"What's the meaning of life? What is the point of all this?" are questions that often plague our minds, especially after long days when the coffee is running low and nothing is going right.
Searching for meaning is a survival mechanism - a form of higher evolution that propels us intelligent species forward, evading death. Without meaning, we would likely collapse into an eternal misery that disables us from completing basic human functions - reproducing, building cultures, contributing to our societies, living.
And when we are probing for the answer to the meaning of life, for that little bit of illumination or reassurance that keeps us moving, we turn to items of comfort - the Bible, our loved ones, the fresh smell of the earth after a summer rainstorm, the wet nose and wagging tail of a dog happy to see you.
Throughout my life, I have found meaning in all of these things at some point or another. But there has always been one thing, one perpetual security blanket ready to envelop me with warmth, even on my darkest days.
It's there every night, constant and unwavering, infinitely patient, ready to restore in me the purpose and significance I need to carry on.
All I need to do is go outside and stare at the stars.
Gazing into the endless black depths of space, peppered with the occasional star (as we see in the light-polluted Oxford sky) may make you feel nothing but insignificant. Are we really just a tiny blue speck floating somewhere in the torso of the Milky Way galaxy, the unlikely result of a series of lucky events? Is our average star lost in the trillions of others that exist in the universe, one grain of sand on a lonely beach somewhere far away? Will we ever leave an imprint on the universe big enough to be noticed, or will we live and die on this little rocky world and slowly fade into the distance?
Ironically enough, I never find the answers to those questions when I look at the stars. I never find evidence that we aren't alone out there. I never discover where our souls go when we die.
So what do I learn?
That we are an essential stage of the universe's never-ending life cycle. We are continuously reincarnating.
A few years ago, I heard the quote "You are the universe experiencing itself." Back then, I didn't quite know what it meant, but today, I would call it my mantra, my meaning of life.
We were born from bits and pieces of the universe, spewed out from supernovas hot enough to fuse hydrogen and helium into heavier elements like carbon and oxygen. Add in a bit of energy, a bit of water and an environment where it can thrive, and boom, you have something that can replicate itself and metabolize - life in its simplest terms.
We are literally parts of the sum of the universe, walking puzzles whose pieces are made from what is around us.
If you are a Creationist, or believe that some supreme higher power constructed us and the space around us, you probably won't agree with me on this, and that's okay. I'm not trying to stray you away from your own belief systems, where you may find your own meaning, comfort and inspiration.
Or you may find it silly to turn our attention to stars light years away from us when our own planet is wrought with so many issues. Why funnel time and resources into missions that lead us nowhere, give us nothing? We have a tendency to assign value to only those things whose worth is immediately recognized, whose wealth can be immediately gained.
Maybe that half a penny of each tax dollar to NASA is too much.
Perhaps knowledge, perspective, an understanding of who we are and how we got here, simply isn't enough.
But to me, it is everything.
Millions of light years away, an intelligent species may be turning their giant telescopes toward us, and seeing the dinosaurs roaming.
That is significant.
If the universe is infinite, there are infinite possibilities that there are infinite versions of us existing on Earths identical to ours. There are also, then, infinite possibilities that on another Earth somewhere, I did not choose journalism as my major. Or perhaps I went to Ohio University instead of Miami. Maybe I didn't make the same mistakes I have in this life. Maybe I made worse.
That is comforting.
We emit photons - particles of light - that travel, of course, at the speed of light. Even after we die, even long after the matter in our bodies has reformed into something else - a flower, a bird, a molecule of nitrogen in the sky - the light we once reflected will travel on. And if the universe is infinite, our little photons will keep traveling forever. So, bits and pieces of us will live forever. We are, essentially, immortal.
That is meaningful.