In Los Angeles, I have two locations that I naturally gravitate towards, and they are two places that are beautiful but overwhelming to me in their vastness. The first, and most obvious is the ocean. I can have the most perplexing problem or the most hopeless seeming situation, but when I stand in front of the water with the waves crashing up to me, it is nothing. My biggest problem is so small in front of the ocean which stretches further than I can see and for more miles than I can imagine, the same ocean that has been in this spot through more years than I will ever know or can even wrap my mind around existing. I have a habit of writing whatever it is that’s worrying me in the sand and watching the waves wash it away. In a second it is gone- just like any other person from any other time who has stood on this shore contemplating life. My actual problem seems simpler, just with the realization that it is passing.
The second place I go is Griffith Observatory, a scenic astronomy museum that sits atop a mountain that overlooks the city and is backed by more mountains that are open for hikes and exploration. I usually run up the mountain trails to the museum, a journey that is both peaceful and challenging, and I arrive feeling like some sort of conqueror. I feel big in my small accomplishment, though the view is spectacular, and on a clear day I can sometimes see for miles, all the way past the city to the ocean.
However, upon entering on the lowest level of the museum, I immediately shrink. There is a display here called “the Big Picture,” a two-story tall wall covered from ground to ceiling with one of the largest photographs of space ever made. It was made by taking very defined pictures through a telescope. Looking at the wall up close, there is scarcely a centimeter of the dark background that isn’t touched by a speck of light, a star or a galaxy of its own. Numerically speaking, there are over 1.5 million celestial objects (stars, galaxies, etc.) Understanding it as the entire universe would be mind-boggling enough, but as it is, this picture is only a very tiny part of our night time sky. The Virgo Cluster, as it is named, is so relatively small that you would only see a couple of stars if you looked with your bare eyes, and you could cover it up your index finger held a foot away from your face.
This is where I lose comprehension. This is where I can’t come close to putting into words what it all means. My mind is at this point one of those pocket calculators trying to compute a problem that has too many zeros to fit on its screen. The universe is too big. What am I in a universe this infinitely enormous? It’s too much and I’m too little.
The good thing about this point of my journey, is that I still have to run back to my car. I have to climb and jump and try. I guess literally, in the whole scheme of the universe it wouldn’t matter if I came down from the mountain or not. However, despite that reality, it does matter. Even if I leave contemplating these expansive notions, halfway back through the trail I’m lost in thoughts of smaller things. I think of my sister who is having a baby, my parents who just sent me an Easter package, the cuteness of the dog up ahead. I think of making it down the mountain faster than I did the time before. All of those things mean something to me, of course some more than others (sorry, cute dog).
My point is that there are so many things in this world that make us feel small, and a lot of times it seems like there is a sort of futility to it all. We may sometimes wonder what use there is in trying in a world where it may not matter. However the facts that we get goosebumps when we hear a beautiful song, that we cry when someone makes us so happy, and that we feel pride in what we accomplish all support the notion that whatever we do matters. In the world we are in right now, right here, we matter, even if we don’t know why.
So while it can be wonderful and liberating to know that we’re in a world of infinite large proportions, it is useless to dwell on it. At some point even the smartest minds shrug their shoulders and accept that it is what it is. At some point we live our lives to the fullest because we can. We have this great little rock in this nice little galaxy where we can grow to do and be whatever we like while we’re here. We can build great cities and cultures, and see how big we can go. If it’s all just a blink of an eye in the scheme of things, that’s fine, because it is important to us now.