A few years ago, I read a book by Stephen Greenblatt called The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. It was the most difficult book I have ever read. Not in the sense of reading ability or using large words that my poor, addled brain couldn’t handle. No, the difficulty lay in how it caused me to view life, the purpose of it all, and my own place in it.
I am a reformed Catholic. For quite a few years, I was part of the Church as a youth, taking part in retreats and gatherings. I wasn’t a die-hard God fan but I did believe. I may not have spoken to God on a regular basis but we were definitely pen pals. God was there for me, in all my trials and tribulations. He had a plan and a purpose; each hardship endured or joy received was part of His grand scheme for me. There is nothing as comforting than feeling that God has your back.
As I grew and gathered more experiences in life, I slid into Buddhism and meditation. I moved away from the omnipotent God and more toward the sacred in all of us. Moved into the belief that this current life is but a link in the chain of many lives, each one imparting the lessons needed to find nirvana. I thought this go-around for me was tethered in humility, internal shame, and learning to love and accept yourself. Maybe in a past life, I was a queen and I had to learn what it was like to live in a lower social and economic station.
So it was that my life was full of spirituality and ritual, with a peppering of religious thought, when Mr. Greenblatt’s book came into my life. I had been reading about Montaigne and in one of his many essays he mentioned Lucretius' On the Nature of Things. Naturally, I had to read Lucretius' work and, looking for something to help explain a document that was over 2,000 years old, The Swerve came up in my research. The actual swerve the book takes its title from is when atoms indeterministically swerve randomly. They just move from their path. No rhyme, no reason. It’s pure chance.
That random, indeterministic swerve knocked me on my proverbial ass. To learn, to begin to believe after more than 30 years, that the beliefs I held, the beliefs that I found comfort in, knowing that things didn’t just happen, were wrong…woah. For a few weeks, I found myself in a bit of a crisis. It was all I could talk about. One of my coworkers at the time told me about when he came to the realization that there is nothing but the chaos underneath it all (it was comforting to know others had already been through this and remained happy).
As humans, we like to find patterns. We like to find reasons for the things that occur in our lives. It’s only natural to want an explanation. And, in a sense, things do happen for a reason. It’s just that the reason usually stems from your own decisions or those of others. I no longer believe there is an unseeing hand manipulating the course of 7 billion people.
When I did believe in God’s hand guiding me on this path of life or that this was just one of many lives, there was an unspeakable comfort. It’s hard to describe how safe I felt with the knowledge that it wasn’t just me in this world. Or how much relief I felt that if I got something wrong this go-around, I’d be able to fix it in my next life. There’s a certain lightness to the first 30 some-odd years of my life. Even through all the chaos of being a teenager and the fumbling of my 20s, there was an ease to it all. It was okay; it was going to be okay. There was something beyond me and no matter how much I fucked it up here on Earth, something would be waiting for me.
But now, that lightness has changed. I think I had an existential crisis when I realized that THIS is all we get. There’s nothing afterward. I no longer feel that easy airiness of life. Instead, I have a sense of freedom. Granted, that freedom started off as dread, as fear. But it morphed into absolute freedom. The knowledge that everything that happens to me, that all the events of my life, are due to my decisions and not the unseen hand of God…woah.
I am responsible for my life. That has been the greatest gift The Swerve gave me. Knowing that on a soul level is earth shattering. Not just you’ve-got-bills-to-pay-and-a-family-to-raise responsibility level but in the you-can-do-fucking-anything-because-there’s-no-plan-for-you level. It’s eye-opening and astonishing. It’s liberating. It’s scary and wonderful.
I’ll be honest with you, though. If I could go back to feeling the warmth and comfort of having God in my corner, I’d take it in a heartbeat. I feel very much like Cypher from The Matrix in the restaurant scene:
I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.[…] I don’t want to remember nothing. Nothing.