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Remember the cartoon map of the galaxy that had an arrow pointing at Earth, reading “You are here!”? We laughed, but the point was clear. Now, as we flip through the incredible images of the universe delivered by the Webb telescope, we see that the cartoon map massively overestimated our significance. There are literally countless galaxies, not to mention planets. And we’re less than a spec on a spec, relatively speaking—plus ours may not be the only universe. So what does any one person mean in the scheme of things? On a much larger scale, if humans destroy themselves and our Earth, what does the universe lose?
We can’t know what we mean to the universe any more than we can know what our having existed as we are means to all humankind. When I was learning to ride my horse, trainer John Lyons advised, “Ride where you can ride. Don’t ride where you can’t.” Often we begin to tackle the problem by isolating what we’re more important than, assuming we can know. The answers humankind has come up with over the years reveal our hubris and ignorance: we think we have natural dominion over animals, poor folks, women, other races and religions, the earth itself, etc. etc. To prove we’re right, we control and often randomly kill that which we assign to lower rungs on the ladder. Ironically, our hubris may one day precipitate our demise as a species. At this writing, we’re officially threatened by extreme heat, floods, storms, volcanoes, and people who enjoy using assault rifles, lies, or explosives to be seen or to gain power. We insist on riding where we can’t.
If you have ever lost someone who was a part of your heart, whose absence gave you incurable pain, your answer to my question about what one person means is clear. A person you deeply love is central to your universe as you are central to others. Likewise, if you or a loved one has had to adjust to losing vital functions such memory or the ability to feel affection, you know that living is far more than existing or winning or impressing others. You have learned that our connections and how we imbue them with love and laughter make us important. We don’t need the universe to applaud. A smile from the right person means far more.
If humanity or the entire Earth is destroyed, what will matter? That we have been. We mattered to one another (and to any Higher Consciousness we might believe exists). That is the scale in which we have meaning. What did we create or discover? Learning about the realities beyond our initial perceptions feeds our minds, tickles our curiosity, and defies our fears. Learning expands who we are and our ability to make physical and emotional life better for ourselves and others, including other creatures—if we choose to use what we learn. Hopefully, learning leads to maturity. As Kipling wrote, “If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…” you are true to yourself. You can participate in the January 6 investigation to preserve democracy.
One day we may be able to make life better for a distant culture. Or we could degrade them. What do you think if you meet someone who makes their own home unlivable by destroying items essential to life and strewing toxic garbage? How about a family that can’t live together as diverse individuals so they mistreat or even murder one another (like the ruthless royals of old) simply to amass influence? If there are intelligent others from distant planets watching us, perhaps to determine if, as a species, we’re worthy of survival, what would they conclude about us? If you were from one of those spectacular distant galaxies, what would you think? Will Earth be able to fulfill its niche as a valuable bit of matter? Will we?