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Sizing up the world

We find ourselves navigating an ever-shrinking world full of super-sized distractions

Elayne Clift writes regularly in these pages about politics, women, and social issues.

Saxtons River

When I was a kid, our hero was Superman, the mild-mannered guy who brought petty criminals to justice while flying around in a cape. Today’s heroes are animated, mechanized, robotic superheroes who battle intergalactically for control of the universe.

Remember when movies simply had stars we loved to watch? (In my day, it was Bogie and Bacall, Cary Grant, and Sophia Loren.) Now, it seems all actors are superstars, giant novae on screen or stage regardless of talent.

We used to call nations “countries.” Now we talk about super powers. We shop super-saver sales, eat oversized meals, drive ever-larger vehicles, and live in McMansions, if we can afford them.

Once, when we got sick, it was just a bug. Today, we live in fear of superbugs that challenge science to find stronger antibiotics before an expected pandemic takes hold. We’re talking about manipulating what might be called “super genes,” which offer some health benefits while raising serious ethical questions.

Even with matters out of our control in what we refer to as “the natural world,” there was a time when a storm was just a storm that shut down schools and workplaces for a few days.

Today, we have superstorms that are massive, frighteningly powerful, and proliferating, along with huge, uncontrolled fires and monstrous earthquakes.

* * *

Somehow, perhaps aside from natural disasters, it seems the smaller our world becomes externally, by virtue of the speed of the internet and travel, the larger we want quantitative, measurable elements in our lives to be, as though having large things will bring us comfort or safety in a world that feels oddly squeezed and vaguely ominous. We seek bigness like babies want their blankies.

There is a certain irony in our weird appreciation of largeness. We simultaneously hug our metaphorical stuffed animals while watching our world both shrink and enlarge. The more threatening our outer world becomes, the more reduced and inconsequential we feel in our essential interiority — that quiet, private place wherein we reflect, ruminate, remember, feel afraid, and make meaning.

That piece of us informs what we call personality. It defines our identity, our sense of purpose, our place in the world.

Once, when I was in Africa’s Serengeti, I was seized by an almost panicky feeling of claustrophobia. Surrounded by endless open plain, I felt trapped by the very vastness around me. “How do I get out,” I wondered, “if I become ill? Where do I retreat to for help? Where is the exit ramp?”

I felt that same kind of near-panic briefly recently, during Hurricane Irma while fires were burning in the West and Mexico was being rocked by an magnitude-8.1 earthquake. North Korea was saber-rattling, and terrorism was ever on the horizon.

To where could one escape for safety on the whole of the Earth, which suddenly seemed insufficient, tiny, crowded?

I imagine what I felt was similar to what refugees experience as they flee famine and violence, lost in the vastness of new and mysterious terrain while simultaneously trapped in a small and shrinking unknown environment.

* * *

At the same time I felt claustrophobic in Africa, the landscape and the magnificent animals who live there made me aware of how small a place I hold in the cosmos.

What was I in the vastness of time, of place, of history? What difference did my being make?

In 100 years, hopefully the animals will still roam the Serengeti. But who would know that I had lived? What did I really matter in the entire realm of being?

I think many of us feel that way, although we might not be attuned to it. We sense that we are part of a vast, virtual, oversized, impersonal computer-screened community that dupes us into thinking that we are engaging with a world full of big things and grand ideas, even as that world becomes ever more entrapping.

Still, something gnaws at us, at our essential interiority, our ruminating, fearful, lonely, and sometimes joyful selves. A sense of aloneness, of smallness and irrelevance, casts a shadow, and we wonder where we really fit in the scheme of things.

How do we know that we exist in a meaningful way? To whom shall we confess our fear of being lost in an unrecognizable crowd? How shall we proceed, divested from the largess of modern life, to find our place in a hopefully more sanguine world?

We dream big, and so we should; dreams are not meant to be diminished.

But we also stand alone in the wilderness, amid a vacant bigness, seeking to find in our larger-than-life dreams the pleasures and rewards of life’s small satisfactions.

Achieving that, perhaps we could let go of angst and safely live in a world devoid of super-sized distractions.

That would be a welcome reality.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #431 (Wednesday, October 25, 2017). This story appeared on page D1.

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