Seeing Stars

Orion in all his celestial glory, forever lifting his leg. (from Brittannica)

You know what I love? Stars. I don’t mean the common, five-pointed shape or the latest, greatest celebrities. I’m talking about the amorphous plasma balls radiating energy through thermonuclear fusion in outer space, millions and millions of miles away.

You know why? Not only is their sheer existence magnificent since they manage the extraordinary act of not collapsing under the weight of their own gravity, but because they make me feel insignificant. They make all of my problems seem entirely pointless (which they are). Sometimes I need to be reminded of that. Sometimes all of the little, day to day trivialities become too much for my tiny primate brain to handle, and I begin to worry about things; stupid, inconsequential things over which I have no control anyway.

When that occurs and it happens to be nighttime, I go outside, look up, and I see a million stars staring back at me. I find it comforting that the same constellations that I knew as a kid are still there: the Big Dipper, Orion, the Pleiades. Actually, those are the only ones I really recognize by sight anymore.

The megalopolis of Los Angeles probably has more people and lights than most countries. This means that 1) a person is never truly alone, which can be comforting or annoying depending on your mood and 2) the ability to see the stars in all of their celestial glory is severely hampered. From my particular latitudinal and longitudinal vantage point, the only stars I can see are the big, bad, bright ones, which tend to be planets anyway.

With Orion, I can only clearly see his belt, but I’d know that belt anywhere. Orion is my winter protector. Everywhere I go, I look up and see him. Yeah, everyone in the proper geographic location can as well, but I mean that, if I only have access to a slice of sky, odds are, I’ll see Orion in that slice. If the house in which I dwell was on the other side of the street, I wouldn’t see Orion, but chance has it that, all winter long, he’s in plain sight over my abode.

Of course, I don’t mean to imply that Orion is a living, breathing, sentient thing that cares about me or my whereabouts in the slightest. He’s just a group of luminous points in the night sky that happens to have a name that I happen to know and recognize. And since someone personified that cluster of stars long ago, I see no need to break with tradition.

Orion in all his celestial glory, forever lifting his leg. (Image from Britannica)

Where my parents live, in rural, northern Michigan, it seems as though you can even see into neighboring galaxies. There are so many stars, and they all shine so brightly, that it’s hard to tell one constellation from another. The night sky actually looks three-dimensional; you can almost tell which are closer and which are father away. The stars are so visible that you don’t even have to crane your head upward as they peek right over the horizon. It makes you feel as if you’ve been thrown back in time to an era before science.

I used to spend every summer there at that cottage on the lake. To this day, my favorite place to be in the whole world is lying horizontally on the end of the dock, outstretched over the clear, freshwater lake. If the water level is high enough, you can lie on your back and lazily drag your hand through the tranquil night water as it gently laps beneath you. As you breathe deeply of the clean, summer night air that smacks of pine and cedar, the only sounds you will hear are the distant chirping of crickets and twittering of birds. Overhead, there is a circus of stars, all performing at their twinkling best for your benefit. There is nothing that will make you realize the vastness of the universe and your own irrelevance to it all better than that.

Some people may read this and wonder, “Why on Earth would you want to feel insignificant or irrelevant?” All you have to do in order to feel important is read one of a few sacred books and do exactly as it says, even if it’s constantly contradicting itself. This kind of thinking drives me batty.

The problem with most religions is that they are designed to go against one of the key rules of the universe: it is not about you. Religion makes the universe so much smaller than it is. Some religions say that the planet is only a few thousand years old. Some make man out to be something that rolled off a sort of celestial assembly line, fully equipped. Where is the wonder in that? Isn’t it much more amazing to think that Homo sapiens evolved over eons from primordial ooze? Isn’t it more exhilarating to think that only through a random and rather lucky series of events did our evolutionary chain survive?

The only reason I’m writing this, hitting the space bar with my thumbs, is that my ancestors evolved over millennia from soup to nuts, and not because some god made me in his image.

Anyway, back to the point: why is it that I would choose to feel insignificant, since it seems to be the opposite of that which everyone else in the world is striving?

When you let your brain soak in the entirety of its tiny existence, when you realize that you are just a tiny nano-speck on the unquantifiable timeline that is the length and breadth of the universe, and that you are, in fact, a proverbial grain of sand on a gigantic beach, it is liberating.

Only when you acknowledge how small, unimportant and flash in the pan you really are, along with everyone and everything around you, can you let it all go, be free, truly appreciate what you have, even if all you have is life. There is no pre-destiny. There is no divine intervention. There is no right nor wrong, other than the rules mankind has made for itself, and the hard and fast laws of the universe.

The next time you have a really bad day and it feels like the world is out to get you, turn off the television, the computer, and all the lights. Go outside at night, take a deep breath, and look up. You will see at least a few twinkling stars affixed to the black, night sky gazing back at you.

Those little lights are very far away and they’re actually enormous. Their light has traveled countless light years to sparkle and shine in front of your ocular cavities at that precise moment. The orbs inside your ocular cavities have evolved in such a way as to be able to perceive that light, and the gray stuff inside your brainpan can identify what it is.

Those stars up there are the very same stars on which our prehistoric ancestors gazed. They were there before we existed as a species and they will outlive us. If we destroy the Earth with our selfishness and greed, they will live on, at least until they run out of fuel, which will be long after you and I are gone.

If you’re not accustomed to that sort of grand-scale thinking, it may be scary at first, but try it anyway. It always makes me feel better. If not, might I suggest getting a puppy?