Existential awe and earthquakes.

I’ve been vaguely, undefinably unwell for the past week, in that way that is signified purely by an overwhelming feeling of lethargy and ‘offness’. I’m not sure how that’s relevant, to be honest, except in the sense that it’s only now that I’m feeling vaguely human again, and inclined to respond to the things around me.

I walked to the shops a little while ago, the bright, shiny round moon lighting the indistinct shapes of clouds and the spaces between dark branches. Leonard Cohen in my headphones, a comfortably cool breeze. It wasn’t half bad, as moments go.

And then I was struck by one of those moments. The ones where you’re just doing your thing. Where you’re halfway to the supermarket and you look up at a bright star and you’re struck with the earth-shattering awe of “Holy fucking shit, that is there and real and I am here and real. And there’s a fragile little beam of light that could be turned aside by a mote of dust coming from that, but in billions and billions of miles nothing did, until it hit my eye.”

BAM, and there I was, teetering on the edge of existential awe, dizzy with the knowledge that me and my mp3s and my suddenly-too-light jacket are standing on the thin, thin crust of a rock hurtling through space at incredible speed, and the only thing keeping me from falling off is the warping of space and time themselves by the immensity of that rock.

And then I looked down, to the road in front of me, the trees and the cars and the people. And remembered that in all that immense, awe-inspiring grandeur, we’re the only ones that we know of who can do this. Who can write blog posts and pop down to the shops to pick up some dinner for each other and look up to the sky and realise that a beam of light could spend light-years never once being interrupted by a speck of dust until it hits our eye. Who can go out at night to gaze at the sheer enormity of it all, and bring along a thermos of cocoa to keep ourselves warm.

I couldn’t work out which one to be more awed by, which one was more inspiring and beautiful.

And then it hit me. I remembered where we are, that this thin crust of rock I’m standing on isn’t the stable thing it’s always been to me. And that, as it tends to do- as it should do- stopped me on my tracks. Because, of course, this universe with its mind-boggling distances and forces and complexities, is just what makes up everything around us. It’s not just a thing to stare into space and imagine. It’s rocks moving under your feet, and it’s waves higher than your house crashing over you and wiping away your life and everything you love and worked for. It’s real water, real rocks, real radiation risking and taking the lives of real people. Who are working their asses off to try and repair, try and rebuild, try and make sense of what can happen in a day.

The universe is pretty, but it doesn’t give a crap about you and me. Except for the bits of the universe that are you and me.

So, eh, you lot have donated to organisations working on disaster relief, right? Or, if that’s not affordable, pointed people who can afford to in the directions of some? And not just for Japan, mind. Haiti could certainly still do with a few £$€s, and they’re not the only ones. Cause, well. Not to be overly smushy or anything. But between you, me and a few light-years of rocks and empty space? We’re the only ones who give a crap.


Salamanders and hymns: secularism and beauty.

Lazy weekend mornings are the best for contemplating the meaning of life, don’t you think? I was just in the shower, listening to church bells playing Ave Maria a couple of roads over, and found myself singing along. I really do love hymns. I love that they are expressions of some of the best things about religion- that search for meaning and connection, for something greater than oneself. I love that many of them have been around for a long time, that I’m humming along to the existential longing of someone from centuries ago, that I can empathise and understand how they must have felt.
It’s a beautiful thing, that. Religion and spirituality would have been wonderfully creative and oh-so-human expressions of our common need to understand the world around us, to make explanations and connections, to make sense of our lives. It’s a pity that in many cases they can do the opposite. From outright rejection of science, to deliberate dehumanisation and Othering of those with even slightly different philosophical positions to oneself, to insisting that humanity itself is somehow different and separate from the rest of the world.
There’s an accusation often leveled at science, that it is a cold and emotionless tool for viewing and understanding the world. Scientific methods rely on documenting facts, not on human values and warmth. This is where salamanders come in. Blind cave salamanders, to be precise.
Last week I watched Hitchens debate Dembski on the existence of God. One thing that he mentioned stuck with me, about blind cave salamanders who have, over millions of years, lost their eyes, until all that’s left is little eye-shaped indentations on the front of their faces.
Think about that. There are blind cave salamanders who have little eye-shaped indentations where hundreds of millions of years ago, their ancestors had eyes. Eyes a little bit like the eyes that my ancestors had hundreds of millions of years ago. Like our common ancestors had, probably long before that. If you’re looking for connection with the rest of the world, for something bigger than yourself, for a sense of wonder, you could do far worse than the little indentations on a salamander’s face.