Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Tie a Knot and Hang On

The line of research and discovery that has led to our present understanding of the nature of matter and reality goes back hundreds of years, and includes many people. Some of them are household names, i.e., Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, George Washington Carver, Madame Curie and Stephen Hawking. These are but a few of the men and women whose lives and works contributed to making a clearer picture of the universe. The task is not yet complete. Every time there is new discovery, more questions surface.

Recently, I came across the life and work of a 19th Century man whose name I had never heard before. But I tipped my hat when I met him. I want you to meet him. He was a brilliant, sensitive and tragic figure in the field of science, an Austrian chemist by the name of Ludwig Boltzmann.

Boltzmann studied the behavior and nature of gases, using the hypothesis of atomic structure. There was not, at the time, any direct proof that atoms existed. Many leading physicists argued against the atomic hypothesis. During the last fifteen years of his life, Boltzmann felt himself to be a solitary soul struggling against the tide of scientific opinion. In 1906, ill, depressed, and unhappy about the continuing opposition of many leading scientists to his atomic theory of gases, he killed himself.

What Boltzmann never knew was that a few months before he took his life, an obscure young scientist by the name of Albert Einstein published a paper that established the reality of atoms beyond reasonable doubt. How tragic that Boltzmann, whose work contributed so much to the present understanding of matter, was unable to hang on a little longer.

Help was not only on the way, it was already there. He just didn't know it, and he killed himself. How often we quit too soon! While no one can fully understand the terrifying thoughts and feelings that drive a person to such depth of desperation that they take their own life, all of us know that the nature of life is such that no situation stays as it is. All things change. Help is often just around the corner. Suicide is almost always a permanent solution to a temporary problem. (I make the caveat "almost always" because I have known of suicides in which the precipitating problem could not truthfully be considered temporary.)

One of the greatest lessons we can learn in life is how to tie a knot and hang on when we get to the end of our rope. None of us gets very far down the road without being misunderstood and discouraged. Sometimes we get inundated by our own guilt when we realize that we misunderstood or failed to encourage some person in our constellation of relationships who was very important to us. Some unforeseen misfortune slips up on our backside and our cherished hopes and plans are dashed. Someone we love and depend on for strength and encouragement leaves us, in one of the many ways in which someone can go away; or we let someone down who depended on us. A sudden downturn in the economy wipes out our life savings. We are betrayed by someone we trusted, or we betray someone who trusted us. There are so many ways in which we can suddenly find ourselves in the zone of desperation and at the end of our rope. Perhaps you have already had this experience. If you have not, if you live long enough, you will.

Dr Edward Teller once observed that "life improves slowly, goes wrong fast, and only catastrophe is clearly visible". How can we prepare for the unexpected misfortunes and catastrophic events that inevitably happen in our lives? It is possible, but not easy. Build resources you can fall back on. Develop a faith in an unseen power beyond your own strength. Build relationships with family and friends who will carry you when you cannot carry yourself. We need people in our lives who will pick us up when we fall down. People who are ‘loners' often become ‘losers.' Any person who trusts only in his/her own personal strength will ultimately discover that he/she can not always tie the knot alone. If we have no faith in a divine power, if we have no friends and we have lost touch with family, there will be no knot at the end of our rope.

Start your preparation now! Your rope may be shorter than you think.