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You Are Here (4/30)
On backyard concerts and perspective
Have you ever seen those cheesy posters with a telescopic image of the galaxy and the little dot labeled “You Are Here”? Maybe you’ve read some of the wild statistics like, “the universe is more than 13 billion years old” or “the diameter of the part of the universe that we are able to observe is at least 93 billion light years.”
These sorts of didactic comparisons are meant to illustrate just how small and insignificant we are in the grand matrix of space and time, a reassuring reminder that all of our problems that seem so imposing and and scary and urgent really aren’t that big of a deal.
None of this has ever done much for me, to be honest. I think the scale is just too large and unfathomable. No matter how hard I try, I can’t really conceptualize the magnitude of a billion years, much in the same way that I wouldn’t get anything out of Simone Biles explaining the finer points of sticking the landing when performing a Yurchenko double pike.
It’s for this reason that I’ve found this line of thinking to be pretty useless. Yes, it is remarkable how infinitesimal human existence is when measured against the backdrop of the universe. Our entire planet is an invisible pinprick on a giant celestial canvas, and the duration of the history of our species is a flash in the pan when compared to how long even the Earth has been around. In and of itself, this is endlessly fascinating and awe-inspiring. But, if we’re being honest, it does little to diminish the perceived weight of our problems, hence my discounting the value of the whole idea for this purpose.
I came across an unexpected rebuttal last night in the form of a backyard concert. The second act, an incredibly talented and understated singer/songwriter from Tennessee named William Wild, took the stage (a garage with an amplifier, microphone and stool) and shared that he’d just learned about this concert the day prior. This was the first live show he had played since the onset of the pandemic. He was working to get comfortable again with the dynamics of playing in front of a crowd.
Maybe it was the three High Noons I had consumed or the fact that I hadn’t been to a concert in a while, but for some reason this was what really put things into perspective for me, at least for a moment. Here was someone who lived a life that looked completely different from mine, whose day-to-day thoughts and experiences were largely foreign to me. He and the previous act, another amazing artist with a stunningly beautiful voice who hailed from Fairbanks, Alaska, were singing about things any human could understand and relate to. But the window dressing and flavor of those experiences, the lens through which they viewed them, was not relatable for many of us.
I had two takeaways from this, neither of which are particularly profound or novel but strike me as interesting nonetheless.
Exposing yourself to folks from different walks of life can help you chill out a bit. The importance of doing this for the sake of getting out of echo chambers and informing your worldview is well-documented (and arguably more important than ever), but an overlooked benefit of seeing and understanding the variety of ways to walk this Earth is exactly the one that those cheesy posters are intended to have. It doesn’t diminish or undermine your problems — quite the opposite. It validates them while simultaneously putting them into perspective by reminding you that all humans, including those who live totally different lives from you, face the same universal challenges. This is a reassuring and deisolating reminder.
Anecdotes/advice/information won’t resonate unless there is some element of relatability. Humans have evolved an incredible capacity for abstraction and imagination, but there’s still a limit to how many leaps our brains can make. The scale of the universe is not something most of us can fathom, so it serves as a poor foundation for any sort of lesson or comparison. Similarly, if you had just picked up a golf club for the first time last week and got a lesson from Tiger Woods, it would be an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience that would leave you with precisely zero actionable insights about how to get better at golf. There’s far too much of a gap between you for any of the information to be relevant or applicable. However, a lesson from someone with a similar body type who had picked up the game later in life and gotten pretty good at it is much more likely to be helpful because the degrees of separation between you don’t exceed the threshold of relatability. (Or maybe not, because golf is really fucking hard. But you get the idea.) This is why storytelling is such a powerful teaching tool; it bridges the gap between you and the information you don’t currently understand by enabling you to relate to that information in a meaningful way.
While I couldn’t relate to the way that the artists at the concert lived their lives, I could relate to their problems and their humanity. That did a lot more for putting my own life into perspective than some picture of the Milky Way.