How does your life fit into a wider purpose? Most of us are looking for the largest possible context to make our life feel purposeful. Live large. Think cosmically. Act globally. Live locally.
I noticed a few years back that I started telling my life story in decades. I did this in the 80s, such and such in the 90s etc. It puts a lot of the details, the things that seemed endlessly traumatic at the time, into perspective. And yet even decades don’t seem large enough to fill life with meaning. You want to know that your life counts for something more than decades.
The religious stories also don’t seem large enough anymore. Carl Sagan once said that if Jesus had literally risen from the dead and ascended to heaven, travelling at the speed of light, two thousand years later he wouldn’t even have left our galaxy. Religious stories give too small a context. I want to know that my life is connected to something larger.
Sagan created a Cosmic Calendar; the history of the universe in a single year. If the Big Bang took place on January 1, the Milky Way emerged in May. Other planets followed in June, July and August. The earth and our sun arrived mid-September. Life on earth came soon after. But humans didn’t appear until December 31 at 11.59 pm. In other words, it’s as if we arrived on the scene just a few seconds ago. Within those few seconds, there have been wars, plagues, civilizations have risen and fallen, revolutions have come and gone, and less than the blink of an eye ago we became aware of our limited role in a massive thirteen billion year evolutionary process.
Whatever we think we know is very new. We’ve barely had time to process our few seconds of life, still rubbing our eyes trying to wake up to our place in the enormity of it all. Standing where we are now, according to Sagan’s cosmic calendar we are about to usher in a new year. As Sagan said,
What happens in the first second of the next cosmic year depends on what we do, here and now, with our intelligence and our knowledge of the cosmos.
We humans are both insignificant and powerful at the same time. Our history is brief and dull compared to the whole sweep of life. And yet if you think about the smallest and the largest thing known in the universe, humans are exactly midsize. We are the exact right size, living at the exact right time, to make a contribution to the future of the universe. This is how we “fit”.
This cosmic perspective offers purpose, midway between humility and responsibility; humility because we are such newbies, and responsibility because we have the ability to shape the future. The Jewish tradition teaches that everyone should have two pockets in their coat with a note in each pocket. One note says: “I am but dust and ashes.” The other says: “All the universe exists in you”. Keep both in your coat, and take out whichever one you need to be reminded of.
When you are feeling self important, pull out the note that says: “I am but dust and ashes.” Life is larger than you and will continue on with or without you. When you are feeling powerless, pull out the note that says, “All the universe exists in you”. You are the one the world has been waiting for. You can make a difference. You are here to let your light shine and to liberate others to the same. Your every thought, word and deed is related to, and impacts the whole universe.
Humility and responsibility are the two backpacks we need as we hitchhike our way through life.
As Paulo Coelho says in The Alchemist,
We are travelers on a cosmic journey, stardust, swirling and dancing in the eddies and whirlpools of infinity. Life is eternal. We have stopped for a moment to encounter each other, to meet, to love, to share.This is a precious moment. It is a little parenthesis in eternity.
Live large. Think cosmically. Act globally. Live locally.