I have a distinct memory of the first time I visited Häagen-Dazs as a child. I was in third grade, and I had a friend whose parents were rich. He lived in a house that I considered a mansion, and his life was very different from mine. (I remember him talking to me about his family’s recent trip to Egypt. He told me, probably not intentionally trying to sound like a snob, but merely repeating something he had overheard one of his parents saying, “We flew first class. It’s the only way to travel,” and I replied, confused about why he had thought to mention this fact, “Well, if there aren’t any other options, then of course you did.”) He knew about this magical place that served the best ice cream in the world, only it had some strange unpronounceable name that I thought sounded vaguely like a pig—and therefore rather appropriate as a name for ice cream, I guess—until I saw it emblazoned on the storefront.
I was there only because I had been invited to spend the weekend at his house, and his family decided to go for ice cream while I was over. I’m sure, for them, Häagen-Dazs was the only place to get ice cream. I wish I could tell you the exact name of the flavor I ordered and describe its decadence in precise detail, but I have no memory of the ice cream, though I suppose it must have been good, because I remember that he and I were pumped up on sugar and running around. He was jumping up over the benches on the store’s outdoor patio, and I was chasing after him, both of us laughing, when I misjudged and toppled over, landing hard on my chest, which knocked the wind out of me. Feeling unable to breathe, I ran over to his mother, who was engrossed in conversation with a friend. She ignored me as I continued to get dizzier and dizzier until, fearing I would fall, I lay down on the ground beside her feet.
She finally looked down at me, her face completely blank as she regarded me for a full second, then she turned back to her friend, scowled meaningfully with one upraised eyebrow, and continued her conversation. It took me another fifteen seconds or so to realize that was it. In the life of a child, fifteen seconds is also long enough to regain your breath and to realize that you aren’t, in fact, going to die, and the pain and fear that seemed unbearable only moments before is actually quite tolerable, maybe even gone completely. The other pain, though, the surprising pain of being completely ignored and uncared for, even as insignificant as it was against the larger backdrop of my youth, that pain stayed with me for years after that experience, and it took me far longer to understand.
I remember feeling so shocked at my friend’s mother. Even as I went back to the game with my friend, I had this unsettled and uncomfortable feeling. I couldn’t understand why she had acted so indifferently toward me. Sure, as a child, it’s obvious that I overestimated the danger I was in. But what if it had actually been as serious as it had felt to me? I felt like I could have died on the ground beside her and it would have taken her another thirty minutes to realize that now she had to call the cops or, you know, the janitor. Yes, I ended up being just fine. But even if she had assessed the situation and recognized immediately that all I had needed was a little pat on the head and a consoling “You’ll live,” or even a “Don’t be such a baby,” why had she been so unwilling to offer even that? Certainly my mother wouldn’t have treated my friend that way if the situation had been reversed, right? I didn’t know how to describe how I felt, and of course I never talked to anyone about it, but I just knew something wasn’t right.
As that eight-year-old child, I didn’t have a plan when I ran over to my friend’s mother. I didn’t know exactly what I expected, and I hadn’t given any thought at all to the fact that, in the Pre-Cellphone Age, there was absolutely nothing she could have done for me. However, even though I don’t really have any vivid memories of my mother having consoled me when I was hurt, I think it’s obvious that there was an established pattern. Are you hurt? Go to Mom. She’ll make it better.
And it wasn’t that my mother did anything to ease the pain, obviously. She had no magic balm, no physician’s touch. What she provided was far more subtle, and, perhaps because of that, far more powerful. She was reassurance. Whenever I feared that I had somehow found myself in the kind of world where a child can be hurt, she was proof that the universe cared. In my childlike perspective, I thought I needed to feel better physically. But in reality what I needed was to feel better emotionally, and thus armed, I could then cope with everything else until I felt better physically.
As I transitioned from childhood into adulthood, I also transitioned from running for Mother to running for God. When I had struggles, when I had disappointments, when I had failures, and, yes, when I had pain, I could go to God for the same help that Mother used to provide. God never took away the struggles, disappointments, or failures, just as Mother never took away the pain. But he gave me the reassurance that I didn’t suffer alone, that my plight didn’t go unnoticed, that although the universe sometimes seemed not to care, there was someone who always would.
After I realized as a fully grown adult that God didn’t exist, I remember a period of time that lasted far longer than I wanted it to when I felt drawn to prayer. At the time, I figured this was due to habit. When you pray every morning, every night, and before every meal, then those same physical cues trigger the same trained Pavlovian response. When you are used to running for Mother when you get hurt, then one day when you are at a Häagen-Dazs with someone who is definitely not your mother, and suddenly you get hurt, you don’t stop to think about it. You simply run for Mother, even when you know it’s not Mother.
But over time, as God continues to turn away and scowl meaningfully, you learn. At first, you still experience the urge, and in the shock of your pain, you get up, immediately start whimpering, and go running over. But then as you get closer, you see that He’s engaged in conversation, and you don’t lay down plaintively next to Him. A few more times like that, and you don’t even whimper. You just glance over, see that He’s with a friend, and go back to your game, resigned now to both the physical pain as well as the emotional pain of knowing that He simply doesn’t care. And even though you can’t explain why, you feel certain that something’s not quite right about the whole situation.
Maybe I’m carrying the metaphor a little too far. But there’s a little sliver of truth in it that I’m eager to explore. We are human, and for the vast majority of us that comes with an inescapably powerful ability to care. But we find ourselves in a universe that is so indifferent to us that it can sometimes appear as though it is cruel when contrasted with our own values, our sense of right and wrong, our desire for recompense and justice, and our deep need to relate to others and to be found acceptable to and valuable by them. How can we ever resolve that chasm between our character and the character of the universe?
Who do we run to when we realize that the universe doesn’t care?
I don’t need someone to take away my pain. But I still need to know that my pain matters to someone other than just me.
Why is pain such a lonely feeling? Why does our pain seem to double at the thought that we suffer it alone?
And as for my friend, if the situation had been reversed, would he have come running to my mother? Or had his mother trained him differently so that he no longer needed such reassurance? I never asked him, but when he got hurt, did he just stand up, brush himself off, and go on his merry way? If so, is that something I can learn?
I don’t want to need a caring universe. It’s evident to me that I’m not in one and won’t ever be. But why does it feel so important to me to matter? Why do I need so desperately to both love and to be loved? Why is it so difficult to look squarely into the face of the universe, accept that you will never mean as much as you deserve to anyone but yourself, and then just nod, stifle your tears, take a deep breath, straighten your back, and then go and enjoy whatever it is that you enjoy?
Maybe my friend’s mother had a lot more to teach me that day than I understood. I think I still need to learn it. The reasons are different now, but maybe I still need to go running for that mother at Häagen-Dazs.
And if, like last time, she has nothing to offer me in my pain? I guess at least I can pick up some ice cream while I’m there.