In 2014 when I saw the movie Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), I understood it as a movie about an elderly man struggling against his growing irrelevance. My wife understood it as a movie about a delusional narcissist. From my perspective—that of a nearly 60-year-old man—the lead character’s delusions were a fun plot device that added whimsy and drama and special effects to the movie. But at the movie’s core, I watched Michael Keaton’s character struggle with irrelevance…life passed him by, his career had run its course, and late in his career he struggled to be relevant, be seen as relevant, feel relevant.
Not that I am so very old, but irrelevance is a threat that grows over time as tastes and styles and technology push “life” along…knowing and reading the Classics seems passé, knowing and understanding history seems irrelevant, living anywhere but “in the moment” seems dated. Thus each morning while I stare at my lathered face in the mirror I see Yeats’s “smiling public man” and worry/wonder that maybe I am only his “old scarecrow,” just old clothes on sticks to scare away the birds (is this reference to a 1920s poem even relevant?). I began to recognize in the mirror the same character that I had watched in Birdman: An elderly man struggling against irrelevance.
But then a revelation came to me...
On a Saturday afternoon, I watched a television program about the Milky Way and its place in the universe. Naturally, the descriptions of the Milky Way used numbers like billions and trillions and zillions for time and distance and amount: “Our nearest neighboring galaxy is 147 million billion miles away and contains 200 billion stars,” or “The black hole at the center of the Milky Way contains the mass of 100 million stars compacted into an immeasurable density. All this matter began after a Big Bang that happened about 14 billion years ago…” things like that.
Pretty quickly, I began to feel so utterly insignificant sitting in my TV-viewing chair watching my giant flat-screen TV, that my insignificance could only be measured in hundredths of millionths of trillionths or whatever it is that makes up a single, infinitesimal piece of nothing. Not only could I not been seen from a jetliner flying above my house, my house couldn’t be seen from a satellite, my state couldn’t be seen from the Sun, and my Sun couldn’t be seen from that black hole right in the middle of my very own galaxy. Overwhelming insignificance.
As I continued to watch and listen, I became fascinated by the ability of the program’s producers, artists, and writers to create for me a new understanding of where I am: On the outer edge of a relatively small galaxy that came to be from a Big Bang that threw an infinitely large amount of energy and mass into existence. The effect of that blast and the extent of its energy are expanding even today.
We have tools that detect infinitely large and infinitesimally tiny parts of the universe and we have math sentences that explain how all this works. At times, we’ve had to develop new math sentences to explain why the old math doesn’t hold up any more…the Universe is too diverse to be explained by one math or one physics. We have math sentences that explain why certain realities exist and other math sentences that explain why opposite realities probably exist, too.
My revelation: I am not really so insignificant as I’d feared. If my brain—just a regular human brain—could process and imagine and define and interpret something so complexly and hugely gigantic as the Universe, then what a wonder it is to be a human. If I can contain in my brain the entire Universe, even as it continues to expand infinitely, then the Universe can’t possibly be greater than I. My existence must be relevant if only because my knowledge and understanding continue to grow.
And thus, my blog. I am hoping not for a new math or a new physics, but for new understandings, new explanations, new observations…I want to assert my continued relevance by offering my growing understanding and knowledge…what Yeats calls, “hammered gold and gold enameling.” I hope someone is out there to find it relevant.