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“The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or a hostile universe.” – Albert Einstein

I’ve been thinking a lot about this quotation recently. It seems both particularly jarring and particularly relevant.

As an empathetic person, as a sensitive person, this world has never been an especially easy place to live. Perhaps as a writer, also; I went to hear Elizabeth Strout speak tonight and she said for as long as she could remember she’d known she was a writer and she’d known she was somehow different. She talked about the essential estrangement of being a writer. I don’t know what causes it exactly, but I did know exactly what she was talking about.

One night long ago when I was at university, I was staring out my window at the redwood trees and for a stretch of time it was as if I could feel the suffering of everyone in the city from my own little room. The experience struck me, and I told one of my best friends about it. He laughed at me and made a derisive comment about how I sounded religious (he was a fervent atheist). I felt embarrassed and didn’t speak of it again. It was only many years later that I remembered that moment and saw it for the awakening of empathy that it perhaps was.

But this world is hard on empathy. It is particularly easy for me to see this right now, when inequality in my country is growing at an ever more rapid rate and we’re seeing the promotion of legislation that will continue to speed its advance and disenfranchise a growing population. It is incredibly painful to witness. People are being cruel, on both an individual and a societal level, and while I have always felt that peculiar displacement that is the hallmark of a writer, I have never felt it more acutely than I do now. I told my sister earlier this week, “I don’t feel like I belong in this world.” And I suspect I am not alone in this feeling.

And then there is my personal journey. When you’ve never learned how to institute boundaries properly or how to advocate for needs of your own, you get to see some pretty ugly behavior. Even now I get to see some of this, although it happily no longer has the chance to escalate as far. And then there are people who are perfectly happy to normalize and make excuses for this behavior, which is pretty bad behavior in and of itself. All of this is not exactly uplifting or encouraging.

So then why am I thinking about this quotation in which Einstein appears to at the very least believe in the possibility of a friendly universe? Why am I thinking about this when things are so bad? Why am I thinking about this when I know people can be so awful to one another? Oh God, is Amy going to start harping about positivity again?

Okay, look, here is what I know. I know people do shitty, shitty things. I know it’s important to be realistic and protect yourself. I know some people and groups of people are incredibly self-interested, greedy, ignorant, and intolerant. I know that humanity sometimes takes steps forward and sometimes takes steps back. The steps back can be truly awful to witness.

I also know people can do wonderful things. I know they can surprise you with their kindness, their integrity, their generosity, and their wisdom. I know they create beautiful works of art and useful technologies that make lives better.

I know when you see a lot of suffering and chaos around you, when you take hit after hit until it feels like life is personally against you, that it can be easy to see only the bad. That you can stop hoping for anything better, or even being able to imagine anything better, in an act of self-preservation. That you can dramatically say, “I don’t feel like I belong in this world” (cough guilty cough).

I have this uncanny sense of impending crisis. I’ve had it since adolescence. When a lot depends on being able to predict when something bad is about to happen, you can become remarkably good at it, and so I did. I actually kind of hate it though because it is ALWAYS FREAKING RIGHT. And then I have to go ahead and deal with it as if there’s a chance of me not stepping into chaos instead of, you know, spending more time in blissful ignorance before it hits.

Anyway, recently I had my sense of impending crisis. And as usual I told myself, “Well, you don’t know for sure, even though your danger sense is pinging wildly, so you still have to behave in a mature and thoughtful manner.” Which is something of a feat when your nervous system is basically screaming at you to do a roll dive into cover and never come out. Because of a danger sense that is ALWAYS FREAKING RIGHT.

Only this time something different happened. This time the danger sense was…wrong? It was. I am still surprised as I type this, but it was wrong. It finally happened. And I said to myself, “I need to always remember this moment when the danger wasn’t real after all.”

My point is this: By all means, have your danger sense. You probably need it. It will help you. It might even save your life.

But also leave open at least the barest possibility that something good will come. Leave open the possibility that the danger sense that appears to be foolproof can in fact be wrong. Instead of shifting into automatic pilot, continue to ask questions and continue to be present.

It is a privilege to be able to perceive the universe as friendly. It is also a practice. Sadly, we don’t always have the privilege. And reality is never so cut and dried anyway; the universe can be both friendly AND hostile. But we can continue carrying on the practice in believing in the good as well as the bad and do our part to make the good manifest. 

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