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.

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