Wednesday, February 19, 2014

On Insignificance

I truly thought these two books would have nothing in common, but as I was falling asleep last night, I realized there were some interesting connections. The first one is Against the Fall of Night by Arthur C. Clarke. I recently finished it, and it was very good, indeed. The second is Adrift by Steven Callahan. I'm halfway through.

I got the Clarke one on a whim online. I picked up Adrift for ten cents years ago when my local library was having a sale. One is science fiction; the other is nonfiction. They are as completely different as they could possibly be, so what's the similarity?

In Against the Fall of Night, one of the characters finds himself drifting above Earth, looking down and realizing how big the world is -- how big the universe is -- and how small man is compared to all of this. In Adrift, Callahan is lost at sea in a tiny raft, realizing how small he is as well. In the introduction to Callahan's story, he says of sailing:

"I wish I could describe the feeling of being at sea, the anguish, the frustration, and fear, and the beauty that accompanies threatening spectacles, the spiritual communication with creatures in whose domain I sail. There is a magnificent intensity in life that comes when we are not in control but are only reacting, living, surviving."

It's very interesting to me that he wrote this BEFORE his little adventure began. Foreshadowing much?

But anyway.

It's true that there's a magical intensity when you're just trying to hang on. I've had a few moments in life where everything became violently clear. I've been aware of my own biology and psychology in ways that aren't even a blip on my radar during "normal life" times. It's true that pain or suffering or the excitement of a situation is heightened by the lack of control. Everything looks different, even the sky. I've often looked at the sky after an emotional event and thought, "You look so odd. I've never seen you before."

Clarke is always interesting in the way that he looks at the "bigger picture" of the universe. There is always room to expand and grow -- to learn and explore. And his stories often point out the smallness of humankind -- the ridiculousness of our self-centeredness. (GUILTY!!) There is so much MORE out there -- far more than my imagination can even contain. I get scared sometimes when I start thinking too much about the vastness of the universe, the science of it. It's too much. It's too much for a lot of people. So we think about us and what is going on in our tiny, little heads.

As Callahan said:

"I am not a religious man per se. My own cosmology is convoluted and not in line with any particular church or philosophy. But for me, to go to sea is to get a glimpse of the face of God. At sea I am reminded of my insignificance -- of all men's insignificance. It is a wonderful feeling to be so humbled."

As I drifted off to sleep last night, I thought about that word "insignificance." It usually has a negative connotation, but I saw it in a positive light. It's true that it's a GOOD thing to be humbled. It's good to be reminded that we are one tiny speck of sand on that giant beach. There are so many amazing things around us to marvel at and enjoy -- as long as we have the strength to pull our heads out of our a$$es once in a while and see them. I'll work on it.


otterine said...

Excellent post, my friend! :]

A. Wright said...

"There is a magnificent intensity in life that comes when we are not in control but are only reacting, living, surviving."

"I am reminded of my insignificance"

Beautifully worded. This is why I go backpacking to unplug and see the world as the very large place it is once again. This is why a hotel weekend or camper-camping doesn't clear my mind. This is why it pisses me off when people bring their kindle!

Debora said...

Very thoughtful column!