A couple of weeks ago, one of you asked me a pretty profound question—perhaps because you were really thinking deeply or perhaps because you were trying to avoid doing your homework. Either way, your question—“what difference does what I do make in the grand scheme of things, anyway?”—deserves an answer. So, here goes …
Each of us is both nothing much and the center of everything. On the one hand, what we do hardly seems to matter. On the other hand, what we do is obviously what matters most of all.
Objectively Nothing Much
As you were quick to note in contemplating your homework, there’s a sense in which our actions don’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things. Objectively speaking, we are each a tiny speck that abides for a few breaths on a wet rock 93 million miles from an unremarkable star, itself hurtling around the center of the Milky Way Galaxy at 149 miles per second.
The best astronomical estimates say there are at least 100 billion other stars in the Milky Way and roughly 10 billion other galaxies in the observable universe. Relative to the universe, then, our sun is sort of like a single grain of sand somewhere in the middle of the Sahara Desert—only much smaller and less significant.
To us, that same sun seems almost unimaginably powerful, the massive nuclear engine driving the only solar system most of us have ever even begun to imagine. And that’s just how puny we really are: Even when we imagine the immensity of “outer space,” we’re typically only imaging our own solar system, which is just a single grain of sand in the intergalactic desert. The fact that there are thousands of billions of other grains of sand out there—not to mention forces moving and shaping them all—barely even registers with us.
On the other hand, and at the same time, we are each the central inhabitant (and co-creator) of a uniquely tinged lifeworld. We each see and hear and feel things that no one else will ever experience. We each tune in to shapes and colors and tones that others miss, even as we resonate differently with the shapes and colors and tones that reach us all.
We each have a store of knowledge and experience that differs from any other’s, and we each use our own such store to contextualize, grapple with, and seek to understand each and every thing that ever happens to us. In so doing, we each see many things that others miss—even as we miss many, many things that others see.
Imperfect and puny as we may be, we are each a node of meaning in an almost infinite sea of silence. We have the capacity to estimate intergalactic immensity, to compose novels and symphonies and virtual realities, to imagine worlds just as complex as the ones we discover, and even to differentiate the latter from the former.
We not only undergo the objective forces that surround and transcend us, we live. We seek to understand, to cross deserts, to move mountains, to reach the stars (or at least to count them). In so doing, we help create the possibility for meaning, beauty, and truth.
The World Is Yours
This is no small thing, even in the grand scheme of things. Within our own mental lives, each of us gets to play the royal We, the central subject, the mind that alone can measure the world. And each of us has the capacity to do something with that. We can seek truth, create beauty, cultivate meaning.
Of course, your own ability to do any of these is largely a function of what you learn—of how you shape and stock and supply the mind you use to do it all. It’s a function of how you empower your senses, your imagination, and your rational faculties to conspire to answer questions like “what difference does what I do make in the grand scheme of things, anyway?”
This brings us right back to where we started. But it leaves us with a very good reason for you to do your homework–and for all of us to keep striving to learn, with the requisite humility. After all, human understanding may not extend far into the great beyond, but it is extendable. And extending your own understanding has the potential to enrich your world, which in turn has the potential to make a big difference–at least to your own grand scheming and potentially to a whole lot more.
In the end, you can change your own world. And that can change the worlds of those around you. And that can change the worlds of those around them. Exactly where the ripple effects may end is hard to say. True, you may never reshape the cosmos. But thankfully, that’s not the measure of making a difference. It’s enough to seek to see further, to understand more deeply, and to change your own world for the better. It’s enough to let the rippling begin right there, with you at the center of things.