Janet Thomas: Why Does the World Exist? Featured

I go to the Thrift Store for R&R. This is a long-standing tradition for many islanders. We can’t always take it with us—whether we’re dying or moving—and the result is a fascinating and ever-changing experience of discovery at the Thrift Store. And no matter how hard I try not to I nearly always end up coming home with a book—even as I am struggling to lighten my lifetime load of books. My most recent Thrift Store visit sent me home with, “Why Does the World Exist” by Jim Holt. (Thank you to whomever donated it.)

As I mutter my way through these crazy dystopian days of devastation in all directions—from raging wildfires to raging inequality to raging winds and waters as well as a raging president—I find myself on a very shaky path. Why does the world exist? Why are we here? Why does everything make everything else possible? In his book, Holt takes it all on with a wide array of interviews with writers, scientists, philosophers, and theologians of all persuasions. And in the end, in the index, it is “God” that/who gets the most references.

This is interesting as Jim Holt is not exactly a God kinda guy. He is, in fact, an articulate, witty and reasoning writer to whom questions ring more loudly and clearly than answers. And so, as I read myself back to life after a bout with diverticulitis, I find myself asking questions about questions. And, probably not coincidentally, they overlap philosophically, even as the answers remain hidden from view. What I wasn’t prepared for was how personal some questions can be in an emergency room, and how relevant they can be too. My jaunt to the emergency room was at the end of a Friday. After experiencing severe pain for more than a week, and intermittent pain for more than a year, my body went into desperation. “Get over your damn neurosis and get me to the hospital,” it bellowed. So, I did, albeit neurosis intact.

To say that I was treated profoundly professionally and compassionately is a massive understatement. Those three hours in the emergency room helped me overcome a lifetime fear of doctors. The kindness and competence overcame it all and suddenly I was a grown up and rationality was within grasp. My gratitude is unending. As is the question, “Why does the world exist?” and its tidal wave of contradictions. Which brings me to India. The young physician who first examined me asked, “So, what do you do?”

A question that always involves ripples of response, “I’m a writer,” I said, “when I am writing. I do other things, too, like work for a living.”

He laughed and said, “So what have you written?” I muttered a couple of book titles and, suddenly, at the sound of the word “Dharamsala” he went from being very nice to being very interested. “I’ve been there,” he said. “I bet you wish you were there right now.” He was referring to the state of the world in the west and the words spilled out from him instinctively.

Wow. He gets it, I thought. Trying to explain the comfort of India to anyone who hasn’t been there is like trying to describe the taste of strawberry shortcake to someone who’s never eaten a strawberry. And sometimes a sour strawberry—like a friend of mine who hates India and, it turns out, now hates me.

A couple of weeks ago, after wondering why I’d been treated so coldly over the past year or two, I’d encountered this friend in the grocery store. The aisle was empty but for us and I mustered up my courage and asked what I had done. “F*** you!” was the snarled response. Whoa! I jumped in both fear and curiosity. Well, it turns out I had actually said “F*** you” to my friend after a discussion about why I found India reassuring and my friend didn’t. I had actually forgotten, thinking, perhaps, that I’d been joking. But as far as this friend was concerned, I wasn’t. I retreated quickly and found another aisle to shop in.

Now, here I was in the emergency room being attended to by a doctor who not only “got it,” but obviously felt it too. We shared a few moments of commiseration about the world at-large and the odd comfort that India offers simply because nothing is hidden. And rarely has been. Yet, in-spite of its brutal reality at times, human intimacy in India is a given under all circumstances. The human spirit is alive and well and pervasive, no matter whether I’m in Delhi or high in the mountains in Himachal Pradesh—home to Dharamsala. The human connection is an unceasing continuum of eye contact and spiritual connection. And it even includes me, a minority in that country, a tourist and a woman. Yes, yes, I know about all the prejudice against women in India, but at least it is obvious and not hidden by societal sophistication.

So, my emergency room visit not only resulted in physical healing, it resulted in emotional, psychological and spiritual healing, too.

The great gift was being back on my morning walk at the beach. “Existence is in the eye of the beholder,” is a whoppingly simplistic suggestion in “Why Does the World Exist.” But as I walked beside the rising sun reflecting along the shores of low tide, I noticed that the sun’s reflection on the water was following me along the shore. My eyes were creating it as my companion. Which meant the person at the other end of the beach was creating their own sunrise experience too. Whose was more real?

Light happens and that’s the way it is. May it prevail in all its manifest wonders throughout it all—whatever it “all” turns out to be.

It’s poet Mary Oliver’s birthday as I write this. I will end with a few of her words from another treasured book compliments of our local Thrift Store:

“And I have become the child of the clouds, and of hope.

I have become the friend of the enemy, whoever that is.

I have become older and, cherishing what I have learned,

I have become younger.

And what do I risk to tell you this, which is all I know?

Love yourself. Then forget it. Then, love the world.

--Mary Oliver, “To Begin With, the Sweet Grass” from her book, “Evidence.”


Janet Thomas has lived on San Juan Island for 28 years. She is the San Juan Islands Coordinator for Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance and was the Superintendent of San Juan County Parks when Jet-ski-whale-watching was prevented from launching from San Juan County Park, a decision ultimately upheld by the Washington State Supreme Court. She is an author and playwright whose work has been produced in Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Honolulu and Los Angeles. Her most recent books are: "The Battle in Seattle--The Story Behind and Beyond the WTO Demonstrations" and "Day Breaks Over Dharamsala--A Memoir of Life Lost and Found."

1 comment

  • Steve Ulvi
    Steve Ulvi Sunday, 13 October 2019 10:53 Comment Link

    Thanks once again Janet for your thought-provoking take on what it means to live here and now. I am a person who can't understand why anyone would travel half way around the globe to visit India and their devastated natural environs. But it rings your inner bell so good on you. Spiritual quests are a different reason to travel abroad.

    By the way I too feel that if at the end of a disagreement on something a person says "F--- You" in a flinty way that is grounds for distance in a relationship.

    Good Stuff.

    Steve Ulvi

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