At home with unanswered questions

I have a friend who is a professor of physics at a university. He teaches both nuclear and particle physics, but his area of research focuses mostly on particle physics. He has just returned from a trip to a meeting held at CERN, the enormous particle physics laboratory located on the boarder between Switzerland and France, not far from Geneva. i am fascinated by his reports of the journey and of the work that a large team of researchers from many different nations are undertaking that will result in a huge physics experience based at the Deep Underground Research Facility here in the hills.

Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to have several conversations with my friend that have ranged from his work to the meaning of life and the nature of religion. I think that part of what makes him such a good scientist is that he seems to have an unending hunger for answers. He is not sidetracked by trivia, nor is he quick to accept simple answers. He is willing to search for very complex answers to very complex problems. As such, he is usually pushing me to think a little bit deeper and look at things from fresh perspectives. A conversation with him is at once challenging and refreshing.

It occurred to me recently, however, as I was speaking to him, that there is a fundamental difference between him and me. I’m not sure that he would agree with my observation, and it will be fun to check it out in some future conversation, but it is an idea that I’ve been mulling in my mind. Whereas his life is a search for answers, I’m more content not to know the answers. I am delighted by mystery. It isn’t that he doesn’t also share my delight in mystery, it is just that he is quick to push beyond the mystery in search of an answer. I’m more content to simply sit in awe of the mystery that we have encountered.

Since he is a teacher of physics and I am a teacher of religion, our different fields may help to explain the difference, but I think it is a more fundamental difference. I think we have different goals in life. He is unsettled by unanswered questions and is willing to be diligent in seeking answers and careful to detect and avoid mistakes in his calculations and in his thinking. I, on the other hand, have come to a point in my life where all of he big questions remain unanswered and I am fascinated at how little that bothers me. Unanswered questions seem to have become my friends.

It is possible that our differences also are related to our ages. He is near the age of my son, perhaps half of my age. His youth and energy and enthusiasm are combined with having lived long enough to have gained genuine wisdom and enough experience for his deep wisdom to be revealed. I, on the other hand, have definitely slowed down a little bit and recognize that one of the jobs of my life is sifting and sorting the experiences I have had. I’m a bit less quick to jump at new experiences and invest a larger portion of my days in organizing the experiences that I’ve already had. It is important to me, however, to maintain friendships with those who are different ages and who are at different life phases than I. They add much richness to my life and help me to open my spirit to new ways that God calls to me in this life.

I don’t wish to change my friend. I admire his quest for answers. But I know that my life doesn’t present unanswered questions with quite the same edge that he experiences. I’m well aware that there are many questions that will go unanswered in my lifetime. And I’m at home with the mystery of unanswered questions.

My life is, after all, messy. I marvel at the precision and attention to detail that marks my friend’s research, but I know I could never match it. I tend to be a big picture thinker, focused more on general trends than on details. I am as aware of my imperfections as is he, but I my less bothered by them. I am an imperfect person in an imperfect world and though I try to contribute to my world and make it better, I have no illusions about being able to solve the really big problems of this world. He, on the other hand, may be capable of solving some of the really enormous unknown realities of life.

If I have gained a bit of wisdom, it comes, in part, from learning to be comfortable with myself. I have no desire to be someone else. I am fascinated by other people. I am amazed and delighted by them, but I’m content to be me. I’ve ended up as pastor of a wonderful congregation here in the hills and that is a good place for me right now. I don’t need to have the business card of one serving in the national setting of our church. I don’t need to travel from congregation to congregation speaking to larger and larger audiences. I don’t need a bigger paycheck or more recognition. I’m content with a few people who read my journals and suspect that I’ll never have a much larger audience. That’s OK. I am who I am and I write what I write.

I am, after all, stuck with myself. And, if you are honest, you’ll realize that you’re stuck with yourself. From the foundation of the world, there has never been anyone like you and there never will be anyone like you in all of the span of history. You’re the one and only. So figuring out who you are and what you’ve been called to do is your job. I’m working on me. And the other people are working on their own unique natures and contributions to life.

At the end of the day, and I suspect at the end of my life, there will be undone work, unsolved mysteries and unanswered questions.

I can life with that. I’m surprisingly at home with that.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!