We are always being told that nature is good for us – and that we should spend more time in its company for the sake of our health. What is less well flagged up is that nature is as important to us as a source of nourishment for our souls. Nature is a kind of book, and when we open our eyes to it, find its pages filled with distinctive lessons about wisdom and serenity. In a set of alpine flowers growing on a hillside, we can read a defence of the value and beauty of the everyday; an evening sky can lend legitimacy and dignity to our melancholy states; there are invitations to calm in the unhurried motions of a Friesian cow; the sight of the distant stars can settle our anxieties by evoking our insignificance in the wider scheme. This set of essays highlights some of the most psychologically nourishing landscapes, flora and fauna of the planet. It functions as a reminder of all the consolation and redemption available to us in the natural world.
It is extremely rare properly to delight in something like an alpine flower (for example, the tiny Chamois Ragwort that blooms on the border between Switzerland and Italy for a few weeks a year) when one is under twenty-two. There are so many larger, grander things to be concerned about than these small delicately-sculpted fragile and evanescent manifestations of nature, for example, romantic love, career fulfillment and political change.
However, it is rare to be left entirely indifferent by alpine flowers after the age of fifty. By then, almost all one’s earlier, larger aspirations will have taken a hit, perhaps a very large one. One will have encountered some of the intractable problems of intimate relationships. One will have suffered the gap between one’s professional hopes and the available realities. One will have had a chance to observe how slowly and fitfully the world ever alters in a positive direction. One will have been fully inducted to the extent of human wickedness and folly – and to one’s own eccentricity, selfishness and madness.
And so, by then, alpine flowers will have started to seem somewhat different; no longer a petty distraction from a mighty destiny, no longer an insult to ambition, but a genuine pleasure amidst a litany of troubles, an invitation to bracket anxieties and keep self-criticism at bay, a small resting place for hope in a sea of disappointment; a proper consolation – for which one is ready, a few weeks of the year, to be appropriately grateful.
In the winter months, in the northern latitudes, it can be dark just before four. As the sun disappears, the bottom of the sky lights up an ethereal orange, while above it, the stars astonish with their variety and steady insistence. Such a scene is the natural home for melancholy moods. Melancholy is not rage or bitterness, it is a noble species of sadness that arises when we are open to the fact that life is inherently difficult for everyone and that suffering and disappointment are at the heart of human experience. It is not a disorder that needs to be cured; it is a tender-hearted, calm, dispassionate acknowledgement of how much pain we must inevitably all travel through.
Modern society tends to emphasise buoyancy and cheerfulness. It is impatient with melancholy states, and wishes either to medicalise them – and thereby ‘solve them’ – or deny their legitimacy altogether.
Melancholy links pain with wisdom and beauty. It springs from a rightful awareness of the tragic structure of every life. We can, in melancholy states, understand without fury or sentimentality, that no one truly understands anyone else, that loneliness is universal and that every life has its full measure of shame and sorrow. The wisdom of the melancholy attitude lies in the understanding that we have not been singled out, that our suffering belongs to humanity in general. Melancholy is marked by an impersonal take on suffering. It is filled with pity for the human condition.
We come back from our walk frozen yet redeemed, more content in ourselves, generous and sympathetic but with a confident hold on our right not always or too readily to smile.
The Femminello Lemon
The Femminello Lemon, much cultivated in the sunny valleys of central Sicily, has a golden yellow rind, pale flesh and a clear, sharp scent. Its value for us is most poignant not when we meet it in its natural setting, in early August at a table in a small fish restaurant in Naples, but when we encounter it in winter, deep in the cold, rainy north. Then, it possesses an exceptional ability to lift us from present circumstances and can, especially when we press it to our lips and breathe in the messages of its rind, deliver a superlative meditation on warmth, summer, ease and everything that these ultimately symbolise: hope.
Most of us have only a tenuous hold on sources of hope. Despair stalks us. We are only ever a few bits of bad news away from collapse. There seem, on many days, so many reasons to give up and surrender to self-loathing and despondency.
This explains why the Femminello Lemon is not merely nice, it is an ally in our mind’s constant attempts to structure arguments why it might, after all, be worth keeping going. Maybe there can be an end to the anxiety. Perhaps the project will work out eventually. The arguments might stop. Our enemies could get bored and turn elsewhere. Our reputation might recover. A lot of things could, in the end, be more or less OK; even bearable.
Such mental explorations the Sicilian lemon seems to understand and bolster. It may ostensibly be of few words but, when one is generously attuned to it, it has all the profundity of a short, luminous poem. It knows that everything can’t magically be made right, but it is also quietly confident of its power – as it sits on the window ledge illuminated by a pale northern light – to draw out and keep on the surface all our more buoyant and resolute ideas.
Symbol: Challenges of Intimacy
Porcupines, the longest-living of all rodents, frequently reach twenty years of age and are geniuses at fending off predators. They are coated in thick, very sharp spines made out of layers of hardened keratin, which rise all around them at the slightest sign of danger. What porcupines find very difficult is to get close to another of their kind, especially in winter, when they would ideally need to cuddle in a protected space. They have, as so many of us do, problems with intimacy – and through their dilemmas, they allow us to grow more understanding of, and sympathetic towards, our own challenges. The porcupine fascinated the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who took them to be emblematic of our desire for and hesitancy around forming close relationships: ‘A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another.’
The porcupine is the symbolic animal for all those among us who crave intimacy but, perhaps on account of certain unsettling childhood experiences, don’t find cosiness easy either. It helps that the porcupine, for all its prickliness, is rather endearing in appearance. ‘I’m a bit of a porcupine’ shouldn’t sound – in love – like a spectacular or worrying confession; rather an invitation to be forgiven for our stumbling, sometimes silent or rather defensive attempts to build a relationship with someone we really do, beneath our prickliness, care for.
Symbol: Charitable Interpretation
We are primed to hate and fear angry lions – often for good reason. A fable from Ancient Rome tells of a lion who prowled the villages of modern day Algeria, roaring horribly. Everyone was terrified and wanted to kill the apparently evil beast. But one day, in the nearby hills, a shepherd was caught in a sudden storm and sought shelter in a cave – where, to his horror, he discovered the lion had made his home. On seeing the animal, the panicked shepherd imagined that he was about to be ripped to pieces. But then he noticed something odd. Running down the lion’s noble face was a large tear. The lion was in appalling pain and the shepherd boy soon understood why: a large thorn had grown embedded in his paw and was causing him agony. The roars were merely ways of trying to articulate his pain. The shepherd took a great risk: he went up to the lion, stroked his mane and set about removing the thorn. The lion instantly became gentle, licked the shepherd’s hand and became his life-long friend.
The lion is a part of all of us when we are in pain: we roar and frighten, but we don’t quite understand what is the matter with us and so cannot communicate our distress to others in a way they would understand and start to offer help (rather than condemnation). We need others to interpret us charitably, to hold on to the idea that we are not intrinsically evil, but that something must be ailing us severely to account for our difficult and at points monstrous behaviour. We should never too quickly say that anyone is bad or beyond redemption; we just need to look for the thorn.
One of the many striking things about walnut kernels, alongside their delicate and noble flavour and the neatness with which they can be extracted from their shells, is their uncanny resemblance to the lobes of the human brain. The comparison is deflationary and, with wry sympathy, slightly mocking. We may think of ourselves as extraordinary creatures capable of mighty feats, but we are in the end reliant on a highly flawed, walnut-like contraption that gets an awful lot wrong. Acknowledging this, far from a defeatist move, is the beginning of wisdom. Socrates remarked: I am wise not because I know, but because I know I don’t know. The more closely we introspect, the more we start to appreciate the range of tricks our minds play on us – and therefore the more we appreciate the extent to which we will continually misjudge situations and the feelings they provoke. This critical attitude towards our own thought-processes is technically called scepticism, after the Ancient Greek philosophical sceptics (from the Greek word skepsis, meaning questioning or examination), a group who first concentrated on showing up how flawed and unreliable our minds can be, in large and small ways. We desire excessively and inaccurately. Our sexual drives wreak havoc on our sense of priorities. Our whole assessment of the world can be transformed according to how much water we have drunk or sleep we have had. The instrument through which we interpret reality, our 1260 or so cubic centimeters of brain matter, has a treacherous proclivity for throwing out faulty readings. For the sceptics, understanding that we may be repeatedly hoodwinked by our faulty walnuts is the start of the only kind of intelligence of which we are ever capable; just as we are never as foolish as when we fail to suspect we might be so. We should keep a walnut within eyeshot to remind ourselves of our ongoing need for intellectual modesty.
The Mallard Duck
Symbol: Protection from Envy
The Mallard duck is a very common sight on British ponds and lakes. The male has a distinctive green head and white band around its neck. The female is mottled brown. They pass much of their lives paddling over the water and diving for bits of weed or waddling in their slightly ungainly way on the bank. Their form of life hasn’t changed much in many generations. A mallard of today would not be shocked or intrigued by the outlook or habits of its ancestors in the 15th century.
It is hard for us not to envy others: there are so many things we could in theory have or be that are currently missing from our lives – yet possessed by others. It’s a wearing, dispiriting fact. The duck offers us a temporary but instructive exit. A duck is distinctly non-heroic and ordinary. In the realm of creatures, it makes no particular claims and earns no distinctive attention. Furthermore, it is equally unresponsive to us. It has no interest in anything that we do or think – it responds with equal enthusiasm to a crust of bread thrown its way by a high court judge or a newly released felon. It is neither scared nor ingratiating around us. The status, prestige, fashion sense or intellectual attainments of others or our lack of these things have no place at all in the world-view of the mallard. The duck is redemptively indifferent to our status system – and encourages us to follow it in its fortuitous wisdom.
The Friesian Cow
The Friesian is named after the tribe that first bred them two thousand years ago in what is now the Netherlands – though it is also known as the Holstein in the US. Over many generations it was developed for dairy production. It spends more than half its life dozing or asleep; and much of the rest of its existence is devoted to slowly chewing grass or hay, taking only a very small mouthful at a time.
The 19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, saw the cow as a symbol of a human ideal. In a section of Thus Spake Zarathustra, he asserts: ‘Unless we change (or be converted) and become as cows, we shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ In other words, in Nietzsche’s view, unless we adopt key qualities of the bovine character, among them, patience, a lack of rancour, perspective and a freedom from bitterness, we won’t find the degree of peace and consolation that makes life fulfilling and endurable. A cow does not suffer from envy, it does not think of revenge; it doesn’t regret the past and doesn’t fantasise about, or dread, the future. It looks placidly on at the world. It accepts its fate calmly. It is a proper philosopher, for Nietzsche, allowed to claim the title not on account of the books it has read or the amount it has published, but because of the exemplary life it leads in the course of its ordinary slow-moving days and nights.
The Arabian Desert
The immense Arabian Desert – which covers more than 2 million square kilometres – is a starkly beautiful wilderness of mountains and sand. Marks of human civilization are almost entirely absent. None of the usual things that concern (and bother) us have much relevance here. It has been – in essentials – unchanged for many centuries. It foregrounds the timeless basics of existence: the sky, the earth, the baking heat and the low whistle of wind across the barrenness.
Usually we pick up on, and get maddened by, so many of the minor imperfections of other members of our species: they make too much noise when they eat; they take too long when parking the car; they get muddled when telling an anecdote; they have wrong ideas about the future of the literary novel or an unfortunate taste in footwear. At the time, such failings strike us as hugely important – enough to spoil a friendship or compromise a marriage.
The desert reminds us that these flaws cannot matter so much. In comparison to the elemental loneliness of such a place, our lesser concerns drop away; our commonality feels more important. We can let others off the hook and seek communion over our shared vulnerability and exposure. We can look past all the shortcomings and errors of others – and honour our shared humanity in the midst of awesome desolation.
An ant colony
Symbol: The dignity of bourgeois life
Ant colonies are possibly the most successful organisations on earth – which has allowed the tiny ant to spread across almost the entire landmass of the planet and to outnumber humans by 10 million to one. Ants are symbols of organisation, punctuality, hierarchy and forward-thinking. They are the mascots of that often-derided social class we know as the bourgeoisie.
Ants are fierce, loyal, determined workers. They operate with a marked division of labour: there are designated nurses, foragers, tunnel diggers and soldiers as well as the Queen, whose job it is to lay the eggs of the next generation, and the drones: the males whose sole duty is to mate with future queen ants. Ants are not on their own heroic but their individual labours find a degree of dignity via the precise contribution each ant makes to a dazzlingly complicated and resourceful society.
Because we see ants from above, as God-like giants, we are in a position to appreciate in them virtues which, when we look at ourselves, we tend not to be so impressed by – as evidenced by our casual disregard for the complexity of our civilisation and for the mockery often directed at unheroic but sensible labour, like accountancy or filing. We can easily end up lamenting the narrow, limited work we have to do. We may get ironic and mocking about how ‘bourgeois’ our lives have turned out to be. We may, correspondingly, harbour a sneaking veneration for rebels and Romantic types who don’t worry about the laundry and haven’t got a pension. An ant, perhaps painfully carrying a dead wasp three times its size across the unfathomable expanse of a parking lot, symbolises a more benign view: for all their faults, our orderly habits have their virtues. Boring things – transporting goods, being on time, working responsibly, going to bed early, following rules – are in some tiny way contributing to the management and future of our own extraordinary nests
The characteristic red granite rocks on the Isle of Mull, off Scotland’s Atlantic coast, were formed around 430 million years ago during the Silurian period. At that time they were part of the Laurentia continent, along with much of what is now North America and Greenland. They formed when immensely heated lava that welled up from the core of the earth emerged and melded with other ferrous material. Granite rocks are hugely hard – but millions of years of rain, wind and ice, expanding in tiny fissures, have eroded them. The time scales are wildly out of proportion to a human life; a crack in the surface opens a few millimetres in a decade; lichen eats away at the surface with a gentleness that takes centuries to notice. Each winter storm brings a minute change, lost to the human eye.
Everything that preoccupies us will fall away; the issues that bother us will become remote and be forgotten; when we are dead the rocks will still be here, more of less exactly the same. Granite rocks invite us into a mood that lessens our fears. In their company we are, fortunately, negligible. How we mess up, how we fail, our confusions and errors, what we do or don’t do aren’t, from their point of view, terribly important at all – much to our relief.
Symbol: Sexual Maturity
The bonobo is a species of chimpanzee found in the Congo Basin of central Africa. They are one of our nearest relatives – and have fascinated researchers because of certain of their distinctive attitudes towards sex. Often, when a group of humans are up against the complexities of relationships, someone will mention them as examples of how we might beneficially overcome our possessive tendencies and narrow sex lives. Bonobos seem capable of enviable sexual maturity. They get paired up in adolescence, but end up neither fully monogamous nor jealous. They simply enjoy huge amounts of sex with other members of their groups, without signs of competitiveness and with a notably generous and peaceable nature that seems to spring from the constant physical release they have available. Contained in the question ‘Why can’t we be more like bonobos?’ is a longing to reconcile our desire for stability with our hunger for sexual exploration. But ultimately, there are solidly grounded reasons why we can’t enjoy the lives that bonobos lead. We aren’t really like them around sex, just as we aren’t, in our diets, capable of feasting on flying squirrels, bark and earthworms. They are symbols not of the sexual liberation that one day awaits us, but of the very profound reasons why the friction-free and un-neurotic sex lives we might long for cannot easily be ours; these creatures are invitations to a degree of resignation and tolerance for the unavoidable dilemmas of being human.
Bamboo is, surprisingly, classified as a grass rather than a tree, yet it is tall and strong enough to create groves and forests. Unlike a tree trunk, the stems of bamboo are hollow, but its inner emptiness is a source of its vigour. It bends in storms, sometimes almost to the ground, but then springs back resiliently. We should, says the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, ‘become as bamboo is.’ In other words, we should bend in the face of the storms of life, and remain confident of our power to return to an upright stance. The greatest painter of bamboo was the Daoist poet, artist and philosopher Zheng Xie of the Qing Dynasty. Zheng Xie is said to have painted eight hundred pictures of bamboo forests and saw in them a perfect model of how a wise person might behave. Beside one pen and ink drawing of bamboo, he wrote in elegant script: ‘Hold fast to the mountain, take root in a broken-up bluff, grow stronger after tribulations, and withstand the buffeting wind from all directions’. It was a message addressed to bamboo but meant, of course, for all of us.
The pineapple was once, three centuries ago, the most prized of fruits. It was considered deeply exotic; a single example could cost the equivalent of a London townhouse; monuments were raised in homage to its distinctive, spikey form. But today – with cheap transport and easy cultivation in greenhouses – the pineapple is typically overlooked. It lacks cultural prestige. Its taste, however, remains the same and its beautiful shape is not in the least diminished. The historic fate of the pineapple alerts us to an unfortunate move our minds often make without consulting us. We tend to overlook the common, the inexpensive and the everyday – however attractive and valuable they really are. The pineapple hasn’t altered, but our capacity to appreciate it has been fatally undermined by ubiquity and cheapness.
There are a great many natural things which are not publicly celebrated or glamorous and which lie all around us unnoticed but which, in fact, possess huge charm: an earthworm, lichen growing on old stone walls, clouds drifting in the sky, the small whirlpools on a fast-moving brook. We have been, and continue to be, profoundly unfair to the real attractions of so much that surrounds us.
Also known as the zebra giraffe, the okapi is mainly to be found in the Ituri rainforest, close to the equator, in the far north east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Okapi are some of the shyest, most reserved of all mammals. They live solitary lives, they don’t form herds and come together only to mate. They have secluded childhoods: the mother gives birth to a single infant, which she hides deep in the forest and visits occasionally to feed. Their hesitant nature seems, in human terms, to stem perhaps from their indeterminate status between their better-known and more glamorous relatives: the always intriguing giraffe and the head-turningly designed zebra.
In humans, reserve arises from a fear that something about us doesn’t quite fit the norm and might bother, bore or prove unacceptable to other people. We go red after we’ve told a joke in company and worry that it might have come across as inappropriate or offensive. We are deeply concerned not to overstay our welcome and look out for the tiniest signs of exasperation in those we are with. It can be hugely inconvenient to feel so self-aware and reserved, but to be aware of the dangers of being a nuisance is a high ethical achievement. Someone with no capacity for hesitancy is a scary possibility; for they implicitly operate with a dismaying attitude of entitlement. They can be so sure and unquestioning only because they haven’t taken on board the crucial possibility of their unenchanting nature.
The shy okapi is the symbolic animal for all those among us who feel nervous at parties, who doubt themselves (fruitfully), who worry about bothering others – and who regularly blush a little more than would, ideally, be convenient.
The claw of the male Atlantic marsh fiddler crab
Uca pugnax (to give it its formal name) inhabits the shore line along the north-east of the US and Canada. A normal life span is little over two years. In adulthood, the male typically develops one hugely distended, brightly coloured claw. It’s strikingly out of proportion, constituting around a quarter of its body-mass; it would be like us having a hand a meter long. It could be seen as purely absurd, but it serves a crucial purpose: it is waved slowly to allure a mate and deployed in battle to see off rivals.
It’s easy to come to feel that life is fundamentally boring; that we have more or less seen and done it all, that the world is stale and over-familiar. But that is, invariably, because we are – unbeknownst to us – in a tunnel that we are mistaking for a wide open view. If we step outside of our ordinary vistas, we will of necessity find the world more wondrous, peculiar, enchanting and plain interesting than we remember in the rounds of our ordinary routines.
We were once – as small children – amazed by everything; a light-switch, a button, or a puddle could detain us for hours. With maturity has come habituation and cynicism. But the process does not have to go in one direction only. We are always capable of stepping back to a less weary and blinkered place: we have a capacity for re-enchantment. And when it is engaged, we may notice the male Atlantic marsh fiddler crab, with whom we are sharing existence on this planet right now and whose large claw is there to remind us never to cease to wonder and remain interested.
An Oak leaf in Autumn
It has no choice; its life-cycle is clearly defined from the outset, from its earliest beginnings in March, when it was still coiled within the bud and the wind felt harsh and pitiless. There was the first day when it emerged, sometime in mid-April, exquisite fresh and delicate. There were days of rain, hail and sunshine as it gradually grew and thickened. In May, a caterpillar paid a visit and nibbled, non-fatally, one of its lobes. The summer was balmy and generous. Dust coated it over the windless August days. Over a weekend in September, the first tinge of mortal gold appeared; deepening and darkening every day until the whole leaf was brown and brittle. It held onto its familiar twig though a calm, cold week in early October but was finally shaken off on a blustery Tuesday morning on the 15th. It fluttered down to join thousands of its companions on the pavement, it was kicked about joyously by a child and noisily blown into a heap by a municipal worker; it gradually decomposed, consumed by slugs and microbes; it turned to mulch in November and became an undistinguished part of the soil that winter, where it provided nutrients for – a decade later – an acorn that would take a further twenty years to grow into a mature tree, on whose branches would one day hang leaves much like the one it had once been…
We’re seeing – with ideal lucidity – the structure of our own life-cycle and fate, as decreed by nature. Despite our gadgets and bank accounts, we too are little more than fragile leaves waiting for the day we will fall and be reabsorbed into the earth. The timing can vary, but the basic sequence won’t. Our own death, which we feel as the deepest affront, is perfectly inevitable. We too are part of nature, which is as pitiless as it is beautiful – and always awesomely indifferent to our longings and cries.
Symbol: Small Pleasures
Every so often, you encounter a fig. It might turn up as a decorative aside to a dessert or catch your eye in a supermarket. But between these sporadic meetings, you don’t think much about figs at all. Yet when a fig does come your way, you are always charmed. The colours inside are extraordinary. It seems so improbable that nature should provide us with a fruit at once so mild, sweet and confident in its delicacy.
The irony of the small natural pleasure that a fig offers us is that it isn’t intense enough to force itself upon our consciousness. We don’t become addicted or obsessed; the pull is much weaker than that of sex or computer games; these are pleasures whose sway in our lives we have to painfully struggle to limit. With figs, it’s the opposite.
We almost need rituals to keep the fruits fresh in our minds. Next time you meet a fig, with a very sharp knife, cut it into quarters (the need for sharpness doesn’t arise from hardness but because blunt pressure spoils their delicate cheek-like skin). Look at the tints and hues of the outer flesh. For 15 seconds, imagine you are a painter, trying to portray the pattern: make your eyes stick with it. Think of the tree it came from. Its ancestors flourished in historic times in Palestine or in Sicily and figured in the parables of tribes. Finally, take a bite. Concentrate first on the texture. The, with a second bite, focus on the taste. Properly honoured, the ritual of the fig should last about seven minutes. Nature is rich in small pleasures, that in aggregate make life worth enduring. In the ideal secular religion, the fig would be a central symbol and object of veneration.
The Stone Pine
The Stone Pine (also called the Umbrella pine) is found on the southern coast of Portugal. It is graceful, hardy and noble. Its colours are especially pleasing against an azure sky. At night, its pines rustle agreeably in a breeze. Yet the conditions it has to grow in are appalling. The soil is poor: shallow, saline and sandy, easily blown off by the sea breezes. For nearly half the year, from the start of May to the end of September, it rarely rains; hot winds blow across from the arid interior of Spain. Whole days can pass with minimal humidity and a temperature above 35c. But the pine tree is at home in such an unhomely place; it has fully matured over decades: its roots have spread out widely – far further than its longest branches – gradually working they way round or under a rock, tapping hidden pockets of moisture. Its pines are perfectly designed to absorb what is needed from without while not releasing the sappy goodness within.
The pine is a model of resourcefulness. It has to deal with hugely compromised conditions, and yet it has adapted and learnt to make its peace with them. It does not forlornly long for the slushy dark rich soil enjoyed by its more fortunate colleagues in the interior of the country. It knows it will have only a very few days of rain. It understands the length and the bitterness of the summers ahead of it. We are capable of just such resourcefulness. In low moods, we underestimate our capacity to adapt and to find viable ways of managing. Yet we can live in circumstances that are very far from ideal. We live in terror of having less money, fewer friends or reduced status. We fear illness and loneliness. But we can manage far better than we suppose. There is, at the heart of us, waiting to be discovered, and there when we need it, something of the toughness and resilience of the great, hardy, long-lived pines.
The Giant Star, Aldebaran
The giant star Aldebaran – the name derives from the Arabic word for a follower, since it appears to follow a cluster of stars known as the Hyades – can sometimes be seen in the evening sky as a tiny, brightish dot not far above the horizon. In fact Aldebaran, could contain the equivalent of two million of our suns; it is a giant star, late on in its life cycle, emitting a reddish-orange light – which takes 65 years to reach the earth. The Pioneer 10 space probe – launched from Cape Canaveral in 1972 and now more than 10 billion miles from earth – is expected to arrive in the vicinity of Aldebaran in fifteen thousand centuries time. Despite the distance, Aldebaran is a near neighbour in our local, spiral galaxy – itself one of a hundred billion galaxies that populate the cosmos.
Contemplating the infinitesimal insignificance of our world in the unimaginable vastness of space is a powerfully – and usefully – humbling thought. In this solemn and liberating mood the things that loom large in our minds (what’s gone wrong with the Singapore office, the fact that a colleague behaves coldly, the disagreement about patio furniture) appear comically absurd. If only briefly, our minds mingle with the universe and embrace eternity.
It can seem as if everything we do matters so much but, with Aldebaran, we listen to a different, more humbling message: that everything we do and are is in truth meaningless – when considered from a sufficient distance. We can meditate on our utter insignificance when measured against aeons of time and space. One does not really matter; in a quiet, not-unkind way, one’s life, that burdensome package, is an inconsequential blip.
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