Albert Einstein was a scientist who believed that the universe operates in orderly, predictable ways. So, it’s rather surprising to see Einstein quoted as saying that, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
Actually, there’s no concrete that Einstein ever said any such thing. That ought not to matter. Logically, arguments cannot be considered valid simply because of the perceived authority of the people who make them. In practice, however, we do not consider ideas merely in the abstract, but as part of holistic ideologies that are embedded in social settings, and centered around charismatic leaders. People attribute this aphorism to Albert Einstein because it represents an important insight, and we think of Einstein as an especially insightful character.
The aphorism isn’t meant to suggest that the world is subject to arbitrary divine intervention. Rather, it speaks to the relationship we choose to make with the world of things around us.
Many people choose to dismiss the value of the physical world, distrusting the very idea of desire for material things. Even though they depend upon the value of tangible products, these people regard such dependence as a kind of weakness. They feel guilty about anything they own that’s not absolutely necessary. They decry materialism and commercialism, and long for a mythic lost era in which people lived simply, and did not want anything more than what they needed to survive. These people are not purely negative, but what they value is abstract, idealistic, perceived as absolutely separate from the world of our direct senses.
Other people attempt to find all their satisfaction in obtaining as many material goods as they can. Ironically, their satisfaction in their possessions is not lasting. This week’s prized new purchase is forgotten by the time the next week is through. Although they crave, their relationships with the things they own are shallow. They turn to the physical world, but find no value in it.
The aphorism attributed to Einstein hints at the possibility of a middle path between these two extremes.
If we reject the importance of the physical world, we will find ourselves tormented in a quest for wisps of meaning that we can never quite grasp. Neither do we find satisfaction in the accumulation of material things without appreciating the value of those things.
A balanced form of materialism can bring us great fulfillment. If we were to take a moment to consider the significance of the remarkable diversity of physical creation within which humanity is nested, we could neither abjure our possessions, nor consume them so casually.
Generations upon generations of human beings have labored to achieve the insights inherent in the objects that we now regard as too cheap, or too profane, to merit our notice. Yet, the sacrifices our ancestors made in order to make each invention have invested each of these unlikely technologies with a meaning that could rival the profundity of any sacred verse.
As inhabitants of the most complex material culture ever to exist, we have a unique opportunity to practice reverence for all things, to live as if everything is a miracle.
Learning to cultivate such reverence isn’t merely wise. It is practical as well. The key to survival in business is the ability to perceive an element of miracle within the material props of everyday life. The alternative is to succumb to the cold estimation of commerce as nothing more than the trade of commodities.