The Dead File

Earth as seen from 4 billion miles away

Another friend of mine died today. I wouldn’t exactly call him a close friend, but I did know him for a number of years. The closeness of our friendship was mainly precluded by the fact that he spent much of his time traveling around the world, making me ever so slightly envious of the fact that my life contains too little of that. I’m not the type to go climb a mountain or explore a rain forest just for the hell of it, but there’s so much of this planet that I haven’t seen. If I were to die right now, I think a major regret might be that I hadn’t traveled as much as I would have liked.

If I had all the money in the world, I’d probably set up shop in various corners of the world for a while until something new and shiny came along that distracted me away. But, I don’t have all the money in the world. Actually, I don’t even have all the money in my bank account right now as most of it is earmarked for bills.

Traveling the world is all fine and well and good, but would it really make my life a better thing to live? Would I really grasp a greater understanding of the world, its people, the significance of both, or whether there is any in the first place? Probably not.

The thing is, everything about our lives as humans on this planet called Earth is impermanent. Humans die, stars die, planets die. Everything dies. Even the Earth changes. The question is not if, but when. To quote Carl Sagan talking about the picture of Earth as a Pale Blue Dot in the vastness of space:

Earth from 3.7 billion miles away – photo taken by Voyager 1

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

He’s right. In the grand scheme of things, everything humans do on a pale blue dot in space is insignificant. We are but cosmic dust in a giant bin. When you think about it that way, it can be depressing, but it can also be liberating. That type of grand scale thinking is only scary if you let it be. Fortunately, most humans aren’t very good at macro thinking. We’re much better at minutiae like stock portfolios, resumes and what’s for dinner.

What Carl Sagan left unspoken is that what we do here with our time does matter, even if it’s only to a few other Homo sapiens when we’re gone. We’d all like to leave a mark, no matter how impermanent, even if it’s just in the memories of those to whom we are closest; even if that mark is only a tiny scrape on a speck of dust floating in the infinitude of space and the fleeting ephemerality of time.

So, godspeed, my friend. We may not have been as close as I would have liked, but some part of my gray matter will remember you. May your cosmic dust form something wondrous now that you are gone.