How to care in an infinite universe

“We are a speck on a speck on a speck.”

That’s our cosmic situation as summed up by Neil deGrasse Tyson in this awesome/old episode of NPR’s RadioLab, which manages to inspire both deep feelings of joy at the seemingly boundlessness of our universe and a profound, if quiet sense of loneliness.

It’s this last sentiment that, for me, points to a central question we almost always ignore as social change storytellers; Why do we care? What are we building a better world for, if our collective human experience is merely a blink of an eye in the long drama of stars and black holes?

There are of course many scientific, philosophical and poetic rebuttals to this line of thinking, but at the heart of every struggle over hearts and minds, these questions still exist. Science has brought us dreams of distant galaxies, but also the pervading feeling that we are small… that what we do on the societal level is fleeting. Every potential donor or advocate encounters us with this deeply engrained psychology.

But for me, the inspiring part is this: (deGrasse Tyson again)

“I look up at the night sky, and I know that, yes, we are part of this Universe, we are in this Universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up—many people feel small, because they’re small and the Universe is big, but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars.”

Even at the threshold of science’s biggest and perhaps most important frontier, we return to story. This unifying narrative, that we are “literally made of star dust” taps into some of our most ancient archetypal stories (the hero, the quest, the voyage) It is not only a comforting rationale for our smallness, but a call to arms.

In some ways, we need to invite stakeholders to join us for the biggest story ever, a tale of meaning-making in an ever-expanding universe. We need to present our social change efforts as a haven for all those who feel like the world is too big for them to have an impact. It’s a fantastically abstract idea when you’re thinking about how to meet your fundraising goals, but it’s also a tremendously powerful one.

It’s no coincidence that last year’s now infamous Kony 2012 began with a shot of the earth rotating in space… Storytellers have always begun their tales with images of vast plains, great oceans, the star-filled night sky…. And they’ve always linked this grandeur to the small struggles of individuals with names and faces and human problems. The personal story is the antidote for the feeling we feel when we think of ourselves as “a speck on a speck on a speck.”

The human brain in its pattern craving folds, longs to fit our individual story into a broader narrative that begins with the big bang and sprawls onward towards some unknown shining metropolis of progress. We need to tell this story over and over again…. because it’s the one people want to be a part of.

That and nobody can resist a good ending…


Leave a Reply


e-Mail * (will not be published)