When events seem too much, what better solace than a reminder that they are, if you zoom out to a different timescale, indistinguishable from nothing at all?
If planet Earth were a human being, I was informed the other day, it would be about 40, or halfway through its expected lifespan. I learned this when I was six, and it kinda messed me up, wrote Keith Karraker, a chemistry teacher who posted it on Twitter. By the same yardstick, humans have been using tools for a week and a half, and first left Africa about eight hours ago. (A more famous analogy involves imagining that the world began this time yesterday; by that yardstick, humans arrived only one second ago.)
People usually make this kind of point as a warning: look how briefly weve been here, yet were about to ruin everything, thanks to climate change, or mass extinctions, or the short and itchy nuclear trigger-finger of the American president. But recently, Ive been finding this perspective-shift oddly consoling. Think of it as Insignificance Therapy: when events just seem like too much, what better solace than a reminder that they are, if you zoom out to a different timescale, indistinguishable from nothing at all?
Whether you find this reassuring is, I suspect, a matter of personality type. Are you the kind of person who is shocked or comforted to realise as the philosopher Bryan Magee explains in his recent book, Ultimate Questions that if you divided history into 100-year portions, each representing one centenarians life, then just 20 lifetimes would take you back to Jesus? And 21 to Julius Caesar? Even a paltry 10 take us back before the Norman conquest, Magee writes. As for the Renaissance, it is only half a dozen people away.
Human history, you suddenly realise, seems long only because we compare it to our experience of minutes, weeks and years. But why choose that comparison? Look at things more objectively, and we begin to seem preposterously parochial in time, as Magee puts it: obsessed with our tiny corner, as if it were everything. Sometimes, it blows my mind that theres now a tiny person in our house whos never yet experienced (for example) the month of June. Yet the truth is that, as a proportion of all the time theres ever been, Ive had barely more experience than him. In the scheme of things, were all newborns.
Among psychologists, the received wisdom is that feelings of insignificance are distressing. But they almost always mean insignificance compared with other people: celebrities, formidable parents, hyper-accomplished friends. Consider cosmic insignificance, though, and these status differences vanish. And you neednt agonise too much about big life decisions, either, because they dont really matter. How could they?
The trick is to find consolation in this without becoming a nihilist; to see the fleetingness of this corner of time as a reason to care about people and events, not to disengage. Either way, though, all will be well, providing your vantage-point is high enough. Even if humanity is no more. I guess what Im saying is dont worry, Karraker concluded. Earth will still have so much potential after weve destroyed it.