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Lights in the darkness
Once, when I was a kid, I looked up into the night sky.
I don't remember how old I was — maybe 10 or 11 — and I don't remember exactly where I was; sometimes I think it was at my Grandma Adela's in Albuquerque, other times I think it must have been during a camping trip. Sometimes in my mind I simply see my family's front yard, at a time when the neighborhood was still dotted with cotton fields and dim pools of streetlight. The border, less than a half-mile away, wasn't yet flooded with a harsh white light throughout the night. I could look up and see stars and stars and stars.
Of course, it wasn't as if I was discovering the night sky for the first time. My father had pointed out the Big and Little Dippers, and I made a habit of wishing on the first star I saw. I was already toying with the idea of being a scientist of one sort or another, and astronomy was topping the list. (I didn't know yet how much math was involved, or how terrible I would be beyond the most basic arithmetic.)
But this night was the first time I really looked into the night, looked so deeply that I felt how profoundly and how completely insignificant I was in the scheme of things. The sky I was peering into was a tiny slice of something I could never hope to really understand, much less experience in any real way. It was, simply, too big. And I had never felt so small.
The shock of it, the truth of it, made me dizzy. It made me incredibly sad. And it was also sort of a relief.
If I was really this inconsequential, if I was something who didn't even constitute a blip on the grand cosmic scale ... well, that took a lot of the pressure off. Because, when you're talking about those kinds of numbers, what you do or don't do will be forgotten in a generation. Sure, there are some people who are remembered for much longer than that, but it's a statistically small number. Smaller if you're some intelligent plasma a few light years away. Chances can be taken, mistakes can be made, and even in our own, important-to-us time scales, most things fade from our collective and individual memories.
Life, like space, is just too big.
That enormity can be comforting in its vastness, in the great balancing it affords. It can also be terrifying — space is a beautifully but mostly empty place, a dangerous and inhospitable place colder and more merciless than any ocean. Life is a gift, but can be brutal and hard, often marked by cruelty and unfairness, committed by people who figure they can get away with it because no one is paying attention anyway. There's too much going on to catch it all.
I reposted an article on Facebook this morning about the idea of "repopening America" in the face of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, which at this point has killed more than 200,000 people worldwide. Millions have been infected with the novel coronavirus, the highly infectious virus that causes COVID-19. The point of the article is that there is no point in rushing to "go back to normal" because there is no "normal" anymore. Our lives — not just in the United States, but around the world — have changed irrevocably. The economy, the way we go about our daily lives, the way we interact with each other, all of it is different now. And it will probably be that way from now on, even after a vaccine is developed or a reliable treatment is discovered. In the course of a few months, everything changed, including the course of human history.
A friend of mine commented on the post by asking, "OK, but what CAN we do, though? Because people are suffering out here."
I answered by using a lot of words that boiled down to, "I don't know."
Because it's big. And some days, it feels too big. Some days I feel overwhelmed by the vastness of this crisis. Of the hatred motivating so much of this current administration. The naked greed. The cynical callousness that allows people — people of color, the poor, or almost any minority group — to needlessly die while the already-wealthy to profit off it. The utter stupidity that has us rushing at full speed over the falls, while clueless or uncaring supporters row faster and faster. It's so much that it often becomes too much.
It can be paralyzing. Some of you have noticed that I haven't been writing these newsletters, even during a time when it'd be easy to have something to say. I haven't been working on podcasts, though I have ample time. I start to read, and then my mind clouds over, drifting back to news alerts and chyrons. I feel adrift in what feels like endless black, floating powerless and without direction of my own.
The night I looked into the night, I almost felt flooded by a sense of meaningless. We were nothing. I was nothing. The emptiness filled me, a deep and cold well I could feel draining the color from my face.
And I saw Orion's Belt.
It was another constellation my dad had pointed out to me, part of the great map stretched across the dark sky. It was marker, something to show me where I was, something that had been noted and documented by people who had also looked up and said, we can understand this. And generations later, that same knowledge was passed down, intact and shared with a young kid standing in his front yard in West Texas. A link, a thread, a rope to hold onto. A connection that defied time and probability and the unwillingness of vast things to be easily understood.
In the end, that's all we have. It's all we have. There are times when that hope feels battered, sometimes broken, sometimes pointless. But it's not. It's important. It's strong. It's our landmark in a world, a life, a crisis, that can feel as if it's more than we can handle. It's the hope that comes with looking into endless darkness and seeing a string of stars to which you can anchor yourself. I'm not alone. Neither are you. And in that, I have hope.
And that will be big enough.