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A Dilemma - A Resolution

So here’s how the dilemma begins and slowly gnaws on your mind.

We live on a small, scrap of cosmic crust, caught in an unyielding orbit around a prosaic star. Our “Pale Blue Dot”, which Carl Sagan poetically called our home, is just one of eight[1] insignificant spheroids captured by the gravity of a star which, itself, is merely one of some three hundred billion swirling around a monster of a black hole in our Milky Way galaxy that is just one of some five hundred billion galaxies that extend nearly fourteen billion light years into space, space that’s expanding in ever-increasing rates into who the hell knows what.

We know when this all began. We can project how it will end. Our boring little star is only about 1/3 through its life cycle. In a billion years or so temperatures on earth will average around 120° and life will end. In about 1.2 billion years it will just about use up its hydrogen fuel and the resulting helium will cause it to expand. From there a variety of stages will unfold, resulting in a white dwarf star but no one will be around to care.

It’s all quite mathematical, inflexible, objective. Your role, my role, the thing that any of us does in this vast cosmic stew is as irrelevant as the life of the tiny spider we stepped on on our way out this morning never even knowing it was there. We, in this vast universe which may just be but one of a vast number of similar universes, are as insignificant as the bacteria that crawl through our gut.

Until recently we didn’t know this. In fact, the magnitude of it is only slowly dawning on us. Recently cosmologists turned the Hubble telescope on a wholly blank spot of sky, a tiny, insignificant dot of sky where there seemingly was nothing. They left it focused there, for weeks sucking in every scrap of light that emerged from this emptiness that stretched back some 13.8 billion years. And it was not dark. This “Hubble Deep Field” was filled with thousands of galaxies. Each was as huge and expansive as those closer to us. Each an assembly of additional billions of stars. And we saw it all from our tiny blue dot.

It was easier when we didn’t know all this, when we thought it all began and ended with us. When our planet was all there was, sitting at the center of everything with the sun carving out a perfect circle above us, the only rational species.

How have we respond to this revelation? I’ve observed three ways.

First, denial, a denial often marked by a cleaving to those early notions that there’s some eternal, over-arching godhead who has taken the time and effort to actually give a rat’s ass about us. But this strains credulity. Are we supposed to conclude that for some nutty reason this being just cooled his heels for ten billion years before bothering with our pale blue dot and then (what was this guy thinking?) waited until just a couple of hundred thousand years ago to breathe life into us and, for those who hold on to popular Christian notions, hung around doing odd things like drowning virtually the entire population (well, heck, why not, they’re his people) before deciding to ship his only son our way — a son who, like you and me, shared 98% of his DNA with chimps, 85%, zebra fish and fully 50% with bananas? It’s kind of tough to buy this story once you’ve come to understand where we live, once you’ve seen the remarkable photos of Earth taken from the edges of our solar system by Voyager.

If theology and faith doesn’t work, you might try another path, falling into an existential malaise. We know that we’re just another passing life form on this planet of ours. We understand the enormity of what is around us. We acknowledge that this just doesn’t make any sense. None. I mean that. None. One speck of stardust in one solar system in an arm of one galaxy among billions. Ridiculous. But, because we see all this we cringe from it. What’s the purpose of even getting up in the morning? Why should any of us care about today, or tomorrow or anyone else’s tomorrow? We’re just a couple of scraps of biochemical crud living out our limited lives and the whole damn thing will be toasted to a crisp when the sun goes viral. Sartre tried this route. It wasn’t very satisfying. In fact, if I had to choose between the illusion of theology and the despair of existentialistic angst I’d find God under some rock somewhere.

Luckily, there’s a third way — and it just happens to be the one Sagan counseled us to take in his book Pale Blue Dot.

Embrace the moment for it is all we have. It really doesn’t matter whether we’re just a random bio-dot in an endless universe because each pain we feel is real, each pleasure we experience is real, each relationship we carve out is real. Yes, we’re an unlikely outcome of chaotic, often random processes, a small chancy place in a great vastness. But we still feel.

So contemplate the vastness of it all but recognize, as Sagan noted, that everyone who ever lived, lived on this blue dot. Every event took place here. Every birth and death. Every war and every armistice. Every discovery was made here, every symphony composed here, every novel written, law passed, meal consumed, infant embraced, loved one’s passing mourned. There is everything about us but there is only us here. We don’t need superstition. We don’t need despair. We just need to treasure what’s here, embrace it, protect it.


[1] Or nine, depending on whose side of the Pluto is/isn’t a planet dispute you’re on.

Reader Comments (1)

For fiction on this topic, try the six volumes, my struggle, by Karl ove knaussgaard. Or from a female perspective, the at least four volume Neapolitan tetralogy by Elena ferrante, which might as well be called Our Struggle.

January 12, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJudy ross

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