Short Story: Learning From Leibniz

Misery and war. If God is both omnipotent and benevolent, why would He allow evil to exist in the universe He created?

By DARREN PINSKER
October 29, 2010 16:46
people with hands on heads standing in rubble

Despair and rubble 311 AP. (photo credit: AP)

At 39 years of age, Steven Leib was the youngest chairman in the history of the Department of Statistics and Probability at Radak College. One Friday evening he entered his home through the cherry-wood front door, walked over to the powder room to the right of the foyer, and removed his brown lamb’s wool sweater. His hair was starting to show a bit of gray, and his cheekbones were becoming increasingly pronounced. Staring into the small bathroom mirror he thought to himself that his eyes looked like two small blue potholes sunken in asphalt. The year had not been kind to him.

That Friday, like every Friday, his wife Karyn baked a single loaf of bread, as sweet and airy as cotton candy. By early evening the aroma of raisins and honey completely suffused the house. She toiled away to ensure that her ochre-colored ceramic pot, heaped to its rim with beef or chicken stew, sat dutifully on the stove to greet Steven upon his return from campus. Her teaching job allowed her the flexibility to prepare the Friday evening meal. That was important to her.

After taking one last look at the mirror Steven left the powder room, entered the kitchen, and caught a glimpse of Karyn in her red apron, the one that was a little too large for her small figure. He felt a pang of melancholy, a choking in his throat, the type of feeling one gets looking at an old photo of friends one will never see again. He kissed Karyn lovingly on her forehead, lingered to inhale her scent, and brushed aside the curls of black hair that hid her eyes.

“Very tiring day,” he said. He felt like a small seed crushed under a pestle.

“You look exhausted,” she said.

“I gave a faculty seminar on Leibniz. The topic was a bit heavy but it went well.” His head was throbbing and he tried to hide a grimace from her.

“Why don’t you rest?” She placed her hand on the back of his neck.

“No. I’m OK.”

He wasn’t OK. Eleven months earlier, when the headaches began, the scans revealed a number of small tumors on his brain. “Malignant, inoperable” was how the doctor described them, staccato-like, in a high-pitched Indian accent.

“Let’s eat, then, if you’re not going to rest right now.” She lit the candles on the table and stared hypnotically at the flames for a few moments. They looked like two undulating orange angels.

“OK.” He suppressed another grimace. It was becoming increasingly difficult for him to concentrate at work. He recently set aside a proof that he had been working on for nearly a year.

“You know, I didn’t think you were teaching calculus again this semester,” she said.

“No, I’m not. Why?” “You mentioned Leibniz.”

Steven took pride in the fact that his wife would make the connection. “It was a graduate philosophy seminar. The department asked me to speak about his philosophical views, not his mathematics.” Steven forked a cube of beef into his mouth. “Everyone’s a philosopher,” he added a bit under his breath, cynically.

KARYN PRETENDED not to hear. She didn’t want to encourage any brooding. Not now, not at dinner on Friday evening. She felt like she was standing on a thin sheet of ice on the surface of a pond with a dangerous crack forming in the center, radiating outward, threatening to ravage the ice. She stared again at the flames flickering on the wicks. They gave her a momentary sense of tranquility, a fleeting serenity.

“Large crowd?”

“Relatively. About 40 graduate students. A couple of local senior citizens, too.”

“Bon appétit.” The tense muscles in her shoulders relaxed a bit. There would be plenty of time for dark discussions during the week, she thought to herself, but Fridays were sacrosanct to her. They once were for him too. She sipped some wine and put down the long-stemmed glass. “So what was the lecture about?”

“Leibniz’s views on God.” Steven looked up from his plate. “You can stop me if you know this.”

“No. Tell me.”

“You sure?” “Yes.”

“OK. So, here was Leibniz’s problem. He was trying to understand why, if God is both omnipotent and benevolent, He would allow evil to exist in the universe He created?” He unconsciously scratched at the fold of skin between his neck and cheek as his face tight-ened. “Good question. A fair question, don’t you think? It at least makes sense to me why Leibniz would pose the question.” His eyes looked up and then he trained them again on Karyn. “Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I’m trying to understand the same thing,” he said bitterly.

She was impatient. “Don’t expect an epiphany. It troubled Job, it troubled Leibniz, it’ll trouble somebody else 500 years from now.”

“It’s bothering me now, not 500 years from now. Maybe He’s benevolent but not omnipotent? Or maybe He just doesn’t exist?” He pointed a fork at her with a slab of meat at the end. “What do you think?”

“I think we have free will. That’s how I make peace with the paradox.”

“That’s too pat.” The muscles in his face became slightly contorted as he spoke. “Where’s the free will if a child is drowned by a riptide? I can give a thousand other morbid examples.” He regained his composure, swirled some wine in his mouth lazily, and swallowed. “Leibniz had a clever thought, though. He argued that God created, among all possible and logical worlds, the one with the least human suffering.”

“Do you think Leibniz is much of an improvement on Job, Steven?” Karyn asked rhetorically, sarcastically.

“You want to know what I think? I think it’s all garbage. Absolute garbage. Rationalizations and half-explanations. In the end, people hide from the most rational answer of all.”

“And what is that?” Karyn asked, looking down at the table.

“That’s obvious. That there is no God.”

She rested her chin in the palm of her hand. “I’m not looking for the same type of proof that you’re looking for. This isn’t a mathematical problem.”

He took some more stew. “Well, I happen to have a very personal stake in this.” The pitch in his voice rose as he spoke.

“So do I,” she replied, staring at him. “Please don’t imply that I don’t. Ever again.”

“I’m sorry.” He leaned back in his chair. “Can I ask you a simple question?

“What?” She took a long breath.

His voice softened. “When was the last time you saw a miracle?”

She put down her fork gently. “Can I tell you something?”

“What?” His face was impassive.

“When I was young, my grandfather would often tell me that I should always keep one eye open. That way I could witness a miracle. I think there’s wisdom in that.”

Steven reached out for the wine glass and knocked down the two silver candlesticks set in the middle of the table. “Your grandfather was a superstitious man.”

SUMMER CAME TO an end and Steven took up a regular course load in September at the start of the semester. Teaching applied math, particularly his specialty in probability theory, was invigorating and brought him a modicum of joy. Questions of chance always had fascinated him, for as long as he could remember. He would turn them over in his imagination, and they would bounce around his mind like cubes of ice in a tumbler. What are the chances that a tossed coin can come up heads 12 times in a row? What are the chances that an organ as complex and magnificent as the eye could develop without a cosmic craftsman laying out a blueprint for its development? What were the chances that he would first come to know the woman who he eventually married due to inadvertently leaving an umbrella in a coffee shop one rainy September day?

So much of life is about chance.

One day, chance in one of its permutations scratched at the door. Steven expected a neighbor or a package delivery. Instead he found a drenched and hungry one-eyed puppy. “Today is your lucky day, little guy,” he said as he gently placed one hand on the small animal’s soft underbelly and took it inside the house.

The creature was tiny, no more than 10 pounds, no more than 12 weeks old, with a short mottled coat and a small head with handsome features except for one eye mutilated beyond repair, perhaps by an accident, perhaps by another animal, perhaps by a boy or a grown man. It was shivering. Steven dried him off with a cotton bath towel, placed him down gently in the living room, a few feet in front of the woodburning fireplace, on top of a down-filled blanket and caressed his head. His one-eyed roommate fell asleep immediately from exhaustion. The small creature had seen more than his share of tribulations, Steven thought. Karyn woke them both up the next morning.

“I’m not the mathematician here, but am I correct in assuming our family has just grown by 50%?” she asked.

“If you’re OK with it, I’m OK with it,” he replied.

“So, what should we name him, or her?” she asked.

“He’s a he. I was thinking Leibniz. What do you think?”

Karyn laughed at the reference. “I think Leibniz is perfect.”

This is how Leibniz became an integral part of the Leib family. As Steven’s health deteriorated, he found great and unexpected succor in his relationship with a creature that, while lacking in higher intellect was blessed with emotional intelligence and surely loved, he imagined, in a manner not so very different from the way a young child would love his parents. And that love was requited by Steven and Karyn. They doted on him and adored him as they would a child. Not much time had passed before Steven admitted to Karyn his surprise at how attached he had become to Leibniz. “You know, it’s uncanny,” he said.

She shook her head knowingly, in silent assent.

***

Fall progressed, the leaves began to change color, the headaches became more frequent, and Steven decided that while he was still able, the family – the three of them – should take an extended weekend vacation. They packed their suitcases, placed Leibniz in a plastic crate for safe carriage in the car, and began a four-hour drive to a peaceful town in the hills of Connecticut. They lodged at a small bed-and-breakfast located in a wooded nook in the hills. For a day, he forgot about his tribulations, and for that he was thankful.

They used the vacation as a chance to reconnect, to repair the hairline fractures that had formed in their relationship as a result of coping with Steven’s illness. Neither of them saw the cracks as a sign of weakness; they both understood this to be a natural result of the crushing burden they had to bear. Still, they needed to mend.

On the second day of their trip, Leibniz disappeared. They had momentarily left him in the care of the bed-and-breakfast in order to eat in the village, and returned to learn that Leibniz had slipped out of the inn and had run off into the woods outside of the lodge’s property. The proprietor was mortified; Steven was distraught; Karyn was numb. They spent the next three days frantically searching for Leibniz. And then they returned home.

They mourned the loss as they would mourn the loss of a close family member.

THREE WEEKS AFTER the debacle in Connecticut, Steven’s condition suddenly deteriorated. Hospital visits, both planned and unplanned, became more frequent. He decided that while he still had his faculties he should begin putting his papers in order to prepare Karyn for the next phase of her life.

Sitting in his study in the gloaming of the early evening, at the cherry-wood desk where he usually did his work, he signed the last of the legal documents. He realized, to his surprise, that there was a great deal of activity outside his window at this hour. Birds moved among the trees in the front yard. Insects emitted clicking sounds. The bark of a neighbor’s dog punctuated the early evening. He discerned the wailing whistle of a distant freight train. He placed his head down on the desk and drifted off to sleep, vaguely hearing the descending pitch of the whistle.

A few minutes later, it seemed, he awoke to a tapping on the front door and realized the courier from the law firm had arrived to pick up the legal papers. Steven opened the door and handed them over. The man thanked him as he placed the papers in a leather pouch for safe delivery. “Is this the neighbor’s?” the man inquired.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re referring to,” Steven replied.

“Is it the neighbor’s?” he said, pointing. “It’s been hanging around the front of your house since I pulled up.”

Steven looked down. A small, one-eyed dog stared back at him. “My God. What are the chances?” The words spilled from his mouth like dice from a shaker.

A WEEK AFTER Leibniz’s return, Steven had to be checked into the hospital again. Karyn spent the night with him, and fell asleep in a chaise in the room. He awoke while she still slept, and through a gray haze of painkillers and exhaustion noticed that she had placed an old book on the table beside his bed.

Squinting, he made out the half-visible title of the volume, partially effaced from many years of handling: Talmud – Tractate Blessings. The book belonged to her grandfather’s library. He managed to lift it and opened it to a page marked by a bookmark. An arrow Karyn had scribbled on the bookmark directed his eyes to the top of the page, and there he began to read: “One who sees a place where miracles were performed… recites the following blessing.”

He smiled.

And he recited: “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the universe who performed miracles…”


Related Content