I had a great grandmother who was over 90 years old when she died of COVID a couple of years ago. To her, the Great Depression was her childhood, not something out of a history book.
When I was a kid, she would tell me what it was like for her when she was a kid almost 100 years ago. I remember thinking how people back then were just like people now and how she had lived my own age several times over. The breadth of her experiences was incomprehensible to me.
And then I think about the things she told me about her parents and her husband, long dead before I was ever born. How much she loved these people. How real those people were to her. And how those people, like me, lived full lives over a century ago with the same youthful concerns once upon a time and even their own parents.
I think about what it must have been like to grow up in the 19th century in America. Older people around you always talking about how young and new the country is. The founders of your country die when you're too young to really understand who they are or what they represented. You see the Westward expansion and many marvelous inventions. As a kid you used a telegraph, in your age you use these things called telephones. You walk everywhere in town and have to pay a cabby if you want to go outside of it, but the busy, packed streets are always quiet at night.
Your great grandparents grew up in the 18th century. They came over to the 13 Colonies on a boat with their family, knowing that they would probably never see their home again despite the thinly-veiled promises of their parents. They saw the colonial politicians whip people up into a frenzy and the crown meet them with callousness. They had a soldier living in their own house and they had to keep their voice down when talking about anything he might disapprove of. They saw their country plummet into war in their backyards but maybe never saw a battle themselves.
Between me and these people are about 10 generations, but they seem so much closer and real now. Yet we can continue going back, century after century, as almost everyone who has ever lived is dead now. Countless lives filled with their own dreams, joys, regrets, sorrows, loves, friendships, hobbies, preferences, skills, all now lay silent and forgotten.
We can continue this to ancient Greece. And then to the pyramids, which were just as ancient to the ancient Greeks as the ancient Greeks are to us. And then we could go back to the Bronze Age. And then the late neolithic. The early neolithic. The mesolithic. Then the paleolithic itself spans more time than even between us and the mesolithic.
Even before that, we had our ancestors in Africa wearing animal skins, hiding from prey. Hundreds of thousands of years before, they had more hair. And hundreds of thousands of years before that, even more hair.
At some point, language breaks down to little more than a few gestures and tonal sounds and we are before the invention of clothes. We still use tools to hunt and gather in groups. We still have friends and lovers and enemies. We have tragedies as friends are taken from us by predators when they wander too far from our shelter under the trees by the lake. Occasionally, we see other animals come by to drink from our lake, but they mostly keep their distance; they are as afraid of us as we are of them.
And we can keep doing this down our evolutionary chain, slowly going further and further back, until we realize how incomprehensibly old life is. In our attempts to understand the vast abyss of time that lays behind us, we surpass the limits of our ability to truly grasp the length relative to the time we have lived and all of the intellectual signposts we use to demarcate the past strip down to nothing but pure awe.
And then we can do the same thing with the age of the universe compared to the age of life on earth, which is several magnitudes greater.
Then we can start again. Think about how big the earth is to have held all of these stories within it. How many places there are that you have never seen and never will see. How many places remain just a picture in a book or a setting in a movie. Google Earth is great for this when you compare what you see to when your plane takes off from the ground. So high above the planet that people are invisible and houses are tiny specks dotting the land and yet you still aren't high enough to truly see the curvature of the earth.
Zooming out, little by little, you realize how small we are on this planet. And then you see a more accurate model of our solar system, where the planets aren't crammed together but the wide spaces between us appear. Every planet in the solar system can fit just between us and the moon, with room to spare.
The size of our solar system itself is already incomprehensible, with a sun that could fit over 1.3 million earths inside of it. That's a million. That's a thousand thousand, and a thousand itself sometimes strains our understanding and is easier broken into a hundred hundreds. So that's a hundred-hundred hundred-hundreds. Of earth. Of the thing that we are infinitesimally small on.
But our sun is actually tiny. From the nearest stars we can see, its light is almost invisible because of how pathetic it is compared to the other stars in our galaxy. There are about 100 billion stars in our galaxy, in fact, as far as we can tell, and they are spaced out further apart from each other many times greater than our entire solar system is wide. 100 billion is incomprehensible. It is 100,000 times bigger than a million, which is 1,000 times bigger than a thousand. If we were infinitesimal before, we now have vanished.
Now take a look at a tiny patch of black in the sky. Find a small one between the stars and focus in on it. In just that location, look at how many galaxies we have, each with their own 100 billion stars, give or take:
Do you know how many of these we have in the observable universe? 2 trillion. That's a billion million. And each with 100 billion stars, each the size of 1 million earths, and earth itself drenching us. Here, once again, we can only be filled with awe. We are a part of a universe so much older and bigger than us that it is incomprehensibly, incomprehensibly incomprehensible several times over.