When you accept Sagan’s musings as universal fact, college (and life) becomes a bit more bearable.
By Emily Suvannasankha, University of Central Florida
Sometimes being in college feels like you’re slowly suffocating under two metric tons of bullshit.
You know what helps during those lovely times? Some fresh-plucked words of solitude from my good buddy and pal, Carl Sagan. Actually, the words I’m about to throw down are anything but fresh, since Sagan kicked the bucket in 1996—far too soon, in every space-lover’s opinion.
In case you don’t spend your free time watching an old dead guy explain star formation to you, allow me to elucidate. Carl Sagan was an American astronomer best known for popularizing scientific notions about the universe with his absurdly well-known TV series, “Cosmos.” The scientist full of romantic wit is also one of my favorite human beings to have ever fluttered across the face of this planet.
In the interest of authorial transparency, I’ll be real with you, folks: I haven’t actually watched “Cosmos.” (Although I assure you, it’s on the list. Right next to the last three seasons of “The Nanny.” My tastes are nothing if not eclectic.)
I have, however, read Sagan’s accompanying book by the same name. In fact, not only did I read it, but I wrote in it. Yes, you read that right—I took an actual blue ballpoint pen to the actual pages of the book and scribbled down my actual thoughts in the margins, right next to my boy Carl’s literary waxings. Flip through my copy of “Cosmos” and you’ll find more passionately enraptured profanity than the poor author probably ever heard in his life.
Anyway, the biggest thing I took away from that beautiful chunk of mastery—besides Sagan’s contagiously enthusiastic awe for the universe, of course—is that humans don’t matter. More specifically, your problems, mistakes and outright flops in life are ultimately quite insignificant in the all-consuming face of the cosmos.
And I think that’s a message all college students need to hear.
1. The Universe Doesn’t Care
The first few years of adulthood can be an absolute fuckfest at times, and it’s easy to beat yourself up over your inevitable hourly blunders.
So your legs went numb and you splash-landed out of the kayak two feet from the shore. So you went out for a 10pm slice of French Silk and ended up with your tires stuck in a ditch in front of Village Inn. So you publicly performed human history’s most utterly cartoonish, legs-swept-out-from-under-you slip on rainwater and bruised your ass so hard you may never sit again.
Hey, guess what? No one cares! (All true stories, by the way. That I’m still alive is always a surprise.)
Listen, here’s the deal. As my best friend Carl Sagan likes to report, “There are some hundred billion galaxies, each with, on average, a hundred billion stars.” You think Alien #569,291,004 over there gives one single solitary Dimmadamn about the details of even your most shameful mishap? Hell no! That guy’s got his own business to take care of, like whether the floppy sacks of meat across the universe are talking shit about him.
And even if you don’t subscribe to the whole “aliens totally exist” notion (also known as my fondest outlook on infinite space), Carl’s got more ammo up his sleeve. He calls Earth a “pale blue dot” in the background of space, unremarkably chugging along in a forgotten little corner of one tendril of the Milky Way.
“Look again at that dot,” Sagan implores. “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, … every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
If that highly convincing argument for human insignificance doesn’t make you feel better about leaving the peanut butter jar open overnight, I don’t know what will.
2. Authority Is Meaningless
Power—especially social power over others—is largely a human construct.
Think about it. In the context of a college classroom, what makes the teacher’s word gold? Why is your psychology textbook’s opinion worth more than yours? There’s lots to be said for educational qualifications and thorough research, of course, but when it comes to the important stuff—not just the facts, but the critical thinking, the questioning, the reckoning with the material—to stop blindly at the word of an authority figure is to miss the point.
In my close chum Carl’s words, “There are no sacred truths; all assumptions must be critically examined; arguments from authority are worthless.” He continues, “If we long for our planet to be important, there is something we can do about it. We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.”
One of my own long-held beliefs is that there’s little more productive than questioning authority. Mostly internally, that is; No one wants to sit through a prickly 20-minute debate between a courageously misguided student and an irately insulted teacher. But isn’t freedom of thought, autonomy of mind, growth of defiant creativity, the exact point of education?
I say hell yes, it is. So join me and Carl Sagan in fighting the norm, disregarding the people who insist you fall in line intellectually. When it comes to matters of subjectivity, nothing inherently makes a professor more powerful or “right” than a student. Both are just as human, just as susceptible to flaws and misjudgments.
So there’s no need to think of yourself as a lower rung on the ladder, per se. As Sagan would say, human creatures are all made of the same ancient starstuff. It’s merely social context that changes between them.
3. Time Is Valuable (And So Are You)
Here’s the one Carl Sagan musing that still pops up to haunt me beautifully at night, right around the hour when I’m trying to chase my roommate’s oft-sung “Thneedville” chorus out of my head:
“We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever.”
A star the size of the Sun lasts, on average, about 10 billion years. If I live to see 100 (which, let’s be honest, is stretching it just a tad, with my cookie consumption), I’ll have lived .000001 percent of that time. That, my friends, is pathetic. Compared to the gigantic flaming ball of gas in the sky, I’ve got no time. None at all.
And unfortunately—assuming the reader of this article is human, of course—neither do you. It’s not a catastrophe, nothing to wring your hands over. It’s not even news. Just a simple fact of existence that’s been true the whole time, since you tumbled out of the womb.
Because a human lifespan is a mere cosmic blink, a fraction of a second in the grand scheme of Everything, it’s important to waste as little time as possible feeling powerless or fearful.
Believe me, I’ve known more than my fair share of both—but recently, I’ve found taking action to be much more effective and satisfying than running away.
If you come across a new classmate who has the exact same sense of humor as you, don’t hide behind a pillar for an hour wondering if they’d hate you. For god’s sake, jump on that shit! Don’t let ‘em get away!
If you want to bake “strawberry surprise” cookies with edible Hello Kitty faces plastered all over them, don’t sit around worrying about whether your roommates will judge you. Do it now! (What’s that? It’s 2 in the morning? I don’t care. Slap those sugary pink bastards in the oven or so help me!)
Forgive me for the cliché, but life’s too short to spend more time than necessary obsessing over every disaster that hasn’t happened yet. Trust me, I’m the expert at needless anguish. It takes forever, it gets your nice silk pillowcases all tear-soaked and all you’re left with is your own self-loathing and regret.
A much better idea? Do what you damn well please, and don’t torture yourself over it. College is the time for reinvention, self-discovery, an overabundance of midnight Oreos. The cosmos ain’t watching, and you’ll be dead before you know it anyway.
…Well, in an effort to leave you on a cheerier note than the inevitable demise of you and everyone you know, I’ll wrap it up with this:
“Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”