Figuring Forward in an Uncertain World
Consolations from the cosmic scheme.
By Maria Popova
We make things and seed them into the world, never fully knowing — often never knowing at all — whom they will reach and how they will blossom in other hearts, how their meaning will unfold in contexts we never imagined. (W.S. Merwin captured this in the final lines of his gorgeous poem “Berryman.”)
Today I offer something a little apart from the usual, or sidelong rather, amid these unusual times: A couple of days ago, I received a moving note from a woman who had read Figuring and found herself revisiting the final page — it was helping her, she said, live through the terror and confusion of these uncertain times. I figured I’d share that page — which comes after 544 others (here are the first), tracing centuries of human loves and losses, trials and triumphs, that gave us some of the crowning achievements of our civilization — in case it helps anyone else.
Meanwhile, someplace in the world, somebody is making love and another a poem. Elsewhere in the universe, a star manyfold the mass of our third-rate sun is living out its final moments in a wild spin before collapsing into a black hole, its exhale bending spacetime itself into a well of nothingness that can swallow every atom that ever touched us and every datum we ever produced, every poem and statue and symphony we’ve ever known — an entropic spectacle insentient to questions of blame and mercy, devoid of why.
In four billion years, our own star will follow its fate, collapsing into a white dwarf. We exist only by chance, after all. The Voyager will still be sailing into the interstellar shorelessness on the wings of the “heavenly breezes” Kepler had once imagined, carrying Beethoven on a golden disc crafted by a symphonic civilization that long ago made love and war and mathematics on a distant blue dot.
But until that day comes, nothing once created ever fully leaves us. Seeds are planted and come abloom generations, centuries, civilizations later, migrating across coteries and countries and continents. Meanwhile, people live and people die — in peace as war rages on, in poverty and disrepute as latent fame awaits, with much that never meets its more, in shipwrecked love.
I will die.
You will die.
The atoms that huddled for a cosmic blink around the shadow of a self will return to the seas that made us.
What will survive of us are shoreless seeds and stardust.
Published March 18, 2020