Asking for a Friend: Confounded by the Cosmos

Dear Olive, 

How do I reconcile the fact that I am a tiny insignificant speck of dust floating through the universe with the fact that my own reality feels so vast and all-encompassing?

-Small and Spiraling

Dear Spiraling,

As I write this, curled sideways on a porch to stay cool, and sure to screw up my posture eventually, I can see lightning crackling through a gray swath of thundercloud smeared across the sky from one edge of the horizon to the other. It’s two minutes past 9 p.m. local time and still light, or it would be if not for the gray swirls blotting out most of the sky. Seven seconds after each streak of electricity there’s a rumble, sometimes so frequent that it sounds like a low heartbeat echoing behind a veil, others like a flimsy baking sheet waved back and forth in a kitchen, as familiar and mundane and comforting as staring into a snow globe and imagining you could live in it, carefully confined and surrounded by beauty.

It’s harder, in some ways, to be unconfined, un-encompassed. When I first babysat, the spirited and dynamic kid I watched had so many feelings they sometimes beat her up from the inside. I asked my mom how to help her when a tantrum overtook her, when the ferocity of what she felt was too much for her tiny heart to handle without cracking open a little. My mom said: hold her tight, let her feel safe enough to feel sad and then to feel better. It’s too frightening to think we might be the biggest and most powerful forces in the world, and we all need the safety of borders sometimes.

You and I are insignificant specks of dust in the universe. And we are at the same time so vast and consumed and consuming that it’s hard to stand still in the force of it sometimes, hard not to crave borders that we can see through but not spill out of. We find all kinds of ways to build those borders. Conscientious reminders that we’re not as important as we feel we are. Other people’s problems. Weed. Whatever might give us a relief from feeling everything as it comes at us — which, for those among us lucky enough to have sensitive antennae and tender hearts, is a lot.

Feeling guilty about all you feel — and about how much you care about all you feel, whether it’s delight or despair — is just another way to stem the tide of feeling all of it. Of course your reality feels vast; it’s the medium you’re plunged into 24 hours a day. It’s the water. If you spent your time zoomed way out into the universe where you could only see your life as a distant speck, you’d never remember to floss or cry over a heartbreak or sit back, stunned, after finishing a novel that meant something. You’d never get invested enough to let your heart get broken or let a book stun you in the first place. What would be the point? Such a long view of yourself and your choices and anything else of consequence would be paralyzing, impractical. Perhaps you’d get very good at sitting in quiet meditation and drinking weak tea. There’s nothing wrong with that. But you asked about reconciling the immense and the immediate, not about giving up one for the other.

The way you reconcile the big impartial universe with the inescapable intensity of your own small world is to turn your focus outward, to feel whatever it is that fills you up and then let yourself off the hook for feeling it. Notice the world outside your own boundaries, but don’t reach so far outside as to exclude everyone else on earth, too. Pay attention to the other specks floating around with you; they have the same immersive visions from their own vantage points. Don’t pay penance for seeing your own world expand to the edges of your own horizons; let it fill up the space it needs to and then let it shrink. You need not disown your own experiences in deference to the universe’s magnitude; you can respect the people next to you having their own. It’s not, I think, about making room for the celestial scale as you live your life and feel your feelings, but about remembering that everybody else is living and feeling theirs, too.

You don’t have to stare into twilit thunderstorms or crashing surf to remember how big the world is, though that is good for putting your own heartaches and hopes in perspective. You don’t have to be small to listen. You don’t have to make yourself insignificant or tell yourself you are; even physics continues to disagree on that point. However massive or minuscule or just medium-sized you might be, you just have to look around to notice everybody else crashing through the universe with you.

Love,
Olive

 

For a little unprofessional advice in these uncertain times, send your questions to our anonymous portal. We want it all, from the epistemological to the inane. We’ll dig deep to find some answers in the next installment of BLARB’s advice column, Asking for a Friend.

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