The Scale of Things

Posted: January 1, 2012 in General Musings
Tags: , , , , , ,

A friend of mine shared this super-cool link with me the other day. It reminds me a bit of the opening sequence to the movie Contact except that it starts so much smaller and you can go through it at your own pace to really take in the comparative size of everything, from quantum fabric to the observable universe. It’s a gedankenexperiment I’ve often indulged: not just to zoom farther and farther out into the universe, but also to zoom farther and farther in—to explore the building blocks of the cosmos we so often take for granted.

I’m also curious what a scale like this might look like when applied to the events of one’s life. Most people might be surprised by what events end up being smaller (on this scale, meaning less important) and larger (meaning more important) by comparison after all is said and done. For example, I’ve often heard people say, “In fifteen years, will it matter what jeans you wore today?” Though the expected answer is a bashful “no,” I can’t give that answer without some reservation. What if those jeans get you noticed by the person who ends up being the love of your life? In that case, I’d say that in fifteen years, those jeans most definitely did matter for you. So, on the scale of your life, those jeans might end up being larger than, say, the test you didn’t study for or even the job you gained or lost.

The only problem with thinking of the events in one’s life in these terms—as a scale of real rather than expected comparative value—is that it gives no easy answers. It’s only useful for retrospection on a completed life; it doesn’t tell you what really is small potatoes in the grand scheme of your life while you’re living it. So, what value does this little thought experiment have? I believe it illustrates how little we know about the fabric of our lives. Realizing our ignorance should instill a sense of humility, respect, and even peace. Humility and respect, because we never know what, based only on face value could be vitally important to our growth as humans based. Peace, because even the things that seem like they should be vitally important could end up being nothing at all.

I’m reminded of an African folk tale, though I don’t remember its specific origin. A man bought a donkey, which promptly ran away. The villagers sent their condolences, to which he responded, “Good luck or bad luck, who knows?” The next day, the donkey returned with a herd of wild donkeys. The villagers sent him messages of celebration, to which he responded, “Good luck or bad luck, who knows?” Some time later, the donkeys trampled the man’s son in a stampede, paralyzing him. Again, he responded to their condolences the same. Not long after that, the village went to war, but the man’s son was spared from conscription because he couldn’t fight. I think you get the idea.

As I think about the events, both personal and in the world, of 2011 and anticipate what 2012 will bring, I’ll keep in mind just how much I don’t know about how my life will look at the end of it. I’ll still continue on the path I’ve set for myself, but I’ll be ready for the twists and turns that no doubt lie in wait for me. And, I’ll smile. Because what else can you do?

Happy New Year!

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