Very roughly speaking, I am as large as the rest of the Universe.
Not literally. Measured objectively against the size of the Universe, each of us is far smaller than a grain of sand in the Sahara. (Literally, I suppose, the Earth itself is smaller than that grain of sand, if the rest of the Sahara were the entire Universe.) My largeness—which I cannot help—has to do with the proximity effect: I live in my head, in the company of my thoughts, and I look out at the World from behind my eyes.
To me, this unavoidably gives prominence to that point of view. There’s no effective way around this.
When I take my morning shower, for example, my shower is a large and important part of the planet. I can see only the inside of the shower; the air is full of steam; the yellow of the vinyl shower-curtain that I inherited from my house's previous owners dominates the light, and yellow, direct or reflected, tinges all I see. I am confronted with the flecks of black mold on the higher parts of the shower curtain, which I try not to touch, with the reddish-brown streaks of rust stains on its lower extremities. (Hmm...I probably need a new shower curtain.) What is happening inside the shower is pretty much all I can feel and hear of the world. My overwhelming sensation is of warmth and wetness. Epochal events could be happening elsewhere, but they recede to a secondary importance. If someone shouts for me from another room, I am unaware of it. It is masked by the rush of hot water.
My shower, when I am in the shower, is larger, to me, and more important, than, say…Luxembourg. Please note that I don’t mean any disrespect to Luxembourg. I'm just using it for an example. I could have said Malawi. It’s just that Luxembourg is a small country that seldom makes the news where I live; don’t blame me for that. The State where I live, Wisconsin, is doubtless just as inconsequential to a showering Luxembourger.
And to be fair to the Luxembourgers, their country, along with my shower, are both far larger and more important to me than, say, one distant star near the center of the Milky Way that a person can barely see in the night sky without a telescope. That star is tiny; nothing distinguishes it (to me, from here) from the next star over, or the one in front or in back of it; my shower, on the other hand, when I’m in it, is nearly all there is. Furthermore, those three things—my shower, Luxembourg, and that poor little distant star I am dissing—are all larger than some paltry, insignificant distant galaxy, with which the Universe is littered at the level of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photograph. We (and when I say “we” I am lumping myself in together with all of Mankind, which is something I do from time to time) have only just discovered many of those, and there are a good many more the existence of which astronomers only extrapolate, having not even bothered to look at them. (In the absence of extraordinary measures they are invisible.) We know what they probably look like, more or less. It’s good enough—that’s how pitiably outside of our consciousness they are. And by “our” I mean Mankind’s; they are even further out of my consciousness, specifically. Especially when I’m taking my morning shower.
Human beings suffer from something called scope and scale blindness. We have more and more trouble conceiving of scope and scale—number, distance, time, size—the further out of proximity to us it is. We are most comfortable conceiving of creatures between five and six feet high, more or less, gathered in groups of about the same number as the number of characters on a soap opera or in an average novel. That's where we live, literally and mentally. The further away we get from that the less well we comprehend.
About our best chance of comprehending is to model difficult relationships ("if the Earth is the size of a basketball, then the moon is the size of a golf ball"), but even then we often run into trouble: there are more stars in the Universe than there are grains of sand on Earth, but unfortunately we cannot conceive of the number of grains of sand on Earth. Even though they are closer than the stars. How many are there? Lots. That much we know. Beyond that, we struggle. Even experts, who may do exponentially better than the general population at modeling difficult scope and scale concepts, cannot help but struggle (the main difference may be that they're more aware of it).
It might be that the distant galaxy I was speaking of is vast. It could be, say, fourteen times the size of the Milky Way, which would make it large if you got up close. I grant you that—somewhere in my rational mind I can conceive it. Indeed, in much the same way, I can conceive—sympathetically—that there are many Luxembourgers who might be affronted at my appraisal of the importance, to me, of the inside of my shower, when I’m taking one, relative to the importance of their country, which I have never visited and which, but for this essay, would most likely not be on my mind. But when I am in the shower, its immediacy, its vividness, the fact that it comprises my entire sensate experience of reality, makes its relative largeness and importance impossible for me to deny. It is large because I am in it, and important because I am experiencing it.
We're all this way, to varying degrees, whether we ever think about it , or whether we like to admit it, or not.
Copyright 2007 by Michael C. Johnston—All Rights Reserved
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