No big deal: why your cosmic insignificance is a wonderful thing

My neighbourhood is in the process of being thickly blanketed in snow as I write this, which is delightful for all the usual reasons – but also because, for me, dramatic weather of all kinds has always been an incredibly effective antidote to stress. (See also: dramatic landscapes.) I think it's because weather that calls attention to itself like this has the effect of wrenching part of my focus away from my self-absorbed concerns. The snow in our backyard naturally implies snow covering a whole city, which is part of a country, which is part of a continent – and from there it's only a few more steps to remembering that I'm a tiny pinprick of consciousness on a modestly sized planet, hurtling through infinite aeons across infinite space.

 

Which is really relaxing, because it's a reminder that in the grandest scheme of things, nothing I do or fail to do matters much at all – a realisation with its roots in Stoic philosophy, and other wisdom traditions, but that I have officially trademarked (I haven't officially trademarked it) as cosmic insignificance therapy

 

When I stop to think about it, there's something embarrassing about finding it so liberating to be reminded how little I matter, because it suggests that the rest of the time, I approach life with a deeply narcissistic sense that from the perspective of the universe, I'm kind of a big deal. No doubt this is partly just a matter of my personal issues (along with the "egocentricity bias": it would be hard to stave off despair if we didn't have a somewhat exaggerated sense of how much we count). But I'm pretty sure this sort of background narcissism is widespread, and getting worse. For one thing, the structures of digital life – of following and liking and blocking – make it easy to construct an environment consisting solely of people who'll reaffirm your sense of self-importance. And we're subjected to endless cultural reinforcement of the idea that a meaningful life involves doing something extraordinary: putting "a dent in the universe," to quote Steve Jobs. (But did even the iPhone do that? Really?)

 

Lowering the stakes

An alien visitor to Earth might assume that people who went around with such an unrealistic sense of their own importance would feel happy as a result, because each moment would be invested with a feeling of immense significance, however unwarranted. But as the philosopher Iddo Landau observes – and as we know from experience – it doesn't work out that way. The (conscious or subconscious) belief that what you do is incredibly consequential has the effect of making the stakes too high to enjoy life. You end up feeling like you're perpetually holding the world on your shoulders, so that if you don't make it through your to-do list, or fulfill your various obligations, or "realize your potential", something truly calamitous will happen. You live in a defensive posture, treating life as a sequence of problems to be solved, in which the best-case scenario is that you might squeak through to the end without completely ruining everything for everyone. 

 

To be reminded of your cosmic insignificance therefore isn't just relaxing, but actively empowering. Because once you remember the stakes aren't anywhere near that high, you're free to take meaningful risks, to let unimportant things slide, and to let other people deal with how they might feel about your failing to live up to their expectations.

 

It's not that nothing matters from your perspective, obviously: it doesn't stop being important to feed a newborn baby, or keep up your rent payments, just because nobody in a million years will care whether you did so or not. What cosmic insignificance therapy™ does, though, is to recalibrate the yardstick with which you measure what's important from your perspective.

 

This results, if you're anything like me, in the realisation that 99% of what you worry about isn't worth the worry. The universe will trundle on its way regardless of what you do or don't do. So you might as well focus your time and attention on what you care about most deeply yourself – and let everything else join the infinite list of things that people have been fretting about since the dawn of humanity, but that never really mattered to begin with. 

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