A half moon hangs outside my window. The treetops are black on the horizon, and the sky is the color of the dark blue sea. The light of the moon illuminates my fields, but all that I see are shadows. The evening landscape is lovely. It comforts me to know that within my line of sight everything seems at peace.
In the morning, I put on the news. That was a mistake. Then I read the paper — mistake number two. Then I think, what will it take to really ruin my day, to create a trifecta of sadness in today’s era of sadness? But instead, I adjust my thinking. I get on my bike and go for a ride.
The benefits of riding are many. At a certain cadence my body becomes one with the bicycle as I move effortlessly over the blacktop. Riding clears my mind. It helps me think. It feeds my creativity, my reasoning and my thoughts.
I was thinking about the moon from the night before. I was thinking about the stars that are brilliant on crisp Berkshire nights. I was thinking it’s not easy to be less than a grain of sand in the vastness of the universe. I was thinking of the Milky Way. My mind, like my wheels, had spun into action.
The Milky Way is massive and unimaginable in size. Scientists say that it comprises anywhere from 150 billion to 250 billion stars. It’s a spiral galaxy that looks something like a giant pinwheel, and it is constantly spinning and growing. The milky part of the Milky Way is dust and gas, of which there is enough to create approximately 100 million more stars. And it is colossally old, creeping up on 14 billion years.
As galaxies go, it is one of thousands in the universe. So, if you think the Milky Way is big, well, guess what? It’s nothing compared to the universe. Which is not to say that it is small. It is only small relative to the unfathomable size everything. If you wanted to do a lap around the Milky Way, like some people do laps around a high school track, it would take 230 million years travelling at the speed of light, which is 670,616,629 miles an hour. For perspective, an object traveling at the speed of light would travel around Earth 7.5 times in one second. Even so, the Milky Way is a speck in the sky that we call the universe, and we are specks in the Milky Way.
Depressed yet? Don’t be.
Have you ever wondered who named the Milky Way? It was the Greeks some 2,500 years ago. When they looked up to the heavens at night, they saw stories that brought meaning to their lives. To them, all that dust and gas was not future star material — it was breast milk from the goddess Hera, who nursed the infant Hercules while he was sleeping. One day, as Hercules was suckling at Hera’s breast, he abruptly pulled away and her breast milk spilled across the cosmos creating the Milky Way.
The Greeks understood the power of a good story. Their gods and their stories enabled them to make sense of their lives. Their stories gave them purpose. They thought big, but I wonder if in today’s world we are better served by thinking small. Small stories are important, too. They not only influence our place in the universe but provide meaning when often there is none.
As my bicycle and I sped past leafless trees and mountain streams, I remembered a few small stories in my life that today seem more important than ever.
Once, when I was a little boy, I was drowning in a lake and a stranger’s arm pulled me to safety. Another time I was very sick and far from home and a good Samaritan took me in until I was better. Many years later, when my wife and I were unable to conceive, we tried an experimental medical procedure. It worked. Little things, big outcomes.
Acts of kindness and generosity are the stories we need more of. Most are small and unnoticed, but in our hearts they can be as big as the Milky Way.
It’s easy to get lost in the great expanse of everything, but if meaning is what you seek, take comfort in the meaning we give others, often without knowing. Be kind and generous and meaning will find its way to you.
With Thanksgiving just two days away, I’m thankful for the unimaginable universe that grounds me. I may be infinitesimal in size, but in spirit and hope and wonder, in the possibility that someday, somehow, sometime, somewhere, I might extend my arm to another and redirect a life for better. Maybe I already have. Maybe I’m just a little bigger than I think.