When I was 15 years old, I attended a summer program in the mountains of New Mexico, where the principal activity was hiking non-stop for three weeks with a 50-pound pack on my back. It seemed like a good idea at the time despite the fact that I was a scrawny kid coming out of ninth grade whose preparations for the program consisted of stomping up the stairs of my house with a backpack full of encyclopedias. Fast forward to the first night of hiking, and I was laughably out of my league. The pain, the exhaustion and the fact that we were hiking with no clear destination in sight fed a despair that overwhelmed me. Eventually we arrived at an old fort that enclosed a grassy area where we were told to put down our gear and lie down. As soon as my back hit the grass and my gaze lifted to the night sky, it was as if everything that was bothering me lifted as well. That sky was one of the most incredible things I have ever seen. The lights of the universe, no longer obscured by urban illumination and the pollution of humanity, made the sky so dusty with stars that I couldn’t tell where one stopped and another began. I never wanted to look away.
I haven’t looked up much since then. The rest of the hiking trip was spent looking down at the ground to avoid rocks and rattlesnakes. High school was a blur of friendships, academics and other activities preparing me for college. Once I entered college, that blur turned into a whirlwind.
We encounter an incredible amount of noise on a daily basis. Technological advancement has been wonderful for so many different reasons, but there are times when the world gets so loud that it’s hard to hear what’s true. We live in a political and media-driven landscape that is more focused on character assassination than what we can actually do to solve the problems that plague us all. I can guarantee that the outcome of this coming presidential election will be determined in part by whoever is best at pointing fingers. It’s the reason why a good number of you, like myself, avoid getting into political arguments. No one leaves happy, and someone always leaves upset. Emotions often get in the way of rational and productive discourse. Technology, the media and our political culture all contribute to the noise that drowns out what matters.
Not long ago, I came across a mash-up video on YouTube titled “The Most Astounding Fact.” In the video, computer generated images of the cosmos are paired with a response from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to the question “What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the universe?” His response inspired this column: “We are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us.... My atoms came from those stars. There’s a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life, you want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant, you want to feel like you’re a participant in the goings-on of activities and events around you. That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive.”
I wasn’t shocked by this revelation because I had learned about it years before in science class. Yet for some reason, the statement resonated deep within me. It made me look, really look, at the night sky for the first time in awhile because this was something that actually made sense in one of the most incredible ways possible. It might have been that the feeling I got from looking at those stars in New Mexico was an implicit understanding that I could trace my very existence to their predecessors. Our collective experience as a people and a species and a planet is tied together because of how we all came to be. Something like that has a way of making things such as political attack ads and talking heads on TV seem so… small.
I really don’t know how or if things will change for us down the road. A hopeful and perhaps naive part of me thinks that maybe we could tune out some of the noise in order to figure out what really matters to us. Maybe we could re-evaluate our place among one another and within the universe as a whole. Maybe we could just look up.
Jordan Siedell is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Friday. You can follow Jordan on Twitter @JSiedell