A struggle of mine that rears it’s ugly head from time to time, particularly when unfinished projects begin to stack in front of me, is that all too familiar feeling of overwhelm. Sometimes I just want to throw in the towel. It’s about that time that I begin to feel small. …too small to keep on, too small to build something great, too small to _________… (Fill in the blank.)
It’s easy to listen and let this little voice keep us in a comfortable box. Really though, who are we to ignore that subtle urge that is leading us to fulfill our own purpose in life? Your purpose is your purpose. No one else can live your life but you. How do we make that leap though?
Looking back, one thing that’s helped me to push out of the box, and has also served to keep me relatively grounded (hopefully not delusional), is seeing the scale of my own life. I’ve had several experiences in my life to fall back on for inspiration in this respect. Essentially, I imagine the scale of my own finite experience and reach and compared it with something that provides me with a sense of awe. Read on, you’re already invested.
Il Duomo Di Firenze
Many years ago, I spent a summer in Italy. The first major town I visited was Florence (Firenze). Leaving the train station, there is a maze of extremely narrow medieval alleys (narrow compared with the suburb streets of my youth). I walked several blocks with some other exchange students I was studying with (Study is a loose term, I cut a lot of classes and hopped trains all over Tuscany. I never earned my certificate of completion, but I wouldn’t ever trade the experiences I had for that piece of paper).
There was a moment that we were lost in conversation, talking about the tiny cars, flirting, and whatever else when we turned a corner. The alley opened to a busy street and in front of us was a mountain. At least it was big enough! The Duomo stood there, taller than a football field is long. I had never felt so small before that experience. It was as close to a spiritual moment as I’d ever had up to that point. The scale really has to be seen in person to be appreciated. It was hard to believe that anything so impressive could have been built by man power. It took over a hundred years to build. The problem of spanning the massive floor with a dome was solved by Brunelleschi, who’m I’d studied in my art history class a couple years prior. Textbooks inform, but they can certainly fall short on inspiration. There was no comparison to being there and actually seeing it myself. I was in awe that humans could have built such a thing. I felt small, but simultaneously had an unexplainable feeling that I could do anything.
The street must have gone through several signal changes before I finally crossed. I later climbed the bell tower with my friends. We looked out across the cathedral and I tried to capture it on film. My point and shoot camera’s widest angle couldn’t get the whole dome in one field of view. This was way before panoramas.
By the way, my favorite guide for Italy is “Michelin Green Guide Italy“. It’s what got me happily around the country!!!
The Grand Canyon
The following Spring, I signed up with another school group set to backpack the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Side note: my wife and I took our family there last summer as part of a two week whirlwind trip through the western states (8 I think) in a minivan. Our brand new blended family survived! It was meant to be. As a family we walked the first mile of trail and I think my wife was sold. She’d like to suspend her fear of heights to have the full experience some day. Score!! We got by with: “DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: USA“, and a very indispensable “Rand McNally Large Scale Road Atlas USA“. Yes, Google Maps is the bomb, but what happens when you’re out of cell range??
Another side note: on my first trip, by chance, I had one of my first real-world leadership experiences. After the first day, the heat and terrain forced some of our group to turn around. I was asked to co-lead the group carrying on into the abyss.
OK, no more side notes…
Water sources were difficult to find, and the sheer cliffs we were traversing brought out the nerves in us. I remember reaching the Colorado River on maybe the third day. After setting up camp, I stripped down and waded into a calm section of the river for a swim to let the freezing water wash my dusty sweat and physical body away. I later lay on the beach looking up at the massive walls around me and couldn’t help but feel small and insignificant again. Stripped from me was any fear of failure in my future life, because really, at this scale, it didn’t matter. I felt connected with the canyon walls. With the canyon’s massive scale and in the span of time it took the canyon to form, my petty concerns were not even a drop of water rolling off my skin. At that moment, laying on that orange beach, I resolved to begin working toward a dream…to travel to India.
Space (OK, I haven’t “visited” space…yet, only traveled there in my telescope…yes I embrace the fact that I’m a dork)
A few years ago, when I was picking up my daughter from daycare, I had a conversation with the provider. He happened to be the president of the Shasta Astronomy Club. He was getting his equipment together and told me he was planning to watch the moon that night because NASA was scheduled to crash a rocket into a crater in search of water. Being ever curious, I took him up on an offer to meet him in his yard later that night. We didn’t see the rocket, but just viewing the moon in his giant telescope took my words away. He showed me a couple more objects including the Andromeda Galaxy. It amazed me that it was there and that I could just barely see the core of it with my naked eye. The entire galaxy, if we could see it in all it’s dimness, would appear 6 times wider than the moon. You don’t need a big telescope to make things look bigger, you need a big telescope to make nebulous objects look brighter.
Shortly after that night I bought a Orion 10 inch Dobsonian scope and joined the club. I spent many moonless nights in awe with the fellow members and general public that joined us. By the way, my favorite book for hunting objects in the night sky is “Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas“, and if you want to enjoy the sky without a telescope, you can get by just fine with a nice pair of binoculars. Three of my favorite reasonably-priced binoculars that I’ve played with are: Orion Mini Giant 9×63 Astronomy Binoculars (jaw dropping views), Nikon MONARCH 5 8×42 Binocular (Good all around for day and night use), and the pair I own: Vixen Optics 7×50 Forester Binocular (killer edge to edge clarity for this range).
It boggled my mind that it takes 4 years for light from our nearest star neighbor to reach us traveling at roughly 180,000 miles per second. I was shocked to know that every star above me that I could see was actually within our own galaxy, and just a small corner at that. The Milky Way, our galaxy, is so massive that if we could stand on one side and shine a flashlight across, it would take 100 years for that light to reach the other side. (100 years ago, World War 1 was just ramping up…) It boggled my mind that light from our nearest sister galaxy (Andromeda again) had taken 2,500,000 years to reach the mirror in my telescope. Every time I look at it, I’m looking 2.5 million years into the past, at what that galaxy looked like when the light left it. I had a 10 inch time machine! Again, I was humbled.
Many Cosmologists (maybe some cosmetologists too) estimate that there could be more than 200,000,000,000 stars (200 Billion…with a B) in our galaxy alone. When we look up at the night sky with just our eyes, we are only seeing about 2000 of those stars. Our galaxy is only one of more than 100,000,000,000 other galaxies. Over 2000 planets have been confirmed, to date, orbiting stars other than the sun. (Yes, the sun is a star). Astronomers (maybe some astrologers too) estimate that there could be as many as 1 in 5 stars the size of our sun that have a planet the size of earth orbiting it. Theoretically, there are billions of earth-sized planets orbiting stars near the size of our sun in our own galaxy alone. Whoa!
This all begs the question of what might be found on some of these planets. We’ll probably never know, but, it’s all enough to make this man ponder his own existence yet again. Of what significance was my little body and all of my minute worries when comparing at this scale? I feel empowered when I think about it. If I fail…I fail. People will generally not care. If I think about things outside of our typical perception of significance, my problems fade. They are nothing more than tiny, imperceptible fluctuations of energy, on a speck of dust, floating in a beam of light, in a room that is our universe.
When I have a problem, my mind doesn’t always go there, and even when it does, sometimes I’m so “in it” that the trick doesn’t work right away. At some point though, when I’m able to detach myself from the issue and I think about these things, I have instant perspective. We really are small. Small is empowering. at a deeper level though, we aren’t small at all. We are connected with this vastness. At that deeper level, that vastness is us. In an interconnected way, if we wish for the happiness of others, we are really wishing for our own happiness. From these perspectives, our petty anxieties and regrets, really have no power over us.
May all beings, however small, be happy.