One of the hardest parts of living in New York is that you don’t get to see the stars. When I read back that sentence, I gag a little bit, so let me clarify to avoid seeming like a poetry-reading romantic: Looking at a completely clear night sky is one of the most profound, humbling activities you can do as an individual.
For better or for worse—and I would probably err on the “for better” side—unless you’re a philosopher, or an acid-head, the vast majority of us go about our daily lives avoiding those trite, pesky little existential conundrums like “Why does the world exist?” and “Is life meaningless?” and, if you’re lucky enough to be a Bostonian, “Super Bowls XLII and XLVI clearly prove the existence of a God, and a God who’s a Giants fan at that, so what’s the point?”
I like to think of life sort of like the first season of the second-greatest island-based TV show of all time, “Lost.” We’re running around, trying to survive and get accustomed to our surroundings and go about very normal routines of jealousy, love, loss, etc., and there’s a giant smoke monster that’s impossible to rationalize out there. We know it’s there, but we just pretend to ignore its presence until it’s about to kill us, because otherwise we would go absolutely crazy. (The smoke monster in this extended metaphor is existentialism and the meaning of life, and the greatest island-based TV show of all time is, of course, “Flight of the Conchords.”)
But when you look up at a truly clear, completely unadulterated night sky, the monster is really impossible to ignore. As of late, all I’ve been used to is the maroon-tinted, never-really-nighttime New York night sky, and the slightly less light-polluted suburban night sky of my hometown, so I really forgot what it’s like to look up and see a night sky as it’s supposed to look. When I first walked out of my sister’s house in Paraguay at night and looked up, I almost fell over. Patagonia was even better, since, in my godforsaken, remote little town, they turned off all electricity every night at midnight. I won’t waste words with describing these skies—because, again, not a poet, but there are literally clouds of stars. It’s just staggering.
When you look up and see perfectly clear, seemingly endless clouds of stars, you see a representation of the infinite that’s impossible to understand and, even worse, impossible to rationalize. It’s impossible not to think about how small we are, knowing as we do that those endless bright dots are incomprehensibly massive, incomprehensibly far away, and incomprehensibly part of billions of other galaxies like our own, which is already incomprehensible enough. And it’s impossible not to think about how little we know about everything once we escape from our own little everyday worlds.
And we know a lot. Whenever I look up and see a terrifyingly populated night sky, I am always struck by the fact that this is how it has looked to humans for a couple hundred thousand years—humans who knew a hell of a lot less about what they were staring at than we do. Can you imagine staring up at the sky a few thousand years ago and seeing the stars? And diagramming them, and realizing that they move on a perfect schedule? How could you possibly go about a normal routine during the day with such a view waiting for you every night?
The orientation for my study abroad program was last week, in an estancia in the Argentine pampas. The first night, a few of my new compadres sat out in the perfectly tranquil night in lawn chairs, and one by one they went to bed as their jet lag and trans-hemispheric journeys caught up to them. I stayed sitting with a friend who had traveled with me in Buenos Aires, enjoying the serenity of the countryside after a couple of weeks of madness in the city.
I looked up and realized this would probably be the last time I would be able to see so clear a night for a long time. We started talking about the absurdity of our lives at that moment, and as conversations late in the night after a couple beers tend to do, we started getting college-philosophy-y. And the conversation turned to the insanity of the night sky and, inevitably, how impossible it is to derive any true sense or meaning for ourselves in the face of such a vast and infinite unknown, especially with the majority of our lives looming before us.
But my friend said, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
I don’t really think I had ever fully understood that line by Camus, in a nonacademic sense, until that moment. I had just concluded two of the most whirlwind months of my life, and I was about to start another crazy three and a half. And I was sitting in the Argentine pampas staring at star clouds. And sure, I guess, relative to the night sky life is inherently meaningless. But for those lucky enough to have the level of opportunity that we Columbia students have—man, is it a good time. And thinking about it is a trip in itself.
“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”
Leo Schwartz is a Columbia College junior majoring in political science and Latin American studies. Rationalizing the Irrational runs alternate Fridays.
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