Confronting Overwhelming Insignificance
by Arlo Eisenberg
The universe is big. Incomprehensibly big. And it is very likely just one out of an incomprehensibly large number of incomprehensibly large universes. Our recorded history, recorded human history, goes back less than 5,000 years. It has been less than 10,000 years since humans first started organizing into civilizations and well under half-a-million years since modern humans even existed at all.
By contrast, Dinosaurs ruled the Earth for over 165 million years. ONE-HUNDRED SIXTY-FIVE MILLION YEARS. Try to comprehend 165 million years; try to conceive of it. It is not possible. Now try to imagine life 165 million years from now.
In the unlikely event that humans continue to exist in any form at all after 165 million years, think of what the implications would be for recorded history.
Superstars like Tom Brady and Madonna are celebrated now and likely will be remembered for years to come. Luminaries like Thomas Edison and Abraham Lincoln will be remembered for generations. Singular, paradigm shifting personalities like Jesus and Einstein will be remembered for millennia. But who will be remembered in one million years? Who would be remembered in ONE HUNDRED MILLION years?
Let's suppose that Albert Einstein had the greatest impact on the course of human history over the last millennium, for argument's sake. And let's imagine that we could only pick one seminal figure from each millennium to venerate. So, Einstein from the last millennium, Jesus from the millennium before that and Julius Caesar from the millennium before that. That is three historical figures to represent three thousand years, sounds pretty manageable.
Now fast forward 165 million years and that number balloons to an unwieldy 165,000. To put that into perspective, there have been less than 50 American Presidents; if you can name them all that's great! Now imagine trying to remember 165,000 Jesus Christs and Einsteins. And that is to say nothing of all of the Abraham Lincolns, Martin Luther Kings, Moseses, Buddhas, Gandhis, Francis Bacons, Leonardo DaVincis, Mohammeds, L. Ron Hubbards, Joseph Smiths and Justin Biebers that have been left out.
Stretched out far enough and given long enough eventually all personalities and accomplishments will become meaningless, especially given that time and the universe will invariably outlast human existence. One hundred sixty-five million years from now my life (and yours) will be completely indistinguishable from Mozart's or Shakespeare's or a fourth century Egyptian farmer's or probably even a grasshopper's or a banana's.
The Earth is about 4 billion years old and the universe (this universe) is approximately 14 billion years old. Eventually our sun will expire and our planet along with it (assuming it is still around). Humans will almost certainly have run their course long, long before any of this. Our universe ultimately will expand or contract into extinction.
It is not just that nothing will last forever, it is that there is no such thing as forever. Everything will end. Existence will be indistinguishable from non-existence. When all memory and record of existence have gone it won't just be gone it will have never been.
Sometimes, when my mind starts to lead me down this existential rabbit hole, when I begin to feel the weight of such overwhelming insignificance, I take a moment...to pause. I look down at my hand and study it and try to really see it. I observe how the light is reflecting off of it and how it is covered in a tiny latticework of cracks and wrinkles. I open and close my fingers, marveling at the fact that I am controlling them. I actively consider where I am in time and what I am doing in space. I am walking back to my desk at the office or I am driving in my car to pick up my daughter. I am sitting in front of the computer, typing.
Self-awareness and the capacity to reason are exceedingly rare in our universe (insofar as we know). The dinosaurs never accomplished it in over 165 million years. In the history of our planet we are the only ones to have ever achieved it.
Maybe we don't exist. Perhaps nothing exists. Maybe we are just biding meaningless time until all that ever was ceases to be or ever have been.
For now I have the capacity to reason and the ability to consider myself and the universe and my place in it. I get to love and create and play and despair and experience and appreciate a myriad of emotions. I get to share and communicate and relate to other people just like me.
For whatever it is worth, this little sliver of space and time that we have been granted in our universe is special. If not for any other reason than the completely improbable fact that we are aware of it...and so we are able to make it that way.
As long as we are here, we may as well enjoy it.
Like baby, baby, baby, oooh...