. . . as long as the world endures. For so long, I presume, will the accounts of miracles and prodigies be found in all history, sacred and profane. — David Hume
A beautiful winter Saturday, the air crisp and the sun warm. As is the lot of a parent of a 12-year-old, I had, with a hundred others, attended a religious service followed by canned entertainment (loud music, open bar, African-American dancers paid to teach and inspire the white partygoers, photographers snapping shots that could be purchased right away and already framed! . . .). I left early, the party staff calling a car to come take me home. Stepping out into the light and fresh air again was a pleasure, and I ran into the accordionist and violinist who had been hired to play during the cocktail hour, and we exchanged a few words of solidarity. As, in quite another context, Balzac once wrote, “Je fais partie de l’opposition qui s’appelle la Vie.” (I am a member of the opposition party which is called Life.) That was the feeling, in any case.
The car arrived, driven by a middle-aged man from one of the Caribbean islands. “What a beautiful day,” I said to him, and he agreed. I don’t recall any other words being exchanged until, a few minutes later, we were driving over the Manhattan Bridge, from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and the driver said something like, “It’s hard to think of its going out.”
“What’s that?” I asked. “The Sun, you mean? In a billion years?”
Yes, that’s exactly what he meant. Some combination of the glory of the Sun that winter afternoon and my little remark about what a beautiful day it was, along with whatever, possibly religious course his mind liked to follow, . . . All this had led this man, at this moment, to think about and to share with me this idea of the Sun’s mortality, let’s call it.
My son was not with me at the time, but when I told him the story, he quipped that there was no need to worry about the Sun’s going out, since well before then, in only a few hundred million years or so, we were going to crash into another galaxy.
But the driver had already warned me about young people. We had talked about the eccentric position of the Earth—just one planet of a middling-sized star in the sea of stars. I had offered him my view that we were “next to nothing,” and yet—we were crossing an iron-work bridge with the towers of Manhattan looming before us—human beings had trouble accepting this fact, we took ourselves and all our little activities so seriously. He began insisting on the extraordinary perfection of the Earth—all the things that had to come together so that there could be life such as we knew it on this planet. This led me to mention the problem of evil, of imperfection, and to also propose that one might think of the Earth as having won the lottery. Yes, he liked this latter analogy; it seemed to connect with an idea implicit in our conversation that none of this—lottery winners, the Earth, the warm sunlight that winter’s day—was possible, imaginable without some kind of divine presence. And somewhere in all this he had offered that a person has to get to a certain age—into one’s forties, he said—to start thinking about things like the Sun’s going out and the perfection of the Earth.
From one perspective this driver knew nothing about me, and it is possible that he made comments about the Sun to many of his passengers, or to many of his passengers who looked to be over 40. Or to passengers who looked vulnerable, who looked like they might be willing to come to his church? But he never said anything to me about any church.
I like to think that there was something in my appearance or tone of voice, or perhaps in the simple fact that I had remarked to him on the beauty of the day. I had created a space in which it was possible for him to tell me his thought about the Sun. More grandiosely, one might think that one had created a space in which it was possible for another person to have such a thought, which he would not have had otherwise. And I must also recall a line from the religious service I had attended earlier in the day. A paraphrase: When two or more people together engage in spiritual reflections, a divine presence is with them. (See Malachi 3:16 in the New Revised Standard translation: “Then those who revered the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord took note and listened.”)
In my life, as in most everyone’s life, I assume, comments like the limousine driver’s—comments reaching toward eternity, let’s call them—are quite unusual. And Hume notes, too, that nothing would seem miraculous were we not so accustomed to unmiraculous “uniform” experiences, compared to which an extraordinary event stands out in all its un-uniformness. At the party I had any number of idle and not so idle conversations, all of which might be described as not including the possibility that the Sun was going to go out. For example, also sitting at the table to which I was assigned was one of the leading public-transportation executives in New York, a man who knew all the people I had known when I worked in that field, and so our conversation moved back and forth between gossip and policy. With another man, writing a book on the Psalms, I talked briefly about Augustine and Jonathan Edwards, and with old friends of friends the subject was, as on previous occasions, their country house and the country house I once had.
To heighten the contrast with the driver’s conversation, I will also note the human ability to use subtle communications, body language included, to narrow the possible range of one’s conversations with one’s fellow human beings. With a woman or man at a health-club, for instance, a person may feel, as if faced with a wall, that s/he cannot ask “Would you like to have a cup of coffee some day?” Or encountering a colleague on the sidewalk, something in between the bantering lines may be saying louder than them all, “This is no place to answer truthfully that you did not enjoy the recent holidays.” Questions touching on eternity (and on evil) are often precluded, as are most subjects most of the time. Indeed I would propose that preclusion, narrowing, limiting is more the goal of most conversations than is discoursing on any subject whatsoever. We seek to have some sort of social contact with other people without running the risk of the complications and commitments, the diseases and feelings (high hopes included) that more substantial conversation involves. I suppose we could say that it is through our skill at not connecting that we stay in touch with our next to nothingness.
Every new year brings the same old articles about resolutions, about what we should do to improve our lives and résumés. The one piece of advice that stuck in my mind this year was that happiness or “subjective well-being,” as some experts have taken to calling it, is a function not of how many friends we have, but of the depth of our relationships. Thus the advice featured some phrase about quality rather than quantity.
I will not be surprised nor disheartened to hear again from the writer on the Psalms or from the transportation executive, and, by contrast, my sense was, as I paid the fare, that the driver had as little expectation as I that we would ever see one another again. Nor can I say that he and I had had the sort of intimate conversation that the advice-giver likely had in mind when he or she wrote of improving the quality of “my” relationships. Nor was my exchange with the driver absolutely unusual. Every few months or so—e.g., in an elevator or in a check-out line—all of a sudden a deep-reaching, very short-lived connection is made with another human being, a person I’ve never met before. As if it were given me to see, a just for those ten seconds, that there was light, too, within the Earth.
Thinking schematically, we could say that such special moments depend on the chance intersection of an allower and an allowed. And usually I am in the allowed role and allowed to make some observation about life under capitalism or in a bureaucracy, or the vagaries of human nature, the delusions we cling to. I have appreciated, greatly appreciated, these exchanges, and I have appreciated that these others have appreciated whatever out-of-the-ordinary observation they have allowed me to make. But crossing the Manhattan Bridge, me absorbed in the spongy, leatherette backseat, the limo driver and I somehow briefly found ourselves on another level, and the driver, for all he had to keep his eye on the traffic, was the one who noticed it first.
In explaining how he himself evaluated reports of miracles, Hume wrote:
When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. . . . If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, then the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.
All this of course makes good sense. What Hume was overlooking was the value of miracles, however short-lived or easy to dismiss.
Credit & Link
Image is from a painting by Kim Roberti of Tow, Texas. Title: Daily Conversation, 2011
“Of Miracles” appears as Section Ten of Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.