a second when a model you’ve made leaves the pad, and soars upwards out of site, that brings a moment of unspoiled happiness? I ask every time, and I can never answer for sure, except that maybe its modest flight is a metaphor, intuitively grasped, for our human dreams. You hope they fly straight. You hope they are perfect, and joyous. You hope they someday reach their mark. You hope that in the end they take you someplace just far enough away, and that you arrive there safely, locatable by those you love, unbroken or at least reparable. Most of all, you know dreams are for dreaming. All that matters is that they are given a chance—just a chance—to take off and climb sunward.

My big brother once told me, not many years ago, that he’s proud of me. That means more to me than I can say. He said he’s proud because he remembers long ago, when I was a “little bitty guy,” that I would talk about working for NASA. “That’s all you ever wanted,” he said. “And now look at you.” I guess that’s something. Maybe it is simply fate; a fate shared with my daughter, and one I had no more chance of avoiding than she does. Or maybe it’s simply something I made for myself, a thing my daughter may or may not care, in the long run, to create for herself. Come whatever may, I hope only that she finds happiness—joy in whatever she does and becomes.

However it has happened, I have been working in the space program for over half of my life now. I am good at what I do, although I must admit that I say so with the same energy and emotion that I can say, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” I say it because other people have said it is so, not because I know or feel it to be so. Nor do I really care anymore. It’s what I do, I try to do it with devotion and honesty and grace, but at this point in my life, its meaning to me is that it provides for my family, that maybe by chance it will have some good use and influence in the course of humanity, and that my children derive enjoyment from it. “Do you get to talk to astronauts?” they ask from time to time. “Sometimes. Once in a while,” I tell them. “But my job is to help them talk to other people, when they’re flying around in orbit,” I try to explain. “That’s so cool,” my kids will say, and I do my best to share their excitement. Yeah, it’s cool, I think, but the cooler part is that you think it’s cool.

Part of the swirl is smiling, laughing at a joke only it and I understand. It is not a cruel, not a mean-spirited or arrogant, joke. It brings the same type of laughter as seeing the emperor with no clothes. It is not his nakedness, but his obliviousness that is comical. The joke is, we refer to science and engineering as if they’re the most exacting things on earth, and people say I’m good at it, but… (do you get it?) I just GUESS. It’s all I’ve ever done, since I was a kid. I’ve stumbled and bumbled along in life just… guessing at it. There are so few sure things in life; so few guarantees. There is so little knowing in life, so few givens. But for some of us, there is a knack for interpolations, propagations and probabilities—a gift we never asked for nor try to understand, or even use on purpose. It’s an intuitive propensity for weighing things that most people never recognize as having mass. It is not a superior thing. It is not an inferior thing. It is simply about playing cards with the hand one is dealt. It is about guessing, about gambling, and daring to dream in the vague and frightening midst of an overwhelming lack of surety.

The point of all this is that the joy and dream of a little bitty guy, a little Professor Peabody (or was it Sherman they called me?) about eight years old, holding an Apollo helmet in his hands and staring, enraptured, at his reflection in its golden visor, was for nothing more, and nothing less, than to be able today to give my family members the chance to have their own dreams. The truth is, I would have it no other way; it would be meaningless otherwise. The dream is still the dream all these decades later, but at the age of eight I could never have guessed the dream’s true nature. The swirl is closing. It will come again and open itself to me, unbidden and gentle in its imagery, but I cannot know when. So for now I smile and wave goodbye to an enigmatic little boy who thirty-five years ago grinned, and laughed, and cherished his own little geeky dreams. My God—that was so many guesses ago. So many tiny, so many monumental guesses ago. So many of them right, and so many of them wrong. Time has changed the weight of the mathematics, so much more complex now than they once were. Thirty-five years make the interpolations grow more difficult, and the propagations more frightening. The depth of the dream has changed immeasurably, and so very much for the better. It is no longer a dream of what I can do, but a dream of what I can give. It is a dream no longer for me, but for everyone I love. What that boy could never have guessed, could never have imagined, was that the dream was never truly his, would never be fully his own. It would always belong to someone else, and he was part of the dream, not the dreamer of it. He could not see that the dream was simply a brilliant guess, cradled in the mind of God.

—Prologue—

I wrote about dreaming of things where an Ares and Orion could never take us. Thinking of that, I remember holding my daughter in my arms, when she was only a few months old. Whenever the moon was out, I would carry her outside, and hold her body just so, and point, and say, “See that? That’s the moon. You could go there someday, maybe, if you want to.” We were at a church party one night, and somebody remarked how pretty the moon looked that evening. A lady was holding my daughter, and I asked my daughter, “Where’s the moon?” The lady holding her said, “Oh, come on. She’s a baby. She doesn’t know what the moon is.” With that, my daughter turned her head in every direction she could, until she saw the moon, and stared right at it, crinkling her brows as if to focus clearly upon its surface. The person holding her just stared at me, as in, “What the heck was that?” I simply grinned, and said, “She knows what the moon is.”

I pray incessantly that each of my children will accomplish exactly what they and God want in life; not what I nor any other person want. I hope I will force nothing upon them, and I pray I never take anything from them. But, between you and me, if my daughter dreams such a thing, and if on some day she rides a rocket to the Moon, or to Mars, or to some other faraway place, at the moment of that vehicle’s straight, perfect and true climb heavenward, I will think back to a baby who found the moon. I will remember a little girl with a giant grin, holding her model rocket at shuttle camp, posed for a picture taken by her daddy. I will think of all her smiles and laughter. I will marvel at the glorious mystery of dreams and guesses and gambles, the swirl will overtake me, and I will weep the joyous tears of a thousand distant suns.

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