Of the many times I mourn those who live in some city or another, night is when I feel sorry for them most.
I do not speak of crime, or more the threat of it—how so many in those cramped-close jungles of concrete and steel must lock themselves away along with the sun lest they be set upon by evil-doers. I remember taking a trip to Baltimore years ago to visit some of my wife’s kin. The windows of their house looked out upon busy streets filled with litter and exhaust. There wasn’t much to be seen, which was fortunate given I couldn’t see much anyway for the steel bars set over the glass to keep out intruders. I remember wondering how it was that anyone would live in such a way. A comfortable cell is still a cell.
I rather mourn city folk at night for the simple reason they are not afforded the luxury of a view on par with my own. Step out into my yard on any evening when the moon is small and the clouds scattered to the other side of the mountain, you’ll see what I mean. The stars in the Virginia sky are a wonder this time of year, so clear and close you are afraid your breath will chase them away like bugs. Millions of them scattered to all directions, never-ending and straight on to the very curve of the earth, divided overhead by a great milky arm of our galaxy itself. So many stars you cannot fathom to begin counting them all.
I like it out there, looking at them all. Few things in life offer such a perspective.
We humans have been staring at the stars for quite some time and for just that sort of thing—to gain a better view of ourselves and our place. Back when the smartest people around believed Earth occupied the center of the universe, it was fairly easy to see humanity as something special, set apart. Something fashioned by the very hand of God.
Of course the whole center-of-the-universe thing didn’t pan out. Turns out we’re not so special at all, cosmically speaking. The universe is vast and growing more so every second, and just about every part of it we can see is mostly the same. Ours is merely one planet among billions at the far edge of one galaxy among trillions, which over the centuries has changed the way we see ourselves.
Special? Hardly. Needed? Don’t even go there.
Humanity is about as inconsequential as a thing can be. We’re all no more than a happy accident. As the astronomer Carl Sagan laid our situation out, “We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star.” Stephen Hawking made it sound even more pessimistic: “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet.”
Yay us, right?
Call me crazy, but I am of the opinion this sort of thinking has seeped down to infect us all. Doesn’t seem to matter where I go or what I read or who I listen to, it’s all some version of that—nothing really matters because nobody really matters, so screw it because we’re all gonna die and be forgotten anyway. If the politicians or the media or celebrity culture doesn’t ruin us, we’re sure to ruin ourselves.
We’re not all that special.
Then again, maybe we are.
For all the talk about how our planet is so mundane, scientists are discovering the universe itself seems fine-tuned for life. Which is strange, given it seems for now that we’re the only kids on the block. So far the planets discovered beyond our solar system aren’t much Earth-like at all, much less places fit to support the sort of life we know. Intelligence seems a difficult thing to produce in the great beyond of space and time. It takes a lot more than water and oxygen and a few billion years of a stable environment to make even cosmic scum like us.
If that leaves you feeling a little lonely, you’re not alone.
Being special has its drawbacks. Given the size of the universe and the trillions of galaxies holding billions of stars, chances must be pretty good there is at least something out there, or someone. All that wasted space would be a shame otherwise.
But maybe even that doesn’t matter. The universe may be immense and growing, but the speed of light is still fixed. Life could be flourishing in the farthest corners of the cosmos, we’ll never know because we’ll never get there. Even over the span of thousands of years, we’ll be fortunate to visit even the closest stars. Maybe we’ll find someone to talk to. Maybe we’ll have only ourselves.
It seems arrogant on the face of it, believing everything I see in my small patch of Virginia sky exists for us alone.
I’ll be honest and say I have my doubts on that. But I also believe we’re much more than the insignificant inhabitants of an insignificant planet turning around an insignificant star.
We may not be so special in the grand scheme of things, but in our own tiny part of that grand scheme we certainly are.
We are each needed. Special. Wholly unique and so infused with a value far beyond our reckoning.