Saturday, April 21, 2018

Birthday Cake and a Chapel

Last weekend, at my 50th birthday party, one guest asked, "Now that you're fifty, what wisdom do you have to share?" I answered, "Eat more birthday cake!"

He seemed disappointed with my reply. I'm a philosopher; don't I have something better to say than "eat more cake"? Well, partly my reply was more serious than he may have realized; and partly I wanted to dodge the expectation that I have any special wisdom to share because of my age or profession. Still, I could have given a better answer.

So earlier this week, I drafted a post on love, meaningful work, joy, and kindness. Some kind of attempt at wisdom. Then I thought, too, of course one also needs health and security. Well, it's an ordinary list; I wouldn't pretend otherwise. Maybe my best attempt at wisdom reveals my lack of any special wisdom. Better to just stick with "eat more birthday cake"? I couldn't quite click the orange "publish" button.

Thursday, a horrible thing happened to someone I love. I won't share the details, for the person's privacy. But that evening I found myself in a side room of the Samuelson Chapel at California Lutheran University. The chapel made me think of my father, who had been a long-time psychology professor at CLU. (I've posted a reminiscence of him here.)

In the 1980s, CLU was planning to build a new chapel at the heart of campus, and my father was on the committee overseeing the architectural plans. As I recall, he came home one evening and said that the architect had submitted plans for a boring, rectangular chapel. Most of the committee had been ready to approve the plans, but he had objected.

"Why build a boring, blocky chapel?" he said. "Why not build something glorious and beautiful? It will be more expensive, yes. But I think if we can show people something gorgeous and ambitious, we will find the money. Alumni will be happier to contribute, the campus will be inspired it, and it will be a landmark for decades to come." Of course, I'm not sure of his exact words, but something like that.

So on my father's advice the committee sent the plans back to be entirely rethought.

Samuelson Chapel today:

Not ostentatious, not grandiose, but neither just a boring box. A bit of modest beauty on campus.

As I sat alone in a side room of Samuelson Chapel on that horrible evening, I heard muffled music through the wall -- someone rehearsing on the chapel piano. The pianist was un-self-conscious in his pauses and explorations, experimenting, not knowing he had an audience. I sensed him appreciating his music's expansive sound in the high-ceilinged, empty sanctuary. I could hear the skill in his fingers, and his gentle, emotional touch.

In my draft post on wisdom, I'd emphasized setting aside time to relish small pleasures -- small pleasures like second helpings of birthday cake. But more cake isn't really the heart of it.

In Samuelson Chapel, on a horrible night, I marveled at the beauty of the music through the wall. How many events, mostly invisible to us, have converged to allow that moment? The pianist, I'm sure, knew nothing of my father and his role in making the chapel what it is. There is something stunning, awesome, almost incomprehensible about our societies and relations and dependencies, about the layers and layers of work and passion by which we construct possibilities for future action, about our intricate biologies unreflectively maintained, about the evolutionary history that lays the ground of all of this, about the deepness of time.

As I drove home the next morning, I found myself still stunned with awe. I can drive 75 miles an hour in a soft seat on a ten-lane freeway through Pasadena -- a freeway roaring with thousands of other cars, somehow none of us crashing, and all of it so taken for granted that we can focus mostly on sounds from our radios. One tiny part of the groundwork is the man who fixed the wheel of the tractor of the farmer who grew the wheat that became part of the bread of the sandwich of a construction worker who, sixty years ago, helped lay the first cement for this particular smooth patch of freeway. Hi, fella!

The second helping of birthday cake, last weekend, which I jokingly offered to my guest as my best wisdom -- it was made from a box mix by my eleven-year-old daughter and hand-decorated by her. How many streams of chance and planning must intermix to give our guests that mouthful of sweetness? Why not take a second helping, after all?

I think maybe this is what we owe back to the universe, in exchange for our existence -- some moments of awe-filled wonder at how it all has come together to shape us.


George Gantz said...

Eric - This is a marvelous essay, thank you. I hope you don't mind if I like it and share it from You've captured many threads in a few short paragraphs and brought them together in a succinct and marvelous conclusion. I agree - we should pay the universe back by embracing and enjoying its gifts. Most of the time we let them pass by.

Your passage about the organ player reminded be of the chapter on organs in Mathew Crawford's wonderful book The
World Beyond Your Head, and the idea that craft, well practiced and well lived, is one of those gifts. The book is worth reading, if you are not familiar with it.

I offer a prayer for your friend, and sincere thanks to you for what you have brought to the page. And happy birthday!

Bob said...

I came to your blog site to find out more about you in preparation for a Cafe Philo discussion this Wednesday. I'm particularly interested in questions on the nature of belief.

Several weeks ago I led a Cafe Philo discussion on the Origins of Belief. In my intro to the discussion I noted that Plato talked about the idea of justified true belief before he turned his attention to forms. I also talked about William Clifford who argued that anytime people believe anything without sufficient evidence, they are risking harm to others. Obviously, if what they believe is false, by believing it, they are promoting it—and believing false things is bad for individuals and society. But even if what you believe without evidence just happens to be true, you’re still promoting an attitude that evidence doesn’t matter and, in turn. Promoting credulity—which hinders the progress of humankind.

Anyway it was somewhat disturbing that during the discussion it seems that the general consensus is that for most people belief regarding anything is relative and the participants did not buy into either Plato's or Clifford's views. Is this what you are finding?


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Was the discussion framed in a way that emphasizes the religious or political associations of "belief"? My sense is that people tend to me much more stand-offish about right vs wrong than regarding more mundane daily beliefs.

G. Randolph Mayes said...

Hi Eric, Happy 50th and I'm sorry to learn about your personal tragedy.

"Don't sweat the small stuff," always sounds like sage advice, and it is, if by 'stuff,' we mean inconveniences. But I think what you point out nicely is that virtually all of the small, ordinary features of our lives are miracles of human cooperation. We have to take them for granted just to be reasonably functional human beings, but taking a moment now and then to appreciate them in the manner that you describe can be a spiritual experience. As it happens, I was having such a moment before reading your post, while looking at a grocery list my wife made for me: Yogurt, English cukes, eggs, coffee, whole grain bagels, chicken thighs, toilet paper. Are you kidding me? I can just go to a store and get these things?

I'm almost 59, but my best advice for youngish people also relates to small things, viz., that they add up to big things. My kids got tired of me saying: The tads accrue. It's one of the oldest pieces of wisdom in the book, but the inability to live it still seems to me to account for so much harm and, specifically, so much lost opportunity. Large projects are just series of very small projects and, guess what?, during all that time you can be living, experiencing the beautiful, the sordid and the mundane for all they are worth. Your life, in other words, is not somehow on layaway until your project is complete.

As I get older, though, large projects do become less attractive and appreciating the small things seems like a better use of my time.

Bob said...


The discussion was more along the lines of daily beliefs since we avoid discussing the more contentious topics of religion and politics.

You mentioned right vs wrong which was another topic I led titled "Man's idea of right and wrong changes from place to place and over time" which as you might surmise discussed the idea of moral and ethical relativism.

Still it is interesting that most folks believe the way they do without benefit of justification, even to themselves. As one of the discussion participants said "it just is" in referring to beliefs.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Randy and Bob! Yes, Randy, I agree with all that. See, we 50-somethings are wise after all! ;-)

Bob, this sounds like the kind of intellectual laziness that is sometimes called "sophomore relativism". I don't think students really accept such relativism deep down, but it's a convenient classroom strategy.