Insignificance

The recent photographs taken from space with the James Webb telescope — of galaxies and individual stars light years away from us, appearing as they were 13 billion years ago and providing insights into the origins of the universe — are truly awe-inspiring. What they suggest about the reach of space is difficult to comprehend. Never have I wanted more to visit a planetarium so as to see these images three-dimensionally.

I find these images comforting for the way the remind me of human insignificance, of how tiny we are in the larger cosmos. Celestial bodies come and go, taking all their occupants with them. Our accomplishments as humans, as well as our follies, will, in some distant future, count for nothing.

I wonder if astronomers live differently from the rest of us. Are they more humble because they spend their time contemplating the vast universe and its origins? What does it mean to factor this cosmic knowledge into the way one leads a life?

I, like most members of our species, have spent much of my life trying to bolster my importance in the world, trying to urge people to read my books as well as trying to embody, as well as I can, all the traits we value the most — grit and intelligence, health and physical stamina, humility and generosity. So much striving to be a “better” person and to have the world regard me that way.

Is there another, less egocentric, way to live? Is it possible to remember our species’ fragility in the context of the universe while creating a meaningful life on earth?

In my current situation, moving more quickly toward known death than most, I am acutely aware of how hard it is to keep one’s cosmic insignificance in mind. I feel like a plant drawn to a light that is keeping it alive. I feel the will to continue growing until the very end when the light is extinguished. I will continue writing as long as I can, continue to coax people to read my books, continue to do the things that bring me pleasure, including loving those around me. In other words, I am not exactly living moment-to-moment with those humbling space photos in mind.

But I am doing one thing I rarely did before. I am stepping back occasionally to consider how easily the world will get on without me in it. It’s somewhat painful to accept this notion but, except for a few of my nearest and dearest who will experience a brief setback from my death, the world will motor on as it always has. Even for my dear ones the wound of my death will close with time, and I will become for them a fond memory. It is the way of life and death, and it is as it should be. Were we to be stalled by every death, humanity and all its endeavors would be paralyzed. I (mostly) wish for my husband to find a new partner, for my son to find a surrogate mother, for my friends to replace me with new friends. I try to inure myself to the sadness of this thought and see its beauty. The people who move in to replace me will be wonderful, I’m sure, and they won’t be identical to me. I will still be remembered.

This contemplation is hard but necessary, and it feels like the kind of thinking I should have been doing all my life, understanding that I am unique, yes, but I’m one among an entire species of unique individuals, all striving to be seen and loved. Thinking this way makes acknowledging and lifting others easier, remembering that one day none of us will be here and it won’t matter at all.

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Cai Emmons

Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.