By Wes Kuhnley
A look up into the night sky—in any semi-rural location anyway—will yield an incredible expanse of stars. And on a moonless night, with your naked eye, you can even see the pale mists of the via lactea, our home, our galaxy, the Milky Way. The experience is humbling and for many, slightly terrifying. With even the slightest knowledge of what makes up that mist, an honest person cannot help but become daunted by the nagging feeling of his or her own universal meaninglessness. Such vast distances, such overwhelmingly powerful forces, scales of existence so large and so small it makes, what Richard Dawkins calls our “middle earth”, seem almost trivial.
It is trivial.
After-all, where will any of us be in 30 billion years, as the universe reaches the point it cannot support life (as we know it) any longer? Likely, the material that we are made of will not even be a part of this galaxy anymore. Our Sol will have burned out longer ago than the Universe is old today. Andromeda and The Milky Way will have merged into a galaxy larger yet, to become one of at least one hundred million such structures in the Universe. The particles and elements that make up our bodies could be the part of one hundred or one thousand other stars in that amount of time; a thousand, perhaps a million living creatures, or none at all.
It is just as shocking to consider where all the discrete parts of each of us were 65 million years ago, much less 13.7 billion (give or take) at the big bang. A marginally scientifically-literate person looks at the night sky, comprehends the expanse, the forces of nature at work, and can synthesize why this human endeavor seems so trivial in a truly universal context.
I’d like to consider an alternate perspective on the matter of darkness. Looking up into the darkness can expose things many among us consider best left undisturbed. Some, even many, of these people are increasingly concerned by the growth of our human experience, that it might exceed the boundaries they have arbitrarily placed on their own existence, via dogma or otherwise. Perhaps it is terrifying because they know before they begin, simply and logically, the consequences of such considerations. That, upon inspection, we, as a species, must release the tattered remains of those things, practices and ideas which give us too much comfort, we must break down our self-imposed boundaries.
I prefer (however difficult an idea it is to embrace) to see darkness as an opportunity. Generations of star-gazers who came before us considered the motion of celestial bodies. They derived new and more perfect understandings of the inner workings of the universe, but more than that, their curiosity is solely responsible for what knowledge the human species currently wields. Many of these freethinkers paid terrible prices in pursuit of this knowledge. Exile from their homes, excommunication from their faith, even physical violence, simply for striving to make a small part of the darkness salient to all. Even in understanding they would pay these penalties at the hands of their fellows, each ventured further on into the darkness, continually searching. Their example and sacrifices can allow us to look into the night sky with power and knowledge, and by extension, they empower us to look into ourselves without fear.
As our scientific forefathers have shown by example, the most real, worthwhile knowledge can be gained when we begin to probe the most distant reaches of our universe—and of ourselves—discarding comfort and dependance on the ideas and people which previously prevented our growth. Growth in knowledge of the universe, and in understanding of ourselves as human beings, as people. I look into my own darkness, knowing the consequences of such an inquisition, understanding the price I may well have to pay. When darkness provides me with this opportunity for self-inquisition, how could I, as a rational and honest person, refuse it?
I do not hope, I know there is more to be earned in the effort. I do hope that I am intrepid enough to make the journey, to be honest with myself at all times, and kind to those with whom I share this time and space. I could not exist any other way.