Across all ages or stages of life we ask different questions of a similar nature. I think the most enduring questions were penned by the FitzGerald-Khayyám Rubáiyát team when they asked, Why are we here? Where have we come from? Where are we going? At each life-stage the questions take different forms. When younger we ask Who Am I? Then at midlife we ponder: Is This All There Is? and Where Am I Going? And finally in old age as we review our journey, we ask How Have I Lived My Life? and How Do I Want To Be Remembered? Of course all these questions can all be asked repeatedly at any age.
On New Years Eve 2017 we bade adieu to one of the historically worst years of our lives. Certainly we enjoyed some good moments, but overall a darkness descended when that old suicidal devil revealed his ugly Trump face, and made appearances in Europe, the Middle and Far East, and Africa. While summing up the well-lived and terrified parts of that year, Judy asked, “I wonder if I have lived a small life?” Of course she is not asking about size, and rather if her life mattered.
As humans we can only use ourselves as a measuring stick. We stand squarely at the midpoint point between the microscopic and cosmic. On one hand we diddle with our genetic codes that drive much of our physical existence. I would also argue that our gene codes holds our inherited instructions for much of our mortal journey. Then at the other end, we jet out to the edge of our solar system and look back at Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot and see our tremendous insignificance.
In the photograph, Earth’s apparent size is less than a single pixel; the planet appears as a tiny dot against the vastness of space, among bands of sunlight scattered by the camera’s optics…That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives.
The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
When Judy asks the question about living a small life it is not about the size. She runs up against Carl’s words about our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe. Our physical size is infinitesimally small, the word insignificance does not adequately describe the accomplishment of our species, our communities, our individual stories….all of which disappear within the blink of cosmic or geological time. When my uncle’s opera the Blue Plum Tree hero wales upon the stage, “Who will remember me now?” the answer comes in the form of silence.
For me, a small life means living in a small self-contained world whether a blue dot or our physical body. But it is through our adaptive intelligence that we escape the limits of our small selves. As Martin Luther King once noted, “Everyone can be great because everyone can serve.” Thus, we achieve greatness when we reach out beyond the limits of our individual selves.
Reaching beyond takes many forms. If we pursue a liberal arts education we study our literature, art, history, and politics. We realize we belong to more than a single family or tribe or nation. This was captured best in Edward Steichen’s photo-exhibit and book The Family of Man brought to life in the 1950s, in the middle for the cold war growing into a hot war.
When we return to Sagan’s and King’s reflections (and most progressive religious and scientific thinkers) the measure of a life can be found in Winston Churchill words: We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give. Our importance is not found in our size but in how we imagine we transcending our individual size and purpose. And this is best measured in how we contribute to our community. It is the how and why the ape-creature survived and eventually flourished in a jungle dominated by dangerously large obstacles and creatures. As we forget this truth, we forget our way, we forget our homo-sapiens purpose.
Our pale blue dot barely seen in sunlight, where chosen peoples justify their fight. Will our insignificance teach the value
of working together in the vast dark night?
Time is the only wealth we truly inherit at birth. As we age we see how our health becomes a foundation for enjoying this wealth. Our well-being often reflects the sum or our physical and emotional states. Learning how to laugh to survive strengthens these states. The right to laugh comes with the freedom to cry before the daily cruelties and disappointments that cross our paths. The size of our life is often enhanced by spending our wealth on others.
A small life is limited to it’s home, it’s accumulation, it’s appetites. A large life studies the starry night, tries to grasp the significance of tiny carbon monoxide molecules, applauds the grand gesture of erecting a bridge, and keeps clapping for those who reach across time and space to help others ravaged by natural and man-made disasters. On the day-to-day level, we still get up to fry an egg in the morning, but we pause long enough to consider how that egg got to our home, how the frying pan was fashioned from the earth, the magical heat that instantly appears on the stove, and the blessing of time enough with which to prepare and consume the meal…no longer limited to being hunters and gatherers.
In the end, the larger life begins in the mind and is nourished across time by the heart’s emotions. Our lives expand beyond our reach, beyond our mortal stature, when we both pursue large thoughts and humbly perform small acts of kindness. In this manner we break the bondage of our smaller selfish selves. Escaping the tiny, insignificant life is built on following our natural curiosity and life-long learning. It grant us a moment of awe when staring at the night sky. Our small creative and compassionate acts enlarge the footprint we leave behind in times temporary sands.
Yes Judy, you and I can gently exhale, knowing we made an effort to look beyond our narcissist reflection. And yes, no one may remember us, or what we did. And, like others, we will return to sleep with the stardust from which we originally sprang. In this fashion we complete a heavenly cycle and rejoin the larger life that belongs to what I call the Greater Continuity.