Late in his lovely memoir of growing up in Memphis, Screening Room, Alan Lightman steps briefly away from the intimate family narrative to recall one of the ineluctable realities revealed by his subsequent scientific vocation.
Caught up in the inches and minutes of our lives, we forget that we are specks on the surface of a sphere 12,000 miles across, which hurls us through six hundred million miles of empty space every year–as it orbits about a bigger sphere of gas and fire. And that larger sphere, our sun, makes its own circuit about the center of the galaxy every two hundred and fifty million years.
I try not to forget all that. Every time I gaze at the sky, day or night, I prod myself to keep things on the ground in perspective. I think about the cosmic scale of time and space, wonder what’s out there, and regret the absence of perspective so widely suffered by those who never look up from the gritty details of daily living.
Lightman surprises me when he continues,
If we thought about such enormities, we would be unable to speak. We would be unable to write our few feeble words, build our flimsy cities. We would just wait for our minute of life and awareness to pass.
I suppose that’s true of some of us. But I hope it’s rather the case that if most humans ever really learn to keep it all in perspective, we’ll become better people: more reflective and wonder-struck, less belligerent and cruel and stupid. More sustainably committed to living well together during our brief opportunity to circle the sun, and to passing along a solid legacy as the spotlight of time shifts ahead.
And I’d like to think we’d be better writers. Like Lightman.
I wonder if he ever read today’s WA poem, Louise Gluck’s “Telescope”? It shares his sense of incommensurability between the human and cosmic scales, and insinuates a delusional human tendency to see things as closer and more manageable than they really are. Moving away from the telescope’s image of distant bodies, she says, “You see again how far away each thing is from every other thing.”
Maybe. But I think it’s also possible to see that we’re connected with even the most remote realities, and that bearing them in mind prevents a kind of obtuse forgetfulness that we simply must overcome if we’re ever to shrink the distances between ourselves and the stars. Or between one another.
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