In an unimaginably vast universe, what do our individual lives mean?
Who among us has not at one time or another felt tiny and insignificant? We are powerless against so many things. We are often not even in control of the course of our own lives, let alone the forces of nature. Hunger and poverty ravage a huge portion of the world's people; wars are being fought; there are any number of human-created evils. It's enough to make one sometimes throw one's hands up and say, “I can't possibly make a difference in all this. So what am I here for?”
We are small. Most of us will never be widely-known for performing heroic deeds; we live our lives quietly, relatively unknown. We know that our lives affect the lives and well-being of our loved ones. But, generally speaking, this is not far-reaching. We are each a mere speck of dust in the unimaginably vast universe.
Strangely, this is a rather comforting notion to me. It is reassuring to me to know that, even through some unfortunate blunder, I cannot possibly explode and release the energy of a hundred billion suns. No matter how much I stumble and mess up, no matter how many mistakes I make--and they are numerous on any given da--I feel relatively certain that the universe is not going to be affected by it. Earth will continue in her orbit around the sun, and her inhabitants will wake up to a new day.
Our lives are insignificant and small. We move through this life quickly and quietly, and most of us will be forgotten a few generations hence.
I wonder about this, though. I wonder if because our lives are so small each life is also that much more precious. Recall Carl Sagan's notion that “if we were randomly inserted into the universe, the chances that you would be on or near a planet would be less than one in a billion trillion.” I invite you to imagine how much slimmer the chance is of being on or near one of these tiny little lives. “Worlds are precious,” Sagan notes. Doesn't it follow logically that so, too, is each life? As a whole, we take up an impossibly small fraction of the space that's out there. Each one of us is an exquisite commodity.
Personally, it's not often that I see myself and my life in this way. I rarely stop and think about my life's place in the universe. As the parent of two young children, it's all I can do to get through the day without forks being flushed down the toilet or teeth being knocked out. Our cats are months overdue for their shots; I am at least as long overdue for a dental appointment; we've dealt with burst pipes, stomach bugs, cars that won't start, computers that won't behave, and e-mail coming at a rate I can't keep up with; and I haven't balanced the checkbook in months. You know the story. Contemplating life and its significance ranks low on my to-do list, and quite possibly on yours, too.
Yet one day last summer I sat in the home of my inlaws, absorbed in Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything . And suddenly it dawned on me: It really is quite spectacular that I ever came to be. Miraculous, even.
I was most interested in the sections dealing with the great and the infinitesimal. The unimaginable vastness of space, and the unimaginable smallness of the atoms that collectively are us. I was also interested in Bryson's observations having to do with our human existence. On the one hand, millions of genetic mutations had to occur over and over in a precise manner over billions of years for humans to come into being. The tiniest deviation from any one of these, he writes, “and you might now be licking algae from cave-walls or lolling walrus-like on some stony shore.” On the other hand, chemically-speaking, the story is pretty mundane: We are made of “carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, a little calcium, a dash of sulphur, a light dusting of other very ordinary elements . . . and that's all.” We are both miraculous and mundane. We live in a world too immense to begin to imagine, yet we are made of particles too small to conceptualize. It's these paradoxical truths that I find interesting to ponder.
This little life of mine. I do not give thanks for it nearly enough, or tend to it as much as it deserves. I do not ask often enough if I am using it to its full advantage, doing all that I can with it. In short, I am not taking seriously enough my responsibility for treating this life as a wonderful and precious thing.
Oh, but if I did. If I took this responsibility more seriously, I would offer thanks often for so many things. I would take fewer things for granted. I would say thank you for the love of my children and my spouse, my whole family--for this is indeed the most miraculous thing of all after life itself. I would say thank you for the companionship of friends, new and old, those who have faded away and returned and those who have faded away for good. I would say thank you to whomever would listen for the strange luck that put me here at this time and in this place--for the freedom to express myself and to vote, to drink clean water, to be surrounded by exquisite natural beauty, trees, marshes, beaches, an occasional moose. I would join my children in their unbounded joy. Their joy can be infectious, but there's many a time that I simply feel waves of melancholia as I consider that soon they, too, will be grown and not so easily enchanted by such things. I would say thank you, thank you, for hands that can make and break bread and a mind that, albeit unscientifically, can contemplate the heavens.
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Growing up on Star Island
Looking back on my summers spent at a beloved Unitarian Universalist retreat.
We cannot hear unless there is silence.