Hard Shift

“Shades of grey are all that I find, when I look to the enemy line. Black and white was so easy for me, but shades of grey are the colors I see.”

Something I miss about being a kid is that the world was a relatively simple place. Growing up in a privileged location, in a privileged socioeconomic background, in a privileged nation, the world was something where things were rarely bad. I never asked for much, but I think my parents spoiled me. This isn’t to say that they were bad parents or anything like that, but they sheltered me a lot from some of the harsher realities of life.

It wasn’t until a couple of semesters into college and then definitely moreso after college that the world I grew up in was shown to be, for lack of a better way to put it, false. Certainly, my parents worked full-time jobs, my step-dad worked multiple jobs, they plugged and chugged away at trying to give us – my sister and me – the best life they could possibly give.

But somewhere along the line, all the bright colors that defined how I saw life, which gave clear definition and meaning to everything, all of those colors began smudging. And I remember the night it happened.

I was home for winter break, driving home from Plattsburgh doing god-knows-what thing there was to do in Plattsburgh at that time. It was late-ish. Given how northerly the latitude is and the time of year, it may have well been 5:30 pm. But at that point, it was already pitch dark outside. Driving up 87, I remember being somewhere between Beekmantown and Chazy and I looked out the windshield, as one does when one drives. But something caught me that never caught me before: I could see the stars going on and on, seemingly without end. It’s not that I’d never sat and looked at the stars before – once upon a time I could name constellations and identify planets. This time, however, this time was different. As I cruised northbound on 87, I felt something that I had never felt before: small. Insignificant. Cosmically meaningless. And I think that it’s important to recognize our place within the vastness of everything as that. There’s a giant f*cking ball of plasma with temperatures that can spike to millions of degrees Kelvin in the solar corona. And that massive ball of hydrogen, helium, and other basic building blocks of everything heats this planet to a range – from an average distance of 150 million kilometers – that has allowed life to thrive on this planet.

It’s hard to feel big when in our cosmic backyard, there exists the reason for life on this planet, burning brightly, giving us day. And then the other planets. In theory, Venus is more suitable for conditions for life to develop. However, we know that isn’t the case. Despite sharing many similar physical characteristics, the Venutian landscape seems to be a version of hell, buried underneath clouds of sulfuric acid. And then looking outwards, we have our baby brother Mars, which may have at one point harbored an atmosphere and may have had the potential to harbor life.

But here we are. And there I was, driving up along interstate 87 on a cold December night. All of that, logically, should have made me pound my chest and think, “yeah, we’re damn special and we own this joint.” But the opposite happened. I saw the spaces in between the stars – the emptiness. And I thought about that. Can it really be empty? What’s the nature of the universe? At that point, I had learned enough in high school physics to gather that there were ideas that the universe was expanding. And that’s a strange concept to wrap your head around. It’s not like the universe has a border where can go out to the edge and yell across the chasm into something else. That isn’t what cosmology has taught us. The universe is like a balloon that started off as something as small as an atom (maybe smaller, we don’t know) and then something happened. That’s the big question – what happened? What flipped the switch to create fundamental particles? Did the fundamental particles already exist and then there was an unexpected interaction between these fundamental particles to cause, literally, the universe’s largest explosive growth that hasn’t stopped since time literally seems to have not existed roughly some 13.8 billion years ago?

I sat there as my car gradually decelerated, I having lost the ability to focus on driving while thinking about how incredibly vast the universe was and how incredibly small I was in that context.

And for a solid two years, I couldn’t see beyond that box. It was me versus the universe. And I was on the losing side of that battle. Until one day I met someone who has been a friend to me since. We had a weird relationship at first, but it developed into something meaningful, confusing, and sometimes frustrating. But meaningful. And on a spring morning in 2006, we were hanging out underneath a tree and my eyes opened to the reality of life. It isn’t me versus the universe. It isn’t even us versus the universe. It’s us in it together to survive on this planet with what little time we’re given. By dint of biology or godhead, humans and life have a finite shelf life. Interestingly, so does that large ball in the sky which provides the conditions necessary for life. But we’re all here together, each of us messed up by circumstance of life, being fed lies about the nature of things, being tormented by bullies, being taken advantage of. And when she and I sat under that tree on that beautiful spring morning, I stopped feeling alone.

Don’t get me wrong, I was still an ass, but I didn’t feel like my life was a lonely trek anymore that no one could possibly understand. I’m not going to mention names, because I think if the guilty party reads this, she will know who she is. But thanks to her – and nearly a decade of growing up – the colors of life are smudged together. And it no longer makes me uneasy. It gives me confidence to know that there are people who day to day face challenges of mere survival and that it is our species’ obligation to ensure the survival of the species. We are beacons of life in a universe that looks empty of it. And while on a cosmic scale, we are incredibly tiny, nothing but motes floating in the wind, to each other we are invaluably important. We provide the support to each other to maximize our worth as humans, be it to explore the cosmos to increase humanity’s realm to being someone who will listen and care for another in time of need.

See, the truth is that we are tiny. The secret is to be great in our smallness.

-R

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