We are endlessly lucky to be here and alive and on this planet. With this infinite good fortune comes great responsibility.
These are not the best of times. It is an understatement to say that we live in a turbulent period. Anxiety and powerlessness can feel like the most natural reaction to the out-of-control events shaping our world. It can be hard not to feel overwhelmed.
Yet even now, there are moments that put your life and concerns into perspective and remind you of the infinite good fortune that underpins all things.
Within the space of a few minutes the other day, I chanced upon a handful of small and fascinating perspectives that combined to suggest an a picture of the immensity of the universe and the true order of things.
That small, bluish dot
That we are even here at this precise moment is the result of infinite good fortune.
A perfect example of the infinite good fortune that we all share is the ground beneath our feet. Another is the air we breathe. And the sunlight that illuminates, warms and nourishes us. The list goes on and on from there. That life exists at all on this planet is remarkably unlikely.
The odds are stacked against us. Quoted in an article about the near-miraculous luck that planet Earth supports human life, Professor Toby Tyrrell describes the precariously teetering tower of lucky coincidence that means we are all able to live on Earth today:
“Earth not only has a habitable temperature today, but has kept this at all times across three to four billion years – an extraordinary span of geological time. We can now understand that Earth stayed suitable for life for so long due, at least in part, to luck. For instance, if a slightly larger asteroid had hit Earth, or had done so at a different time, then Earth may have lost its habitability altogether. To put it another way, if an intelligent observer had been present on the early Earth as life first evolved, and was able to calculate the chances of the planet staying habitable for the next several billion years, the calculation may well have revealed very poor odds.”
My mind rather reeling from these words, I turned to Twitter and right away saw a tweet from Professor Paul Byrne (aka @ThePlanetaryGuy), sharing an image of Earth photographed from Saturn.* Professor Byrne accompanied this beautiful image with words that might bring the reader to a Spinal Tap-esque appreciation of perspective.**
“See that small, bluish dot at lower right?
That’s us. That’s Earth.
Photographed from Saturn.”
Too much perspective? The almost unimaginable unlikelihood of our existence is perfectly conveyed by Eric Idle in his Galaxy Song from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life:
“So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure
How amazingly unlikely is your birth
And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth.”
Not quite mass extinction big
We should never take for granted our good fortune to be here today.
In response to my sharing Professor Byrne’s article, friend Ruchi tweeted me an October 2020 ExtremeTech piece on NASA’s belief that the Earth could be hit by asteroid 99942 Apophis in 2068. It makes for less than reassuring reading. While asteroid 99942 Apophis might not herald mass extinction, we will certainly know about its arrival should it decide to pay us a visit:
“You don’t want to take any risks with an object like Apophis. While it’s not quite ‘mass extinction’ big, an impact would be catastrophic. It’s a simple matter of physics — Apophis hitting Earth results in an explosion equivalent to 1,151 megatons of TNT. By comparison, the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated by humans was around 57 megatons. The 1883 eruption of Krakatoa clocked in at about 200 megatons. Apophis could level a small country, cause massive tidal waves, and spark widespread wildfires. All in all, a pretty bad day for Earth.”
Ruchi is spot on as regards the lucky streak that we humans have been enjoying (at least as regards meteors or asteroids crossing our paths). I replied to Ruchi:
“In many ways, we are endlessly lucky to be here and alive and on this planet. The odds stacked against any of us being here today are extraordinary, unimaginable.”
The world’s most magnificent tree?
Thinking about our true place in the grand order of things might make us feel tiny, insignificant. Yet we are anything but insignificant. As I wrote in my previous post:
“Ripples of influence spread out far and wide from each of us, whether or not we ever realise it. How we act cannot help but affect or shape the lives of others. What we do might transform a life, provide an example of what to do (or what not to do), or forge a path for others to follow.”
We should never take our impact on – and therefore our responsibility to – the world around us for granted.
This is beautifully and succinctly conveyed by a tweet from my friend Siobhan Sheridan. Taking up the wonderful Duncan Jones on his invitation for folks to post pictures of glorious trees with the hashtag #WorldsMostMagnificentTree, Siobhan tweeted the above picture. She accompanied it with the following words on what this tree means to her:
It is such a powerful reminder of how little time humans have been on this planet…And the impact of what we have done and are doing…and most importantly could do. How our choices now really can make a difference. It gave me ‘active hope’ as Joanna Macy might say..
I love Siobhan’s words regarding the historical, current and potential future impact of humans. I also love the phrase “active hope”. A light spot of googling reveals that Active Hope is a book Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone. Its authors define the concept of “active hope”*** thus:
“Active Hope is about finding, and offering, our best response to the crisis of sustainability unfolding in our world. At the heart of this book is the idea that Active Hope is something we do rather than have. It involves being clear what we hope for and then playing our role in the process of bringing that about. The journey of finding, and offering, our unique contribution to the Great Turning helps us to discover new strengths, open to a wider network of allies and experience a deepening of our aliveness. When our responses are guided by the intention to act for the healing of our world, the mess we’re in not only becomes easier to face, our lives also become more meaningful and satisfying.”
The beauty of the world in which we live can at times seem beyond belief. The infinite good fortune that has brought us here might sometimes feel overwhelming. But it comes with a responsibility to live up to it, to protect it as best we can and to appreciate and share all this wonder that has been gifted to us. We have an obligation to pay some of our infinite good fortune forward in any way we can, whenever we can.
These are not the best of times. But we are endlessly lucky to be here and alive and on this planet. With this infinite good fortune comes great responsibility.
* I am pretty sure that the image tweeted by Professor Byrne could be The day the earth smiled via NASA, which I’ve included elsewhere in this post.
** Spinal Tap give their perspective in on the topic of perspective, from This is Spinal Tap.
*** The idea of “active hope” also puts me in mind of the concept of “deliberate optimism” that I wrote about recently in Time to open and change.
- Halley’s Comet 1910 via Wikimedia Commons.
- The day the earth smiled via NASA.
- Halley’s Comet (Bayeux Tapestry) via Wikimedia Commons.
- The world’s most magnificent tree as photographed and tweeted by Siobhan Sheridan. My thanks to Siobhan for her kind permission for me to use this picture here.
- Comet Halley and the Milky Way via Wikimedia Commons.