We often hear the phrase ‘life is a journey.’ Our lives resemble a path from one place to another. That is why it is part of the fundamental questions of our existence. We ask ourselves: ‘Who am I?’ ‘Why am I here?’ ‘Where did I come from, and where am I going?’ In other words, where is our ultimate starting point, and where is our ultimate destination?
Our common sense tells us that life starts from one’s first birthday. By checking the birth certificate, anyone can understand the time and place their physical existence began. I don’t remember the moment I was born, as I was an innocent infant, but at least I know my birthday as a historical fact.
Is your life a journey? The answer could be both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ Yes, this information tells you the starting time and place of your physical existence, even though you don’t remember it. You were born in 19XX in the city of YY, and so on. As your life journey begins, you may move from one place to another and experience the turning points of your life, like graduation, marriage, getting hired, fired, becoming a parent, grandparent, and more. And indeed, there will be a time and place when your physical existence will end – the event is, of course, your death and the place will be where you will die. Like your birth certificate, your death certificate must be a crucial document that tells you the end of your physical existence. Is it the ultimate destination of life as a journey?”
Let’s reflect on the start of your life as a journey. While your physical existence began on your birthday, you might disagree that it is the start of your life journey, as you don’t even remember that you had your life as a journey at all. When did we realize that life is like a journey? It could be the moment when our consciousness was born. In other words, we can only know if life is a journey or not when we first ask ourselves where we came from, why we are here and now, and where we will go as our ultimate destination. Our conscious selves could be the trigger to realize that life is a journey from one place to another in a specific period. Only our consciousness tells us we are at a point in the vast spacetime continuum. And we don’t know where we are, but we are at a specific time and place in the universe.
Due to the birth of consciousness (which we probably experience at a certain moment), we suddenly realize the trembling truth that we are who we are. More existentially, ‘I am who I am.’
I am who I am, standing at the tiny point of ‘now’ and ‘here’ amid the vast, almost infinite universe. And we ask ourselves; you ask yourself; I ask myself – ‘Who am I?’ ‘Why am I who I am?’
If I am who I am, why am I not anyone else (including other creatures) but myself? I don’t know why. Why am I here and now if I am who I am? Why am I not in any other place and time of the universe? When I read history books about premodern cruelties, like how people killed and tortured one another, I can’t help but imagine if I am lucky because I was not born then.
We don’t have to go back to old history. Only decades ago, modern history told us a series of terrible cruelties and genocides, from concentration camps to nuclear bombs to ideological purges. I can’t help but think, what if I was born then and was one of the victims? Am I lucky? There are various divisions and gaps in different scales among our contemporary societies. Some are born rich; others are poor. Some are smart; others are not. There are various diversities in our physical, mental, and socio-cultural strata. Who is lucky? Who is unlucky? Again, let each of us ask this question:
‘Who am I?’ ‘Why am I who I am?’
Should we go back to our parents for answers? For example, I was born because my father and mother met each other when they were still single and decided to marry. How about each of my parents? My mother also has her parents, and so does my father, and so do their parents and their parents. If you go back ten generations, your ‘parents’ are already 1,022 people. And each of these 1,022 individuals has the same scale of genealogy. But that is still a tiny, tiny fragment of human history from the scale of the planet’s history and the universe.
We use another timescale called the ‘geologic time scale’ (GTS) for the earth’s history. From this perspective, 4.6 billion years of earth’s history consists of four eons called the Hadean, Archean, Proterozoic, and Phanerozoic. And we humans belong to the Phanerozoic Eon, which started with the Cambrian explosion and experienced the Permian extinction and countless other climate changes, divided into three eras: the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic. The Cenozoic Era means ‘new life’ for the last 66 million years of the earth’s history with mammals, birds, and flowering plants, a cooling and drying climate, and the current configuration of continents. In proportionate representation, our human history seems thinner than a tiny piece of hair in the blink of an eye.
In the universe, there could be around 1×1024 stars. Most of them are invisible to our naked eyes, including all the stars outside our galaxy. The Milky Way is only one of the countless, various galaxies, a gravitationally bound system of stars, stellar remnants, interstellar gas, dust, and even what we call dark matter. And, of course, the earth itself is also a tiny, tiny piece.
Those galaxies have ranged in size from those with a few hundred million stars to others with one hundred trillion stars. Each is rotating itself, holding the center of mass. But then, such a group of galaxies is just one of the countless galaxy clusters, which are structures that consist of anywhere from hundreds to thousands of various galaxies bound together by gravity from 1014 to 1015 solar masses. Beyond the countless galaxy clusters, there are many galaxy superclusters. A galaxy supercluster is a large group of numerous galaxy clusters of galaxies and is among the most massive known structures of the observable universe.
The Milky Way, where we live and die, is merely a tiny part of the various local galaxy clusters, which in turn is a small part of the superclusters such as the Virgo Supercluster, which is still part of the Laniakea Supercluster. The number of such superclusters in the observable universe could be around 10 million. Such galaxy superclusters are tiny parts of the so-called galaxy filaments, the most massive known structures in the observable universe. They are huge, thread-like formations with a typical length of 200 to 500 million light-years that form the boundaries between large voids in the universe.
It sounds mind-blowing. We don’t know why, but we can still imagine the scale of the universe endlessly; at the same time, we still ask this fundamental question:
‘Who am I?’ ‘Why am I who I am, not anyone or anything else?’ And ‘why am I here and now, not any other time and place?’
In this ‘thought experiment,’ we can always recall the following line of ‘Auguries of Innocence’ by William Blake.
To see a World in a Grain of SandAuguries of Innocence by William Blake
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
When we ask ourselves: ‘Who am I?’ ‘Why am I who I am, not anyone or anything else?’ And ‘why am I here and now, not any other time and place?’ We are like seeing the universe in a grain of sand, the heaven, and earth in a wildflower.
I am who I am. But I don’t know all the other ‘whys.’ This way, I hold infinity in the palm of my hand as if eternity in an hour. Life is a journey in a grain of sand. From the eye of a tiny piece, we see infinity and eternity. You are as trivial as a pebble, and so is your life journey. There is no such thing as a unique piece of anything. But it can be infinite and eternal only when we surrender all the questions of ‘whys’ because there is no reason why this grain of sand is different from the others. Nevertheless, each is part of infinity and eternity beyond all the dazzling scales of spacetime from my life, your life, our lives, the age of galaxies and universe, etc.
In your life as a journey, if we can see a world and heaven, you can hold infinity at every moment of your life, each step of your journey. When did it start? Where is it going? Don’t worry. Life is in your hand, which means in God’s hand.
Image by Leonardo Thomas