It is raining today, which I would normally find comforting, except that the rain is falling onto snow banks. As I pet my cat I explain this to him. “I know you were just born in May, so you’ve never seen a full winter before. But this is not normal.” He mrrr-ows.
I reflect on the fact that because he is only nine months old, I am the wizened party here. I’m the one who knows the cycles, who’s seen the seasons come and go.
Then I start thinking about larger cycles, cycles too large to be observed in a single lifetime. As humans we catalog history. Our power of literacy stretches our meager, 70-year consciousnesses much further, thousands of years even, letting us make out much longer cycles. I wasn’t alive for the US Civil War or World War 2, but I’m familiar with the warning signs. I know the lessons of history. I can watch, with trepidation, for these cycles to repeat.
Literacy also allows science to compound upon itself over generations, revealing vaster cycles still: the ice ages, the mass extinctions, even the formation and ultimate deaths of solar systems. These cycles are awe inspiring. They crouch at the very edges of our comprehension, so far beyond the scale of our meager lives that some people refuse to consider the evidence of these phenomena as anything other than blind faith.
And there, more or less, my knowledge ends. I feel a twinge of pride at how much we know; how we have mastered so many of the universe’s mysteries. I feel as though maybe we don’t know everything, but we’re certainly close.
Then I realize there’s no reason to believe that.
Our world is 4.5 billion years old (nearly halfway through its expected lifespan); the universe itself is 14 billion according to our best deductions. On some scale, impossible as it seems to believe, that amount of time is an instant’s flicker in the darkness. Some varieties of mayfly live for 30 minutes, but in those 30 minutes they may believe they know everything. Who is to say we aren’t the same? Who is to say our entire universe is not the same? It requires enormous hubris, coupled with ignorance, to assume that our perspective on the universe forms any kind of valid framework through which to view it. That sort of belief is comparable to a mayfly’s.
So I try to abandon that perspective, the one I and every member of my entire species was born with, and I begin to wonder.
What impossibly enormous, grinding cycles are playing out beyond the limits of our comprehension? What vast consciousnesses exist on that scale, regarding us as we regard mono-cellular organisms if they’re even aware of us at all? How many universes exist beyond this one? How long do they last? Taken together, what do they form? And what is beyond that?
I’m sitting at the top of my stairs, scratching my cat behind the ear. He is purring, and I’ve never felt so small.