My family and I used to do a lot of car camping in the desert when we lived in California. Our favorite spot was in Anza-Borrego State Park though we also enjoyed Death Valley National Park and Johnson Valley (BLM). When we go camping, our daughter likes to go to bed as soon as the sun goes down (as opposed to a normal night at home when she wants to stay up all night watching MeatEater). Usually when she goes to bed, my wife and I will enjoy the time to ourselves, talking quietly around the campfire and perhaps enjoying an adult beverage. If any of you have ever camped in the desert, you know how impressive a clear night sky can be.
The one thing that always comes to my mind, always, is how massive our universe is. You look out upon an infinite number of stars and know that they are so far away that it’s incredibly hard for most of us to fathom. Knowing that I am such a small part of the universe, especially given the history of time, is always oddly comforting.
We humans like to pretend we’re important. We like to pretend we’re special. We shout our opinions into already loud echo chambers and feel validated when we hear our voice coming back to us in a slightly different tone. In today’s world, with social media so prevalent in everyone’s life, we know that we don’t even have to have talent to be famous, many people are famous just for being famous. We crave that attention that will make us feel special and validate our insecurities.
The truth is, we’re not special. None of us are really. Sure, there are those who make an impact that seems incredibly large to us in our time and place, but even the greatest of leaders are mere ripples on the ocean of time. The knowledge of this could be disheartening to some, they may view this as nihilistic, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Another place that gives me great comfort in spite of making me feel so small is the Rocky Mountains. When walking through some ancient canyon between mountains that are millions of years old I can see the layers of time on their faces. I imagine the millions of stories those mountains have in their collective memory and if I get quiet enough and really listen hard, they will tell me some of those stories. I also know that one day my time with the mountain will be a story it can tell to those still in the “womb of time” (stole that one from Theodore Roosevelt).
Our goal in life should not be to aspire to be the brightest star in the sky, but to be the Sun in our own solar system. We should give light and warmth to those in our orbit; our families, friends, co-workers and neighbors. We are all important in a very real and impactful way, but not in the superficial way that our televisions and iPhones tell us we should be. Man’s desire to be immortal is as old as man himself, but I challenge us all to be better building blocks of life, rather than aspire to conquer death. Even Marcus Aurelius once said that even the greatest Roman Emperor will be forgotten in but a few generations.
There is power in feeling small. Once you view yourself in the proper context to the universe, your purpose becomes crystal clear. You know what things you can change and what things you must accept that you cannot change. In feeling small, you become aware of how important you really are.
And the next time you have a clear, dark night, or the next time you’re standing alone next to a mountain, take a moment and listen closely. You never know what wisdom might be bestowed upon you.