Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Feeling Small in a Big Universe

Last summer my son Noah and I spent a magical August night sleeping beneath the stars.  We were backpacking along the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River, and we decided to brave a night outside the tent—and we couldn’t have timed it better.

As I snuggled into my sleeping bag Noah announced, “Shooting star!”

“Really?”  I hurried onto my back and looked up.  I’d only waited a few minutes when another shot right above us, leaving a bright, long tail across the sky.

“Cool,” we both said, and the meteors just kept coming.

The sky darkened to black, filling with so many stars that a person could spend an entire lifetime trying to count them.  The rushing of the river seemed to fill everything, the sky so huge that we were almost nothing in comparison.  We were tiny and awake and breathing.

Feeling small—not belittled or minimized—but small and very much alive in a fathomless universe is a wonderful experience.

Feeling small in a big universe puts things in perspective.  It momentarily washes away the neurotic fussing of our egos.  It creates reverence.

Somehow, lying against the Earth on my back, gazing up at a sky drenched in stars, puts me in touch with things that matter and erases things that don’t.  On some instinctual level it forces me to grasp all that has transpired on this chunk of space rock we call home—a chunk of space rock that has transformed from a flaming blotch adrift in the vacuum of space to become this astonishing entanglement of life… still adrift in the vacuum of space.  The atoms in our bodies, every one of them, yours and mine, were once stardust.  As Carl Sagan put it, "Our planet, our society, and we ourselves are built of star stuff."  That’s cool.

As parents we want our kids to grow up felling large enough to face all the things life will throw at them.  Of course we do.  But sometimes, in the most marvelous of ways, we should also hope that they feel small.

As I laid there with Noah, looking into the endless space above, I thought of an article I once read by David James Duncan.  In it, he described an image captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.  The telescope was aimed at one of the darkest parts of space, focused on an interstellar region the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length.  Researchers aimed the telescope at this dark fraction of the universe and captured 276 exposures over 10 days, gathering traces of distant light.  What they found is hard for me to fathom.  This tiny speck of our universe, one of the darkest patches in the night sky, contains a vast stretch of galaxies.  Entire galaxies!  Lots of them!

In the article, Duncan wrote, “Even the tiniest points in this image, the astronomers say, are not stars but galaxies.  The light from some, travelling 186,000 mile per second, takes 11 billion years to reach Earth.  That is what I call a Roadless Area!  This is true wilderness.”

For me, trying to wrap my mind around such vastness, such endlessness, drives home the point that all the small things right here in our daily lives are truly miraculous.  The simple fact that we’re here, that we have this fleeting opportunity to be a small part of it all, is something we should each marvel at now and again.  And we should help our kids marvel at it too.  It puts us in touch with the sacredness of things.

A while back an old college friend of mine named John Saunders posted the following comment on my blog.  “I have a buddy who has taught biology for non-majors at San Jose State for 40 years.  He polls his class every semester by show of hands to see how many students have ever spent the night outside.  The number declined steadily until ultimately not one student in a class of 200 college freshmen had ever spent a night outdoors.”

That makes me sad.  Each of these young adults had been alive on this planet for more than 6,000 nights, and they hadn’t spent a single one of them outside.  They’d never had the experience of waking up after some dark midnight with a vast sea of stars to put them in their place.

Being put in our place…  We tend to use that phrase to express something punitive, the act of making someone feel less powerful than an authority figure (or a bully).  But feeling small in a vast universe can put us in our place in a positive way.  Staring into the night sky and feeling small can help us understand the marvel of being alive, of having a planet overrun by a cacophony of living wonders, a planet that makes our very lives possible.  This place is a blessing!  Being here is a miracle!

Letting the universe put us in our place can also help us understand that the gifts of our individual lives don’t last forever, so we better do something meaningful with them.  We better live thoughtfully.  We better start now.

That night along the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River, Noah and I saw at least ten more meteors before I finally got too tired and had to close my eyes.  I was almost asleep when Noah said, “Thanks, Dad.”

“Thank you,” I answered, and I scooted closer to him.  It gave me the happiest feeling, just knowing that he was laying there beside me soaking up a sky full of stars, feeling small and alive.  I’m not sure how long he stayed awake watching the sky.  I dozed off long before he did.

Jason Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.