The Significance of Insignificance

You can’t know how incredible it is in here. The beauty and the majesty, and, at the next corner, the depravity. There are whirlwinds and windows and trees and even the occasional clown. There is misery and triumph and heartbreak and somber reflections.

It’s cozy here, where I live, but it can sometimes feel as if the walls are closing in. It has the effect of making me feel important, and then of snatching that importance away and leaving me to consider my insignificance.

I live inside my mind.

We all do, of course, but for some the concept is comforting, for others, terrifying. Regardless, this is where we live. Even extroverts- who venture far from home and into the physical world much more often than I- return home each night, when their heads hit the pillow.

Humans have between 12,000 and 60,000 thoughts per day. Some of these are concrete notions (”I need to buy some milk while I’m out”), while others are fleeting notions that we recognize only by their effect.

The vast majority of those thoughts will differ from person to person, but my guess is that the degree of similarity would surprise us. Pamela Druckerman said it nicely in a recent piece in which she looks back on what she’s learned in her 40s:

More about you is universal than not universal. My unscientific assessment is that we are 95 percent cohort, 5 percent unique. Knowing this is a bit of a disappointment, and a bit of a relief.

Most would tend to agree with her, after some thought. Our arms and legs and ears and eyes are so very similar- why would our internal makeup be any different?

There’s a lot of room for variance in that five percent, though. Experience, environment, genes- these all play a part in the small percentage of uniqueness in each of us. And not only are the differences many, they’re often stark. Our beliefs, our biases, our aptitudes reach each end of the spectrum. Some believe in small government, some believe in socialism. Some like order, some chaos. Some live to make music, others to run their business. All these characteristics, though, fall within that slim five percent. How can such a slight difference cause such gaping rifts in our thinking?

Nowhere is this difference more evident than in the effect of Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. Sagan’s entire premise hinges on our seeming insignificance in the universe, whether we occupy a privileged position or an inconsequential one. For some, that concept of insignificance—espoused long before Sagan, but perhaps captured most elegantly by him—is a source of wonder. It fills those who contemplate it with a sublime feeling of cosmic order. For others, it inspires dread. For those, insignificance is a dagger to the heart: if we are so insignificant, what’s the point?

There seems to me no greater symbol of the contrast in our ways of life than in our approach to insignificance. But if we are so similar, how does the difference become so stark in the first place? How do creatures with 95 percent similarity come to occupy realms of thought so completely in opposition to each other? If we’re so similar, there must be some fundamental point of departure, some point at which, early on, our thought processes begin to diverge.

Think of two saplings growing side-by-side. At first, the similarities are uncanny- but what if one sapling sprouted from the ground leaning just a bit to the right, while the other leaned a hair to the left? The difference wouldn’t be immediately obvious, but if we could fast-forward to the trees’ maturity, we’d see the difference much more clearly: they’ve grown apart, quite literally, since the point at which the direction of their growth diverged.

So it is with us. The things we experience while young change our direction, and our differences become stark when we reach maturity. It’s easy to see, then, how creatures so similar could have drastically different reactions to Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, and to our insignificance in general.

That begs the question: what is that point of divergence? What is the catalyst that sends one of us off in one direction, and others in another? There are bound to be many such catalysts, of course, but one may rise above the rest. Costica Bradatan provides some insight:

Failure is the sudden irruption of nothingness into the midst of existence. To experience failure is to start seeing the cracks in the fabric of being, and that’s precisely the moment when, properly digested, failure turns out to be a blessing in disguise. For it is this lurking, constant threat that should make us aware of the extraordinariness of our being: the miracle that we exist at all when there is no reason that we should. Knowing that gives us some dignity.

Failure. Is there a better example of the thread that binds us all together? We are all human, we are all fallible, we all make mistakes, we all fail. It’s a fundamental truth of human existence. It would make sense, then, that how we approach failure would have a powerful impact on the way we approach life.

Bradatan goes on:

In this role, failure also possesses a distinct therapeutic function. Most of us (the most self-aware or enlightened excepted) suffer chronically from a poor adjustment to existence; we compulsively fancy ourselves much more important than we are and behave as though the world exists only for our sake; in our worst moments, we place ourselves like infants at the center of everything and expect the rest of the universe to be always at our service. We insatiably devour other species, denude the planet of life and fill it with trash. Failure could be a medicine against such arrogance and hubris, as it often brings humility.

Our capacity to fail is essential to what we are.

Failure is not optional. We all experience it- much more often than success, in fact. But failure doesn’t have to be failure. It need not occupy such a lofty status. We can bring it back down to earth with a simple shift in perspective: we will fail, so we need only be concerned with what we learn from it, and how quickly we move past it. Once we demote failure from feared demigod to everyday citizen—once we get familiar with it— we can look to the stars, and thus to ourselves, with the wonder they and we deserve. Our insignificance need not be so significant.