I live a mile away from the ocean. As much as possible, I make it a point to step into the waves and feel the shock of the icy Pacific water on my calves, shudder at the sand crabs squirming beneath my feet, and dwell on how gosh darned big this whole place is.
The Pacific Ocean I find to be particularly compelling. I grew up in Monterey, California where the bay was visible from my living room window. As a child, I took walks down to the shore with my marine-biologist dad, who delightedly instructed me on the biological classifications of life (We would chant Kingdom! Phylum! Class! Order! Family! Genus! Species!) and quizzed me on the scientific names of the sea kelp that we would pass on the beach. This was the beginning of my understanding of the ocean’s enormity.
Later, several years of volunteering at the Monterey Bay Aquarium taught me about the density of a Sea Otter’s pelt (a million hairs per square inch!), the depth of the Monterey Bay Canyon (11,800 feet deep!), and the myriad resilient creatures that thrive in dark, oppressive conditions at the deepest depths of the ocean floor.
When I stand ankle deep in the ocean and try to wrap my head around everything that lies in front of me, I freeze. It’s not just the chilly water, but also the paralyzing immensity of the life and depth that lies in front of me.
In contemplating the vastness of the ocean, and the world as a whole, I am also, inevitably, faced with my own tininess in relationship to it. For instance, this image shows the earth from 3.7 billion miles away:
Carl Sagan captures the significance of what we are seeing:
“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.”
Everything and everyone we know is ultimately tiny and insignificant in the scope of things. Damn.
Many a good person has found themselves in an existential crisis when they think about this. Personally, I can deal with our whole planet being tiny in relation to the universe, because frankly, I can’t bring myself to think about it for more than a fraction of a second without my head exploding (watch this video).
No, what throws me into inner turmoil and existential despair is the fact that the exact opposite of this is simultaneously and equally true. What I mean is, Sagan says that humans are tiny in the scope of the universe, but if you think about it, humans are as complex and huge as a universe in the scope of our components.
It’s amazing. Each of us -each of our minds- is basically a miniature universe. We take in a massive amount of sensory input: we process sight, proprioception, smell, touch, taste, temperature and synthesize it into a coherently unified consciousness. A billion neurons in our brain with hundreds of billions of synapses produce thought and feeling, facilitate decision-making and allow action-taking.
And that’s just the basics. If you think about how much you’ve experienced in your life, and how those experiences have been affected not only by your personal history but the history of your family, of your country, of a complex and ever-evolving culture, you begin to realize the enormity of your own existence. As Herman Hesse so eloquently puts it:
“Every man is more than just himself; he also represents the unique, the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world’s phenomena intersect, only once in this way and never again.”
Anytime I think about my insignificance, this quote helps.
Let’s face it: the world is vast. Massive. Infinitely dense. Incomprehensibly rich with people and moments and interconnectedness and beauty.
Amidst this bigness and mind-blowing complexity, a single person is no more than “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”. We’re insignificant, just a speck. But somehow, every single person is also an irreplaceable and unique result of an intersection of space and time. A miracle. A phenomenon. A universe.
Anyways, the point I guess is that individual people are important. And the ground you stand on may not look like much, but it has a history. Something happened there.
That’s what this blog is about: listening to people, understanding places. Giving weight to specifics even in the face of the vast. Understanding that there is a certain vastness even within a specific person or place.
Welcome, and enjoy.