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Eating Stars Gives Meaning To Life

Jean Guerrero |
May 15, 2009 | 5:48 p.m. PDT

When I was younger, I loved to pretend I was eating stars.
One night, my friend Elizabeth and I were lying on the trampoline in my backyard, stargazing. The jumping mat was cold and damp beneath us, so we gripped tightly at a thick Pocahontas-themed blanket my family had bought a few years back at the Mexican border. We were 13.
Staring up at the enormous expanse of white-bejeweled blackness before us, I reached up for one of the stars dotting the sky and pinched it between my thumb and index finger. Then I brought my fingers back to my mouth and pretended to eat the star. Elizabeth laughed between chattering teeth and asked what the heck I was doing.
"Didn't you know?" I said. "A diet of stars can make you infinite."
"What about a diet of moons?" she asked, grasping at the full moon, which was a creamy yellowish color that night, and bringing her fist back to her lips.
"Don't let its size fool you," I said.
After that, Elizabeth and I made a point of stargazing at least once a week to snack on stars. Like most diets, it failed -- neither one of us became "infinite." We didn't gain omniscience, eternal life or any other magical abilities. We continued thinking, aging and behaving like regular human beings.
Understandably, we gave up eating stars. But we didn't give up the desire to be larger than ourselves -- the passion that fueled our diet in the first place. Almost anyone wants to believe she's more than a bunch of puny cells standing a mere 5 or 6 feet tall and programmed to die. None of us can shine brightly like the sun, making itself visible many light years out into the universe. Even the loudest scream would only travel a couple of miles. At the heart of every nervous breakdown, existential crisis and episode of depression is a deep, gnawing anxiety about the potential triviality of existence, about our relative insignificance to the planets and the stars and the universe. Why are we here? What is the meaning of life -- of my life in particular, in comparison with the enormity of the undying sky? If a living being exists only to perish, life seems the most tragic mistake that could have ever occurred.
This fundamental human desire to see a purpose in existence reveals itself in thousands of cultures and religions. And as we've discovered more and more about the immensity and complexity of the universe, our personal importance has seemed to diminish further still. Copernicus showed us that Earth is not at the center of our universe. We could no longer be assured of the centrality of our home, and therefore of our significance. Then came an even more wrenching avalanche of paradigm shifts as we discovered that our solar system is part of a galaxy; that our Milky Way is one of billions of such galaxies, and that our universe may just be one of an infinite number of parallel universes.
We seem to be shrinking with every new thing we discover. We have learned that animals were not put here by some Creator for our amusement, but rather that they, like us, evolved from a common ancestor -- and that all of life, in fact, arose only because of innumerable events that followed from a chance explosion billions of years ago that we call the "Big Bang." The more we learn, the more we begin to think that perhaps we are nothing more than a perfectly inconsequential accident.
But the truth is that even if we're an accident, we're not inconsequential.
Because life alone has the ability to perceive, the capacity to ask questions, to feel emotions and to perceive the vastness of the world, we are actually the most significant parts of the universe.
I realized the extent of my own power one day recently while watching the sunset at Venice Beach. Although I had given up eating stars, stargazing was a habit I couldn't kick -- especially when it came to the one star that beats its warm rays against our earth, permitting life to arise within so that stargazing could occur in the first place.  About an hour before sunset when the clouds were still thick, the sunshine broke through like golden daggers, striking the sea in patches so that the light erupted in a sparkling dance of glitter. As the sun approached the sea, it became rounder and redder and easier to look at. Suddenly, I knew why humans shouldn't despair about their potential meaninglessness: if life didn't exist, what I just described would not exist, either.
Color is an act of perception. It happens only when light waves interact with something inside of us - our brain cells. So is shape. Sound, texture, smell and taste are also the products of a reaction between waves or particles interacting with neurons. Without something to perceive the world, the world would have no color. Nor would it have any texture, sound, shape, smell or taste. Without us, literally nothing in the universe would have any quality. Nothing would be soft, hard, sweet, bitter, bright, dark, funny, beautiful or anything.
The universe without life to perceive it would be as dry as a mathematical equation -- and even then, its potential would go unappreciated.
"The universe and the observer exist as a pair," physicist Andrei Linde told  Discover Magazine. "You can say that the universe is there only when there is an observer who can say, 'Yes, I see the universe there.'"
The act of observing something in the present can even alter what it has done in the past, according to the astounding research by the recently deceased physicist John Wheeler. He is known for having said that human beings are part of a universe that is a work in progress -- that "we are tiny patches of the universe looking at itself -- and building itself."
Without us, everything else would lack quality -- and can anything really be said to exist if it isn't violet, smooth, sweet-smelling, or anything else? A featureless universe is a pointless universe. 
"In the absence of observers, our universe is dead," Linde said.
In other words, our dread of insignificance is entirely unfounded.  There is nothing more meaningful than being the sole products of the universe capable of giving meaning to anything.  And that's exactly what we do -- we give meaning to the world. We are the sole valuers of the ultimate masterpiece.
So really, there's only one thing we have to do to give meaning to our lives: appreciate.  If you've gone stargazing even once, you're already one of the most significant entities in the universe.  Don't let its size fool you.



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