I had an epiphany the other day.
I was driving to my home, in the inner north of Brisbane, from Archerfield on the southside of the town. The route is a curious one – Ipswich Road, the main arterial from the city centre through the south-west of the greater Brisbane, along its entire length passes through a series of what one might have once called “working class suburbs”; Woolloongabba, Buranda, Annerley, Moorooka, Rocklea, Archerfield, Wacol, Darra and so on, all the way to Ipswich. One could describe these suburbs as poor or poorer than average, thought that’s clearly relative; most people around the world would give their left hand or an equivalent for a chance to live there. These suburbs are certainly demographically older, as are most of the houses, wood or weatherboard with an admixture of the 1970s brick. In line with the lower socio-economic status, the whole 40-kilometre long belt leans heavily towards Labor. I have always found the Ipswich Road corridor somewhat melancholy. Weathered houses and weathered people, treeless streets under the broad blue sky, all somewhat forlorn, dusty and dusky, somewhat run-down and struggling. It’s not snobbery; it was my home for ten years after coming to Australia, I know these places well, but somehow they always make me feel sad when I see them again.
About halfway through the drive, my mind’s eye all of a sudden captured a snapshot of a few houses along the street, grass somewhat too long, rickety fences, a little corner store closed on a Sunday, its sign peeling and grey. I couldn’t see any life or movement, but I could imagine people inside reading the Sunday newspaper, TV murmuring in the background, maybe lunch on the stove, or maybe not at home but driving somewhere else at the moment, like me.
And then, instead of more melancholy, I thought: how beautiful and extraordinary it is.
Earth and our solar system are on the periphery of our galaxy, the Milky Way. There are somewhere between 100 and 400 billion other stars in our galaxy. The number is meaningless and unimaginable to most people; we can’t really picture 400 billion of anything. Just like 400 billion dollars is completely abstract – and as equally would be any way of conceptualising that number, like stacking pallets of 100 dollar notes or laying the notes them end to end – so are 400 billion stars. But that’s not all of it. Astronomers think that the number of galaxies in the universe is somewhere between 200 billion and 2 trillion, or 2 thousand billion. Each with its own tens or hundreds of billions of stars. The universe might as well be infinite as far as our limited minds go; it’s not only unimaginably vast, it’s composed of an unimaginable number of smaller units, each unimaginably tiny in the ocean of empty space.
Is there life elsewhere, beyond Earth? We don’t know. Amongst all the trillions and trillions of solar systems there might be a likewise unimaginable number of instances of life, from the simplest possible to galaxy-spanning super-civilisations, each one probably so completely alien to us that we would have problems conceptualising them within the framework we can understand – that is if we could even perceive them with our senses in the first place. Or we might actually be completely alone. Or the number might be somewhere in between.
Neither science nor religion can provide answers. Science can at this stage only speak in terms of models and probabilities, but we can’t even be sure about all the possible variables. Depending on how you tweak the numbers you can arrive at anything from zero to 100 per cent, but it’s all just guesswork in the end. All the gods that humans have worshipped from the dawn of time have not been particularly forthcoming on this issue either. Would a god the creator of the entire universe create or lay the conditions for the emergence of virtually limitless varieties of life or would such a god just settle on planet Earth? It seems a bit of waste to create such a vast universe and put life in only one place, but this is just human logic speaking.
The universe might be teeming with life, but we simply don’t know. And we might never know, because the distances of space and time between are insurmountable. As far as we are concerned, we are the only ones; the only place where in addition to the blind operation of physical forces and chemical reactions there is not just life, but there is intelligent and conscious life that perceives and in turn creates.
This is what makes my snapshot somewhere between Ipswich and Brisbane so extraordinary; a miracle in fact. Never mind the International Space Station, the skyscrapers of Manhattan, Taj Mahal, or the Sistine Chapel; never mind all the other heights of human imagination and creativity, the lofty peaks of intellect or beauty. Even if none of them existed, and the humanity’s sole achievement were these few run down houses and a corner shop with a peeling sign, what a wonder that would be, how profoundly exceptional in the universe otherwise of burning stars, barren planets, chunks of rock and ice hurling through space, gas and dust.
So ordinary can be extraordinary. Ordinary is extraordinary. All you need to do is to learn to see it that way. Once you do, you will never look at anything the same way again.
This was my epiphany the other day. I didn’t have to drive to Damascus, which is both inconvenient and dangerous. Fortunately for me, enlightenment can happen anywhere and at any time. Even on a road back home.