What the Night Sky Holds
I’ve loved learning about the universe since I was a little kid. I once woke my mom up in the middle of the night because I couldn’t get to sleep. At a loss for what to do for me, she brought me back to my bedroom and thought to put on something boring enough to knock me out. To her luck — or so she thought — she found a Discovery Channel documentary series on black holes.
She tucked me in, turned the volume down low, and closed the door. About twenty minutes later, she peaked her head in my room to find me even wider awake than before. Rather than lulling me to sleep, the exploration of the cosmos on the screen had me entranced.
Even as a child, I understood that there’s something magical about the grandeur of outer space.
Part of it is the sheer beauty of everything that’s out there — from exploding stars to pitch-black spheres floating in space to planets with elegant rings and 80 moons that are mysterious enough to spark the hope that life lies just under their craggy surfaces.
And then there’s the sheer scale of it all. On a grade-school field trip, I remember sitting in our local Virginia planetarium and gazing up at a night sky projected onto a giant domed IMAX screen. The planetarium docent was showing us where we were in our galaxy. He started with a standard view of the earth from the perspective of the moon. Seeing Earth all at once — its greens and blues and whites, deserts and mountains and plains — that may have been the first time I ever thought of our planet as something objectively beautiful. But then he zoomed out to a view of the inner solar system, that is, the four planets closest to the Sun separated — or providentially protected, as some say — by the Asteroid Belt: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. From that scale, Earth shrunk slightly. I was surprised at the comparison: to see how similar but totally different our hot-headed twin planet Venus was to us.
Then another dramatic zoom out. Beyond the field of rocky remnants, more than one-million pieces strong, he showed us a scaled image of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto (still a planet at the time). At this point, Earth had become the size of a quarter compared to the other gas giants with whom we share the solar system.
But the story was far from over. We kept zooming out to see other stars: Alpha Centauri being the closest at four short light years away. Then other stars of various sizes, colors, and ages filled in the projected space above our heads, and other planetary systems to go along with them until we fifth-grade boys and girls were beholding an IMAX-sized view of the entire Milky Way Galaxy. By this point, Earth was an invisible speck compared to the swirling mass of celestial bodies spinning in our spiral galaxy.
At each increase in scale, my eyes got bigger and bigger and my jaw dropped lower and lower. I was more and more excited the more I saw how TINY I was in the whole scheme of the universe. While some of my classmates were shrinking in their seats at the display of how small we are, to me, it was exhilarating.
Another word for the awe that fills my heart when I think of my smallness in the universe could be humility. I say humility because it is a very peculiar sort of smallness. Some may think humility means not thinking too highly of ourselves or consciously thinking very little of ourselves. But there’s a more holistic way to see it — to be humble is to have a grounded and honest perspective on ourselves and our relationship to others. Being humble is neither seeing ourselves as less than we are or more than we are, but seeing, accepting, and embracing the part we play in the beautiful wholeness that is existence and the universe.
It’s like the words we hear on Ash Wednesday: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.“ Since I am dust in a sense — but very valuable “dust “in God’s eyes, since he made me unique and unrepeatable — there’s not much for me to do but to simply exist. The grandeur of the universe and my place in it as “beloved dust“ reminds me that I am called more so to exist than “to do.“ Our life’s meaning is not a summary, assembly, or calculation of all of my accomplishments. Our purpose is far more humble: simply to exist — to be and to live in awareness of the true origins of our existence.
Moby’s classic song says it all: “We are all made of stars.” The hydrogen and helium and carbon and nitrogen and all the rest of the elements that make up the universe come from exploding stars. This space dust recombines and coalesces to form other stars, planets and celestial bodies, and also our very own human bodies.
Our origins are great, and our bodies are wonderful and humble. The vast universe is itself a very beautiful gift, like a dazzling mirror that allows us to see ourselves a little more clearly. Take a moment to look at the night sky and marvel at our existence the next time you get the chance; remember that the beauty in that magic space is reflected in you.