The size of the thing

It is easy, some days, to feel very, very small.

We don’t like to let ourselves. I know I don’t. I like to be the heroine of my little story. Oh, y’know, I’ve got a future and a destiny and I’ve got talents and I can go out and do things! ‘Cause I’m brilliant! And the world tries to make us believe it. So much that is sold to us is about making us happy and us comfortable and us surrounded by conveniences and good-looking stuff. We want very much to be noticed, and liked, and appreciated, and valued, and respected, and all those other things. We want to be somebody.

And then come those terrible moments of clarity when you’re in a crowd, or completely alone, or both at the same time, and what are you to the people around you? Another face. The person next in line. A meeting soon over. What are you to the buildings and the trees? What are you to the earth beneath you, and the burning sun that rises or sets whether you’re there or not? The telescopes reach out into the distant dark and send us back images of entire galaxies so far beyond the reach of humankind that the mind withers at the mere idea. We have this tiny pinprick of a planet that we live our whole lives on, and what is it to the limitless void of the universe? An understanding of lightyears and lightspeed and general relativity introduce the new meaning of “look, but don’t touch” because we can’t touch. Never.

And then I think of history, and I think of the brevity of my own life. I am one person among six billion and more. And billions who’ve come before. What I write, what I say, what I do, if I am very, very lucky, might be remembered beyond my life. I look at the obits in the paper, I pass by gravestones, and I can’t help thinking that these were people as alive and real as me, and I know nothing about them. They’re gone, wiped away, dismissed like a road marker on the Interstate that drops behind at 75 miles per hour and disappears into the far horizon.

We are so small.

And there is a way in which my faith agrees with this. When I look out at the stars, when I go look at Hubble photos, when I read about history or watch other people, it isn’t hard to think about the God who created it all, who is behind it all, and what that really means. He is infinite. Douglas Adams had a very good point about infinity in his Hitchhiker’s Guide, where he says that the thing that gives you the best idea about infinity is to see something that isn’t, but is vastly huge. We can’t grasp infinity, but we can look at the sheer size of the world we can see, and all its complexity and variety and subtlety and grandeur, and then we think, God is greater than that. He called it into being with a word. The very forces that hold atoms together, that bind the galaxies: he designed them. The ways of the human heart, the richness of relationships and the tapestry of human culture: he directs them. There is nothing outside the scope of what he has done, and when I catch some small glimpse of that scope, my brain fails.

And then there’s us. Little piddly insignificant me. And I want to throw up my hands and say that none of it matters. In the ocean of the universe, what’s one molecule more or less? What difference does it make?

What difference does it make?

When I know a piece of music very well, my brain is waiting for every note before it plays. When I know a movie well, I know the timing of every cue and the inflection of every word. Those who know me know I can identify a line from The Lord of the Rings down to the chapter and scene from memory. What would it be like if you took one bit out?

We shortchange God so often. We keep thinking he’s less than he is. It’s our failure to grasp infinity: he isn’t just infinitely big, he is infinitely small, and infinitely everywhere in between. And thus we fail to grasp that “small” has nothing to do with “insignificant”: one might as well say a bolt in a skyscraper is insignificant. Yeah, you might need all the other ones, too, but would you want to build it without that one? The symphony without one little chord is incomplete. The book minus a sentence is incomplete. And if you argue that any artistic work or feat of engineering can be changed, reduced, edited, made more efficient, that’s assuming it’s built by people. People aren’t perfect. Their designs are incomplete by their very nature. The universe isn’t. If it was created by a perfect God, no part of it is wasted. Every part is vital.

Lose me from the universe? Might as well leave paint strokes out of a work of art. Might as well leave measures out of a Bach mass. Might as well lose variables from an equation. (Oh, try and tell a mathematician that one!) We’re so small we can’t even see where we fit, and that works two ways. We have no idea what hinges on us. We don’t know what our effect is. We can’t step back far enough to see the whole pattern: oh, we can see bits here and there, we can make out themes and things, but that’s nothing. We affect the whole in ways we can’t imagine; we are significant in ways we’ll never know. The universe is a single, extraordinary work of such immense and immeasurable beauty that only he who made it can grasp it fully. Each one of us is unique, irreplaceable, irreduceable, and inexchangeable.

“Size matters not.” Size has nothing to do with it.

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