On Oct. 20, there was a beautiful meteor shower. The sky was miraculously cloudless, and a new moon perfected the conditions for meteor watching. Twenty meteors were supposed to course through the night every hour.
I couldn’t see them. Light pollution in the city.
I couldn’t even squint up into the orange haze and try. Manhattan at midnight is not the spot for a teenage girl to scout meteors alone. It is, however, the place where a million and a half individuals are piled into 22 square miles. Here, “one of the crowd” becomes less of a poetic device and more of an objective truth. New Yorkers share a collective desire to be distinguished in this crowd, and the competitive culture of Columbia intensifies this. But competition has never been my greatest strength, so I turn to meteor showers for a kind of pleasant existential torture. In this way, a meteor shower is a lot like life itself: both remarkable and ultimately inconsequential, only ever recognized as exceptional because we will it as such.
Looking up at the expanding sky reminds me of my smallness. Seeing that glittering flash of light in the dark makes a heartbeat seem slow. If only for a second, the world is quiet; everything is synchronized in chaos. It’s incredible that humans have persisted, experimenting and postulating, just to understand exactly what a meteor is and when a shower of them will occur. That discovery has meaning, not just in terms of science and space, but also in terms of humanity itself. There is an inherent worth in looking at the objectively worthless space rocks above me and realizing that meteors are so much more impressive than I will ever be. And I can appreciate the studies of intellectually superior people, about physically superior phenomena, while still appreciating my opportunity to process that knowledge.
Yet, on Oct. 20, I was trapped by urban struggle and stress culture, isolated from the one thing with the potential to save me. Could one meteor shower really symbolize my eternal struggle for purpose?
This desire to find a purpose defines students of Columbia and residents of New York. Seeking the same, I condemned myself to this city, this bright culture of inadequacy. There is always light streaming from Butler as we race against each other and time. The frustratingly impressive people in this city (and I) constantly produce the polluting light I wanted to escape that night. It was overwhelming to be faced with so much brightness, and I needed darkness to watch the meteors.
However, the people who prevented my view of the meteor shower also equipped me with a proper understanding of it, identifying it as valuable.
I can only see this worth, a beautiful but insubstantial spectacle, through the amazing discoveries of people around me and the accomplishments of those who came before me. Because of humanity, the meteor shower can be distinguished as an amazing product of the universe and an event that minimally impacts humans, embodying a graceful tension between important and unimportant.
So I can plot my life through the universe and love the meaning that I prescribe to it. Outer space doesn’t care if I get into graduate school. The distractions, comparisons, and descents into existential crises are all part of an imperfect narrative. The same light that prevented me from seeing the meteor shower also allows me to find my way home, make midnight pasta, or write up these insane introspections at my desk.
I should be able to recognize my significant inadequacy, and pursue my purpose in spite of the Grand Scheme of Things, in which I don’t matter. The intrinsic motivation of finding purpose has to be enough, because life is an arbitrary sequence of events. It is a beautiful, terrifying experience, defined by light, darkness, and motion, but ultimately, it won’t impact the constitution of the cosmos.
So, is my life a distraction from seeing the meteor shower, or is the meteor shower a distraction from my life? Both are significant in their insignificance, inherently valuable and overall worthless—ultimately informing each other of their own relative merit.
The author is a sophomore at Barnard College studying English and neuroscience. This might explain her adamant attempts to synthesize humanity, and definitely explains her nonexistent knowledge of astronomy.
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