My last post was about Las Vegas, where my eleven-day vacation started. But that continued, of course, in some of the places that least resemble the bustling metropolis of Vegas – the biggest national parks in the western half of the continent. The trip started back in Zion Canyon, and continued through Lake Powell, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon (of course), and concluded where I find myself right now, in Yosemite. (More specifically, it’s the Curry Village of Yosemite where the Wi-Fi is excruciatingly slow and customer service is insanely frustrating, but that’s a rant for another time.) And me being the person I am, I tried my best to get something out of these experiences, ideas beyond just the “oh, that’s a pretty sight” of the beautiful national parks, to what they have to say to us. And that’s what I want to talk about.
One of the most unexpected things I felt about the national parks is that each of them was like a distinct work of art, drawn on a canvas by a different artist with a uniquely distinctive style*. Zion Canyon was mostly like a nondescript oil painting, mixing shades of blue, grey, green, and brown-orange into a marbling that blended the colors of nature together into a single blur. In contrast, Bryce Canyon was a far more detailed, realist-style painting focused on expressing the fragile intricacies of the rocks and cliffs as they were eroded for millions of years of time. Grand Canyon, as the name suggests, was mostly about scale, both in the miles of empty space between the riverbanks that form the canyon walls, and also in the millions and millions of years of time where the layers of rocks were eroded thousands of feet down to form the monuments we see today. And the Yosemite Valley topped it off with a bright, watercolor-style view of a mix of wildlife and vegetation that surrounded the rows of cabins in the village.
So each national park was clearly different from any other, and in that way, the were each independent of anything else on Earth – at least, on the outside. But here’s the interesting part of the story: the big ideas that I took away from every one of these sights and experiences aligned with each other. Between their different styles and colors, they told a single, coherent story that I really liked.
From the slabs of granite flanking El Capitan in Yosemite to the depths and breadths of the valleys in Grand Canyon, to the smooth lines on the sandstones that close off the Antelope Slot Canyon, everything about the places I visited showed signs of scale – both in time and space – that far transcended anything I, or even humanity as a whole, can compare to. I celebrate my small website launches after a few months of work, and I take a lot of pride in my opinions and achievements that stretch back a bit more than a decade in time, but those timescales are literally unnoticeable next to the few hundred million years that are continuing to carve out the Grand Canyon and the lifespans of the still-living giant sequoias that stretch back thousands of years. Next to the absolute scales of things on Earth, let alone the universe, the lifetime achievements of nearly centuries that we hold so integral to our pride are built and broken down in the blink of an eye.
There’s a popular analogy comparing the timescales of human history to the timescales of Earth and the universe, and it goes something like this: if the entire history of the universe were an entire calendar year, then the history of the Earth would encompass somewhere around the last few months. And in those few months, the history of all life forms would account for a few hours at the tail end of the year’s last day. And within those few hours, humans came about during the last few minutes of the year, and our recorded history – the few millenia of time that seemingly stretch out forever in human timescales – are merely a few last seconds before midnight.
Since I’m almost entirely deprived of any ability to research here, the numbers might be slightly off, and I’m not going to go out of my way to do calculations, but the moral of the analogy is that the scale of things we individually consider significant couldn’t be less significant in absolute terms. Any human achievement, in the context of that absolute scale, is nothing. The Ph.D. you hang up on your wall? That’s meaningless in the grand scheme of things. The same goes for your badge that screams “CEO” in big, bold letters, not to mention what little bit of popularity you have among your circle of a few hundred friends.
But before you conclude in this train ride of nihilism, there’s something else I have to say. Yes, human achievements are meaningless in the absolute scale of the universe, but we’re not bound to measure ourselves in those geological and astronomical terms. And in more human, more relevant scales, the things that we do do have meaning. The achievements we hold close to our hearts and the goals we aspire to reach are meaningful despite their absolute scale because we choose to give them significance. What we do in the universal “blink of an eye” can’t ever measure up to the absolute scale of the universe, but it still means something to each of our individual experiences, and that’s the significance that we should aspire to in our lives.
Just a few days ago, the annual National Speech and Debate Tournament was held, and I had a few friends who were fortunate enough to participate in that competition, and were very successful in it. On the one hand, we could look at that experience and say “it’s just a debate tournament”, and dismiss it as a minor, arbitrary event with no absolute meaning. And that’s true – what’s a debate tournament a few days long going to amount to in a few decades’ time? But at the same time, the tournament, despite its absolute insignificance, does mean something important precisely because the people who participated in it choose to attribute it with that significance. And that applies to literally everything that we do – if we compare and measure any of our work to its impact in the universe there would be absolutely no motivation to do anything. But we still aspire to achieve whatever we choose to, because it means something worthwhile to us, individually and as communities.
And that’s my biggest takeaway from my trips in the national parks — the things we think matter don’t make a dent at all in the history of the world, and that shouldn’t be the motivation that we look for in what we do. But the things we aim to, and the things we work for, mean something because we collectively choose to believe that it’s important. And because we do, it becomes important in our scales. The nature has an infinitely huge narrative, but the stories we experience and the stories we find valuable are different from the stories that are relevant to the world. That’s why we do what we do in our lives. We don’t do things because they have meaning; we do things to give them meaning.
We don’t do things because they have meaning; we do things to give them meaning.
* Some of the best pictures and sights from this trip will be available in the gallery.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, Without reason.
Have a comment or response? You can email me.