Looking Out, Looking In and the Stress of It All

This first appeared in Death Zone and Other Stories by Pantoum Press in 2011.  If you enjoy it, please share.


It’s called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). It’s an accurate if unimaginative name for the world’s most powerful telescope, designed to let terrestrial-bound people observe the vastness of the universe. Then, at the opposite end of the scientific spectrum, there is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), designed to pinpoint the smallest fragments of matter that literally hold everything together.

Why do we build these things? It is the inevitable and perhaps unconquerable quest to answer two questions: How did we get here? Are we alone?

I like these two questions. They really do encompass all the smaller questions like ‘is there a god?’ and ‘is there intelligent life in the galaxy besides us?’ ‘Were we created, or did life occur spontaneously out of random happenstance?’ These are the Big Questions, and the answers are worth pursuing.

SETI-radio-arraySearch for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is an organization that has been around for decades, attempting to find intelligent life in the universe, and so far it has come up zilch. Still, they try. I like that they try, and that they don’t just settle for some possible hypothesis and decide to believe it. Seek evidence. Build big telescopes. Smash protons. Try to learn.

But there is a third question that these atom-smashing, universe-scoping scientists are not pursuing. It’s equally important to us as sentient creatures; no… it is more important. It is simply, ‘How can we be truly happy?’

I say ‘simply’ but it is really far from simple. Now, I’m not talking about being happy about being in love with a wonderful person, or being happy because you got a new phone or a new car or a dream job. These things do make us happy, but they are not sustaining. It’s temporary and superficial. It is certainly not universal. Being truly happy seems like it should be achievable, yet it evades us on so many levels. Why is genuine happiness so difficult to attain? I think the reason is because we are pursuing answers to the first two questions, ‘how did we get here?’ and ‘are we alone?’

Here me out on this. With SETI for example, we’re looking for other, intelligent life in the universe. These same people who are looking are also contemplating ‘what if’; the possibilities of finding what they seek. ‘What if’ we make contact with aliens, and they are cruel, advanced creatures who enslave mankind? The folks working with the LHC are considering, ‘what if’ we smash some protons and create a chain-reaction that causes all matter to separate? These are scary propositions… really frightening to contemplate, but you have to consider the negative possibilities.

On a lesser level, we all have worries. ‘What if’ the global economy does not recover? ‘What if’ I get laid-off at work? ‘What if’ my wife leaves me? ‘What if’ I don’t pass that algebra test? We worry… what if.

Now I present for your consideration, four data-entry clerks. These folks type in names and addresses all day, every day, over and over. It’s not stimulating work, and it takes a specific type of mind to be able to do this same task and only this task, over and over, without going mad. A mind that requires more stimulus would simply not survive in this work environment. It would mentally go up to the roof and leap to its doom to escape such dull servitude. Yet these four data-entry clerks flourish in their work. Yes, they get bored, but they find simple things to entertain them. Someone is typing in a last name like “Nippert,” and it sounds a little like “nipple.” Laughs all round for the rest of the afternoon over that.

I’ve observed these people. The thing about them is, by and large, they seem happy. Yes, it makes them sad when they have to stay late to finish the work, or when someone eats their yogurt that they put in the fridge, but mostly, they are happy. They aren’t thinking about aliens enslaving us, or oil gushing endlessly into the ocean, or the war in Iraq that drags on. And that is the brilliance of the four data-entry clerks. They just don’t think about it, and they are happier than… me.

Yeah, now it’s about me. Isn’t that always the way? But I do think about the things going wrong in the world and all the things I think are being done erroneously, and it worries me. It makes me angry. It causes me to lose sleep. And really, I have zero control over any of these things. I don’t know how to fix them, even if I did have some influence. And that makes me unhappy, too.

So really then, who is smarter? Is it the four data-entry clerks who just go through life, delightfully oblivious to the bigger issues in the world, or me, worried by the wrongs in the world that I cannot control? How I envy those four data-entry clerks their happiness.

Ignorance may be bliss, but it is not a choice, and either you have it or you do not.

This worries me.


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