Tag Archives: meaning

The Center of the Universe or a Tiny Speck of Dust?

“Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” –Mohandas Gandhi

Hello friend,

How often does the drama in your life make you feel like the whole world hangs in the balance, ready to rise or come crashing down depending on how you come through the situation? Pretty much every day, right?

A few months ago, I had a ton of theatrics storming around my head and weighing on my heart. I was feeling the pressure of a self-imposed deadline on finishing my book, way behind but not wanting to give up writing these letters to you every week in order to get it done. It was a sacrifice I just didn’t want to make. Meanwhile, I was entangled in a web of uncertainty surrounding my job status and my future in any sort of career field. This was tied to the weight of my family’s then-recent financial instability, as my wife had quit her job to start her own business from scratch. We were in a pickle, definitely in the short-term and quite possibly the long-term, too. It did not feel good for this guy who prefers to remain oblivious to such things as personal finance and health insurance. And of course, coloring all of this and everything else was the now-typical political ignorance and outrageousness that is just America in this day and age.

In any case, it felt like this crucial life moment, like my fate and the fate of those around me hung in the balance, our lives to be forever altered by the outcome of these intermingling dramas.

In the midst of that existential three-ring circus in my head, I received an email that seemed innocuous on the surface but actually gave me quite a shake. It was my birthday, and amidst a few other calls and messages from my parents and siblings, there in my inbox was a message from my favorite aunt and uncle. “We hope this little tune helps keep things in perspective.” It was a link to a Youtube video called “Galaxy Song.”  It had the feel of something that might be on “Sesame Street” or “The Electric Company,” a playful song to educate while it entertains. Here are a few choice lines:

The sun and you and me and all the stars that we can see are moving at a million miles a day in an outer spiral orb at 40,000 miles an hour of the galaxy we call the Milky Way. Our galaxy itself contains 100 billion stars; it’s 100,000 light years side to side….And our galaxy is only one of millions and billions in this amazing and expanding Universe…..So remember when you are feeling very small and insecure how amazingly unlikely is your birth.

These lyrics completely arrested me. I know I had heard the stats before about the astounding size of the Universe, but I guess I had let their ramifications escape my awareness, because this was like learning them anew. It was a real smack in the face.

I guess that in the past, I probably used the facts about the enormity of the Universe as an argument against the half of my brain that doubts the existence of some type of Creator/God. After all, my argument went, in all of this vast “emptiness” in which we cannot find evidence of other “intelligent life” (though I definitely think we flatter ourselves with that label), surely we must have been specially created by a Divine hand, right? (I use the same type of logic when I try to convince myself that the astonishing degree of intricacy of the human body and every other organism and system on Earth is surely a sign of an intelligent Designer.)

But in this case, when I try to wrap my mind around the vastness of it all and just how infinitesimally small our planet is in the grand scheme (not to mention each of us people individually), it makes me think that not only might I not be specially made, but also that, either way, I am completely insignificant. My issues and dramas, my dreams and gifts–they don’t matter at all. They have no bearing on anything. How depressing!

But then I think, “No! I am here on this magnificent planet for a reason, and I have this overwhelming sense of significance that echoes from deep inside me. I matter! I know I do!”

But then there are the facts again, and it seems obvious that I am not even the tiniest blip on the screen of the Universe, not just historically but even on the picture of today. After all, there are billions more stars just like our sun and therefore billions more solar systems. Not “billions” as in a figure of speech or writer’s embellishment, but actual billions. My life–heck, even my planet’s life–is nothing.

And back and forth I go.

Maybe this debate–or at least the admission that there should be a debate–pains me so much because I have always felt it was my destiny to be a world-changer, an agent of progress and hope for the masses of people that I plan to reach with my words and deeds. I would like to say that I have always known that I was significant, that I was born to make a difference, to leave a mark. I have spent my life believing that.

That makes the glaring facts of the Universe’s unfathomable size so daunting and humbling. Going just by the numbers, it is impossible to claim any shred of importance. It’s almost enough to make me give up. Because let’s face it: on paper, I don’t even have a chance in this debate. I have nothing! Logically speaking, if my galaxy is insignificant, then my solar system is even more insignificant, in which case my planet is even more insignificant, and that means my own life–and especially each of my daily dramas about my job and my mortgage and my president–is surely of no consequence.

That is why I think that DENIAL must be an exceptionally strong evolutionary adaptation of ours. Think about it: given that we can know empirically that we are the equivalent of a tiny speck of dust in this vast Universe, how else can you explain how each of us feels so central to the whole show?

Honestly, doesn’t it feel like your life matters? Doesn’t it seem like the outcome of at least some of your major life decisions has an impact on the world, and that that impact is actually important in the grand scheme of things? I know it feels that way to me.

I can’t help but think that this feeling of significance and the element of denial have a lot to do with FAITH and our religious practices. Consider all of the many different religions and expressions of faith that we have come up with throughout history. At their core, they are a way to not only help us make sense of our world, but also to instill in us the idea that each of us matters, that what we do matters. Perhaps we cling so hard to these religions–despite their generally flimsy logic–because by focusing intently on them, we are able to avoid thoughts of the magnitude of the Universe and our statistical insignificance. Maybe FAITH and DENIAL are equal partners in an elaborate hoax we are playing on ourselves.

Or maybe our propensity toward both faith and denial of the facts should be viewed as more evidence that we are so significant that we have been gifted with these traits to ensure that we press on to fulfill our special destiny. Maybe we are evolutionarily wired for significance. Maybe those dreams, ambitions, and feelings of purpose and calling are the Universe’s reminder that there is more to us than any statistics can prove or disprove. Perhaps our mere existence is to be seen as enough of a defiance of logic that we ought to know better than to look at numbers to tell us our worth. Maybe we just need to trust ourselves on that, to listen to that still, small voice inside to remind us Who We Really Are.

Honestly, I don’t know the answer. Maybe I am no more important than any other speck of celestial dust and all of us are just interesting-but-meaningless carbon anomalies being carried along on this third floating rock from the sun. If that is the case, then I wouldn’t stress so much about the job and the house and the conmen in Washington. But the truth is that as much as my brain loves logic, the Truth of who I am rests in my intuition. Somehow, that still, small voice is the one I trust the most. And I don’t care if it is unknowingly saturated with denial. My gut tells me I have a purpose and that I am here to make a difference, a difference that matters in the grand scheme of things. If it is right about that, fantastic. If it is wrong and I am really just that speck of dust, well, then at least I will have lived out my days in the service of making life better for all those other specks around me. I am going to have to live with that. Because I don’t know the answer, and I don’t know a better way.

How about you? Do you actually matter, or is your significance as infinitesimally small as your actual size relative to the Universe? Open up your journal and allow your mind to swim in a different depth, even if just for a while. What is your initial, gut-level reaction to this question? Is there actually something significant about each of us riding here on this little planet that is floating around one star amongst the billions and billions of stars in our galaxy, which is only one of billions more galaxies? Why do you think so many people think we are special despite the evidence to the contrary? Is it arrogant of us who think this way? Do you think we would feel more or less significant if we learned that there was intelligent life on planets spread all across the Universe? How often do you find yourself conscious of how small you are in relation to the Universe, not just how you are only one of 7 billion inhabitants of Earth? Is it mostly out of your consciousness? Do you consider that a form of denial? Is that denial healthy? How much of humanity’s significance–and your personal significance–do you attach to your faith? When you look at your faith and then at the statistics about the size of the galaxy and Universe, does it make you question the basic stories behind religions more than you might normally be willing to do? How much do you trust your intuition on this matter? Does your gut tell you that you matter? How much say do your brain and logic have in the matter? Even if you knew that it is very likely that you are fooling yourself, would you still continue to believe that your life and your choices matter? What would life be like believing that none of this makes any difference at all? Are there people in your life who believe that? What do you think makes them keep going? Can we be both insignificant and the center of the Universe simultaneously? Have your thoughts on this topic changed throughout your life? Have they changed as you have processed this today? Which way are you trending? Leave me a reply and let me know: Are you everything or nothing at all?

Shine bright,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you in any way today, please share it. We are all sharing this third rock from the sun, so let’s make it the best ride we can!

LIFE, Served Sunny-Side Up

DSC_1153“Every moment is golden for him who has the vision to realize it as such.” –Henry Miller 

Hello friend,

Each morning when I creep into my children’s rooms to wake them from their sweet slumber, I crawl into their beds and whisper into their waking ears to ease them into the new day. Some days they are quick to rise, and other days it takes some coaxing, but in that moment, I always try to make sure that they hear two phrases clearly: 1) “I love you” and 2) “It’s going to be a great day!”

I sincerely believe both of those statements every morning. The first one probably seems obvious—everyone loves their kids—but perhaps not the second. But it’s true for me. I really do expect my days to be great ones. I am an optimist. I expect the best possible outcomes—both in specific situations and in Life in general—and focus on the most hopeful aspects of a given circumstance. Oh sure, I have my moments of doubt and uncertainty, but for the most part, I am probably that annoying guy who tries to make you look on the bright side when you are in your moment of doom and gloom. Sunshine Willy!

I sometimes consciously try to temper my optimism with a little dose of the practical reality that most people live with. I have to remind myself of the odds against me. For example, I am applying for a very competitive fellowship to help pay for some educational expenses.   The part of my mind that speaks up first is so sure that I am going to win the fellowship and that my life will change dramatically for the better. Then that extreme confidence creates a little tension inside me. Not wanting to go overboard, I try to temper that wild optimism by reminding myself how few winners there are and thus how unlikely it is that I will be one of them.

But then an even greater tension arises, because I really don’t want that negativity—disguised as a “reality check”—to be part of my mindset. I want to set my intentions and announce them to the Universe, then not put out any energy that conflicts with my true intentions. I want that fellowship, and I must think and act accordingly. I suppose that in the long course of it, the key for me is to be aware of all the possible outcomes and not in denial of the odds, but still to choose the positive one and act as though I am expecting the best. I simply don’t have the time and energy available to dwell on the rest.

Speaking of dwelling on the negative possibilities, it will probably come as no surprise to you to learn that one of the few habits of other people that tends to drive me batty is worrying. I have a few people close to me who are in the Worry Hall of Fame. I find myself often shaking my head as I listen to them carry on. What makes me crazy is how much of a waste of energy it seems to be, always imagining and fretting about the worst possible outcomes, outcomes that they don’t want and aren’t even likely to come true. It reminds me of this great Winston Churchill quote: “When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.” What a waste! It just seems like there are better uses for our energy.

I am a fan of The Law of Attraction—“like attracts like,” or, more practically speaking, “what you focus on, you create more of”—and I just don’t see the logic in obsessing about outcomes that are the complete opposite of what you really want. In the end, maybe that is why I am an optimist: it makes sense to me. It seems logical to focus on what I want to happen and how I hope the world will show up for me today. I believe that we see in the world what we expect to see, that your world is just a reflection of your mind. If I expect events to fall my way, they tend to.

I think that life is much less about your circumstances than it is about the meaning you apply to them. There are a million different possible translations of the events of my day. If I am expecting the world to help me out, I am highly likely to translate my experiences—my circumstances—in a positive, helpful way. Let’s use an example to illustrate the range of possible translations of an event and how our attitudes dictate our reactions.

An optimist and a pessimist are in separate parking lots. In turn, each puts her car in Reverse and begins to back up, nearly hitting a pedestrian pushing his shopping cart. The man gets angry and flips the middle finger. The pessimist, having already been expecting the day to go badly and the people she meets to be rude, gets upset at the gesture and stews about it, confirming to herself that this just isn’t going to be her day. When the man flips the bird to the optimist, however, she feels grateful that she did not hit him and decides that it must be her lucky day to avoid such a calamity. She wishes the man well and is also thankful that she must have a happier life than someone who would flip her off in a parking lot. One circumstance, two totally different realities.

Life just shows up. You get to spin it any way you want to. I think I will keep looking on the sunny side. I feel better there.

How about you? Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Open up your journal and write honestly. On a scale of 0 to 10—with 0 being a complete Negative Nancy pessimist and 10 being a Zippity-Doo-Da optimist–where would you rank yourself? Does that rating change widely for different areas of your life (e.g. very negative regarding your career outlook but positive about your family’s prospects), or are you pretty consistent across the board? How do you think tomorrow will go? When you imagine your long-term future, do you like what you see? Do you think you are fun to spend time with? Would you go on a roadtrip with you? What type of people do you seem to attract the most in your life: optimists or pessimists? How tolerant are you of negative people? There are some people that, whenever they are around, I find myself doing much more complaining and fault-finding than usual in our general conversations. Whenever I recognize it, I know I am keeping the wrong company. Are there some people in your life so negative that you would be better served by cutting ties with them? If so, are you ready to do that today? How much do you worry? Do you recognize it as a waste of energy, or do you find it productive? Do you think you can worry less? If you were the driver in the example, and someone flipped you the middle finger, how do you think you would react? Be honest! Leave me a reply and let me know: Are you ready to look on the sunny side of Life?

Embrace the gift of choice,

William