Thursday, December 15, 2011

grand scale, small scale

   "Mum, check this out." I leaned over and peered at her laptop screen which displayed a view of earth from the Voyager spacecraft as it was exiting our solar system - the well known photograph, unknown by me until this moment, entitled "Pale Blue Dot." It shows earth as a tiny, partial pixel against the vastness of space - a dust mote floating in a beam of sunlight - and of course, Dr. Seuss's brilliant Horton Hears a Who comes to mind. An image pops into my head of the dust specks floating above me in the morning sunlight as I lay quiet in that moment before volition, and I imagine listening for the tiny voices... "We are HERE! We are HERE!"
   For me, it brings into focus the reality of the simultaneous co-existence of enormity and insignificance - we are both/and, not one or the other. Each life, each pebble dropped into the wave function of earthly existence, is the most important - the only thing that matters, AND it is completely insignificant in the hugeness of "reality". It's like a camera zooming way in and way out really fast, so that you see the detail immediately juxtaposed with the wide angle. Like Schrodinger's cat - which is both dead and alive at the same time until you open the box to check, we are the center of the universe, AND a dust mote. There's a great moment in the movie Kingdom of Heaven, where the crusader Balian asks Muslim commander Saladin what Jerusalem is worth. He answers, "Nothing," and with a gesture of dismissal, strides away. A moment later he turns, grips his hands into fists and breathes, "Everything." He didn't change his mind, he simply grasps that both are true. It is also like the baby in the manger - on that night, in that place, his birth was absolutely insignificant, AND the pin-sharp focal point around which so much human history has whirled. Every child born is just one of billions, another squalling babe, AND the aggregate of events upon which the future will turn. This duality is built into the fabric of the universe - and when people start to grasp it, like my college friend who called to recount that while stuck in traffic she became suddenly aware of the utter, underwhelming ant-like existence she leads, we call it an existential crisis. Some can't balance these two realities. Coming back to the pale blue dot, I think that without this reality there is no balance - without awareness of the smallness of ourselves, humans tend to get carried away with self importance. Here's what Mr. Sagan had to say...
   "There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world." 
   If this photograph was to be displayed on every classroom wall to be pondered daily by young minds, would it bring the world's future generations together? would it cause an end to individual striving? Would it cause a new philosophy of life to be widely adopted on our little dust mote? Would it be just another NASA image that's world-view shattering and yet has no effect on our daily lives? 
   The sun is rising, glowing pink under the blue cloud cover. Two fellow earthlings (deer) just passed by outside my window on their way to whatever important events fill their day, as unaware of my importance in the grander scheme as I am of theirs. I think, however, that we each do have an inkling of the insignificance of ourselves, as they stroll through the snowy field under a gray sky and I sit here on my couch watching them, protected by a wooden structure, connected to a mountainous landmass, spinning on a rocky planet around a middle aged star on the edge of the galaxy.... preparing for an annual human ritual of rebirth we call Christmas Eve. 
   "Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar", every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam." - Carl Sagan
 "We are HERE!"

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