There are plenty of reasons for not taking yourself or the garbled output of your own mind overly seriously.
Prominent among these is the inescapable fact that a single human life, the existence of one lone gangly-ape descendent singled out from a shambling mass of 6,800,000,000, is tiny, skull-rattlingly, eye-poppingly tiny. And insignificant.
The last hundred years’ worth of scientific endeavour and cosmological revelations have affirmed, among other things, that we are laughably insignificant. Grasping this is hard. The numbers involved are formidably huge. The universe as we know it spasmed arbitrarily into existence approximately 13,700,000,000 years ago. Within a million million million million millionths of a second, Everything had gone from being infinitesimally tiny to being infinitely huge, or had at very least swelled to encompass the million million million million mile expanse of space visible from Earth.
From earthbound telescopes, or satellites, astronomers can see about 200 billion (200,000,000,000) other galaxies. Galaxies commonly contain between 100 billion and a trillion stars – our Milky Way is about average, with between 200 and 400 billion. Current estimates place the number of stars in the universe as being over a quintillion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000, or roughly equivalent to the number of grains of sand on Earth). The Earth is just a tiny 5.97 billion trillion-tonne speck in the abyss, looping round the sun at 18.5 miles per second. Our species is a biological accident on one planet, going around one star, in one galaxy, hanging at the edge of this crushing cosmological immensity.
You can sit and bludgeon yourself with numbers for years, without achieving much in the way of perspective. A single billion is such a staggeringly, untouchably huge figure, a billion years so incredibly long, that our prospects for grasping numbers multiple times that amount are slim to say the least.
There comes a stage at which zeroes on the end of a fact or figure cease to impress, or to convey anything at all. Can our tiny minds really see the difference between a number with 100 zeroes and one with 150? Or do we see just look at all the noughts and see a rambling train of incomprehensible enormity?
All we can ascertain from a position of doughy ignorance is that, as a civilisation, we are very small, and not very good at facing up to the fact that we are very small. Profound lack of perspective further muddles the baffling mess of the modern world.
Numbers probably aren’t the answer – admittedly, the likelihood of the world becoming measurably better if more people knew the diameter of the sun hovers around fuck all.
But, living in a period in which the importance of the individual has been bloated out of all proportion, in which many people see their own lives and their own personal fulfilment as the most important thing in the world, our individualistic self-absorption leaves civilisation’s colossal, preventable problems on the proverbial shelf.
We don’t see ourselves for what we are, which is to say bipedal primates, jumped-up monkeys, random matter arbitrarily spat into existence at the end of a mind-manglingly improbable chain of biological developments – perhaps understandably, because this isn’t a particularly satisfying interpretation of human existence.
If we did, there’s a chance we might look in the mirror and see ourselves for the waddling insignificances that we are. Hilariously small amongst the teeming billions of the human race, we might even decide that very little matters in the grand, cosmic scheme of things – and that the suffering of our fellow homo sapiens, whether stemming from famine, drought, disease, poverty or war in the ‘Third World’, or deprivation and despair in the West, is one of the few things that does matter.
As it happens, we think we matter – that our careers, hopes and dreams and boring aspirations actually matter, and as a result things infinitely more urgent, horrific and profound get obscured by this trivial fug.
Change is monumentally unlikely. Do humans even have the capacity to see themselves in anything approaching this kind of cosmic perspective? Or to consistently empathise with people living outside their own immediate day-to-day realities, beyond brief spasms of Live Aid-style celeb-led mass altruism? More pertinently, can anyone be arsed to try?
Poverty and despair didn’t spring out of the ground during an X Factor ad-break in 2003, they’ve rumbled intractably through human history. Maybe they are unstoppable. Generations of halfwit student idealists whinging about it have hardly dented them.
Still, if the state of our planet and our species were ever going to shift, however slightly, towards a situation marginally less horrific than the one existing currently, grand perspective and brutal realism might be one way in which our blinkered egoism could be undermined.
Selfish individualism blinds us to the preventable horrors of the world. If we were more aware of our place in the universe we might be jarred out of this absurdity and into doing, or at least thinking, something about them.