I walked along the southern ridge of the Grand Canyon to be alone with my thoughts. I could not help but be silent at the expansive sight. To think of the way it was formed over millions of years of the Colorado River corroding away at the earth is a tremendous fact to consider. “Millions of years; who can grasp such numbers in his mind?” I thought of how we often make measurements based on what we are familiar with. For example, I knew from that place to such and such parking lot was roughly one mile. If I multiplied that by twenty-five thousand, I had the circumference of the earth. Imagining this was staggering, but then if I multiplied the circumference of the earth by one hundred, then I was nearly to the circumference of the sun (2,500,000 miles). The sun, further, is considered a fairly small star! My thoughts were beginning to grasp for the infinite, it seemed.
I continued to strut along the ridge of the canyon in the same line of thinking. “What a fascinating thing it is to conclude the unfathomable. We state as simple fact things that we cannot even truly wrap our minds around. And isn’t this how we claim knowledge? We grow up learning what we are told, accept it, and die without thinking too much about why there exists anything in the first place. It is truly unexplainable when one thinks about it long enough; I mean, why is there anything at all? Why isn’t there simply nothing?”
I do not know why I felt this way in that moment; perhaps it had something to do with the beauty of the canyon before me. Being a biology major and ethics minor, I considered myself well versed in philosophies of science and origins. But there was something strange going on inside me, as I grew increasingly uneasy about the implications seeping out of all such wondrous facts I knew so well.
During that time in the Grand Canyon, I was just a college kid on a road trip. Three of my buddies and I decided to venture to the Western U.S. wilderness and do some manly things like camping, hiking, and fishing. I enjoyed it at first, but by the time we reached Arizona I was ready to be go back home to NYU. We had already gone through the whole Midwest and some of the West like South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. It was a fun run, but I was growing increasingly irritable being among such unfamiliar surroundings. The intended wildness of such adventures tends to become the very breeding of anxiety in someone like me.
What also seemed to be bothering me was the fact that somehow being out of the city was stretching my mind in peculiar ways. The busy urban life was all I knew, and I was a master at keeping my nose to the grindstone. Ambitious and talented, I was on the fast track to success. But here, I started wondering about things that I had never given a second thought to in the past, such as the underlying significance behind beauty and infinity. Such abstractions were never my cup of tea, but it was as if they were pressing themselves onto me, forcefully prying their way into my guarded brain.
I began asking my friends strange questions, as well, probably making them wonder if I was high on some strange new blend or something. One conversation was particularly telling. I approached my buddy Tyler, as he was smoking alone by the campfire. I asked him nonchalantly what he thought about the mountains of Yellowstone that we had passed just days before.
“I don’t know,” he said dryly. “Am I supposed to think something?”
“Well, they came from the tectonic plates crashing together a million years ago, correct?”
“That’s the general consensus, yeah. But it was more like eighty million years ago.” I think Tyler was a geology major or something, so I took his word for it.
“And before this, all the other events we’ve been told about took place like erosion, earthquakes, shifting plates, climate change, and God knows what, right? And before all that there was a Big Bang that blew all the matter into place, getting the clock ticking. Before that was a super dense speck of matter that came from nothing, more or less. Does that all sound right?” I pressed unexpectedly.
“Sure…” Tyler looked suspicious, not really sure where I was going with this outburst.
“So we came from nothing. Where are we headed? What is the fate of the human race in the light of such flavorless origins?”
“Our origins may be flavorless, but take another look at those mountains.” Finally he seemed to be approaching the profundity where I lingered. “The beauty that we’re looking at seems to mean something, I guess. I think it’s all about making the beautiful world a better place.”
“But is that conclusion satisfying?” Apparently, I wasn’t happy with the usual pithy answers this time. “Where does the meaning of beauty and betterment come from in the first place? Is our only goal as a human race to make a better place for the next generation and so on, forever and ever?”
“I guess,” replied my brilliant comrade.
“What about the cosmos? Even if we saved the planet, extended humanity, et cetera, isn’t the universe expanding? Aren’t we doomed no matter what we do?”
“Well…” he was starting to drift off. He was probably high. “I don’t know, man. You should seriously settle down and relax. What’s the point of all that anyway? You can’t ever really know what the reason for everything is. You just have to keep kicking while you’re living. Enjoy it while it lasts, you know?”
He went off to get drunk with the others. I wasn’t in the mood this time to join them. I lay down under the stars next to my tent, getting lost in the infinite sight. “Maybe Tyler is right,” I thought. “Maybe there is no point to thinking so far into things. What if the immediate material place is all there is? The universe began and will end with nothingness? This being the case, there is no ultimate distinction between Hitler and Mother Theresa. Neither makes any real impact at the end of all things.”
I felt almost tortured by these burning words in my mind. They were so dark and foreign to me. It may have been the first time I believed in the existence of my soul, the matter weighed so heavily. “What if there is ultimately nothing but a random birth of a beautiful universe, followed by an imminent, horrible doom?” I considered. “How absurd! How curious that people don’t seem to be having a hard time swallowing this bitter pill.”
I woke up the next morning groggy and melancholy. It intrigued me that such thoughts could lightly sweep passed the minds of others, yet pin me down like a boulder. “What really is the answer? God?” I asked myself. “Obviously, that’s not an option. Everyone knows science killed the need for God to explain anything. Crutches like this have become archaic and naïve.” But the side steps of my reasoning didn’t seem to gratify; I knew deep down that science didn’t have the muscle to give life or the universe an ultimate answer.
My friends and I drove on east through Arizona. We ended up at Petrified National Forest. I thought it a fascinating place, full of outlandish wooden stubs and rocks. It was mesmerizing, the kinds of vibrant colors and shapes that came out of millennia of age. The desert we were in was the quintessence of deadness, however, which was not helping my emotional state. I grasped for wise consolations. “Maybe there is beauty to be found in the death of the cosmos, after all.” I told myself. Again, conviction of the validity of these inner conversations was still lacking. The redemptive deadness of a tree was no parallel to the destruction of an entire universe. No beautiful remnants would remain forever. But even if they did, there would be no one to behold them, again pivoting back to inevitable pointlessness.
My friends and I headed back home, hitting a few more sights along the way. Nothing else caught my attention very powerfully after that. I would like to think that upon returning to New York, I was a changed man in some way, but in reality I continued down the same path I was on, graduating NYU and becoming a successful researcher, all the while gradually allowing the difficult questions to be drowned out by the intoxication of each passing moment. I left the pondering of such problems to philosophers, claiming finally that one could not know ultimate meaning even if it did exist. The perspective of my day triumphed, and I simply “hoped for the best” upon no foundation whatsoever.
That was over twenty years ago when I went on that trip out west, when I had those dark thoughts of doom and vanity and the strange conversation with my friend. And it was just last week that I got a voicemail from one of my other college friends named Brent. His broken voice announced that Tyler had recently committed suicide. He had purposefully overdosed and fell on top of a note he had just written. He acknowledged what so many others before him had declared: that he would never be able to fill the void in his heart after having tried everything. He lost all hope for any true purpose, had no hint of meaning to warrant his existence, and so he did the logical thing.
And here I sit, stuck to my recliner, stuck to those old thoughts. It seems Tyler may be plunging me into those waters of doubt that I waded in years before. It’s like I can hear what he would be saying: “What else is there to do in this world without cause, this life without a future? The only two options are to keep chugging down the tracks of despair or to cut it short. What would it ultimately matter anyway if I were good or evil, alive or dead?”
I weep for him; I weep for myself, for my own hopelessness that long ago I failed to look square in the eyes. It’s a strange place I find myself now, between the past and the future, wondering again if there is something, some thing that has an answer. Unexpectedly, this old man of the world finds himself wishing, childishly imagining that maybe there could be more than what we see, some “God” or something. What a curious thing it is that the only possible thing to truly hope in is something we cannot even touch or see or know. And I suppose, as the child in me whispers: if there is not hope, if there is no meaning… well, I guess it would do no harm in wishing for it anyway.
 See William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, Chapter 2: “The Absurdity of Life Without God.”
 See Gottfried Leibniz’s “Cosmological Argument”
 See “Pascal’s Wager”