I’ve spent the last month struggling somewhat with fully grasping what exactly it is that we feel when coming in contact with something beautiful. It’s not a feeling that I get too often, thankfully, because if I did I might not get through the day — being overwhelmed by the complexity of the world around us is certainly an important part of life, but it can be counterproductive if it is constant. Maybe it has something to do with me watching The Lord of the Rings again and beginning a re-read of The Return of the King, but this isn’t a feeling I’ve had for the first time, and I think everyone has experienced it at some point in their lives.
It’s not something solely related to writing, either — it comes suddenly, as a yearning to listen to music that elicits a sort of nostalgia for things we’ve never actually experienced, when looking at a horizon we will never really be able to do justice with a camera, or even as a sudden thing, when you (like me) are lying on the couch near midnight and realizing that it’s been a while since you’ve just taken a moment to breathe.
Maybe it’s happened with more frequency recently because my time in Israel is slowly nearing its end and I know that I will never experience these people and places in the same way again; or because of the new photos of Pluto NASA has been able to capture, showing us a world so distant and yet suddenly made so close to us; or because of the knowledge that somewhere out there is a planet very much like ours, though it may be 500 light years away and we may not be sure that it is like ours… but aren’t the possibilities, and even the idea that maybe it’s completely different from anything we’ve ever seen before, what makes it all so fascinating?
And it’s not only something that takes place when looking outwards at the endless distance stretching out from Earth into the universe — it also comes when looking down at something as small as an ant, and suddenly being aware of a life that is completely removed from ours and different in almost every way — what keeps the ant working, how long will it live, what places has it seen that we, with our (comparatively) massive size, will never be able to see or touch? And when looking at the ruins of what once was a large sprawling city, realizing that we are walking in the very footsteps millions of others must have left behind, people who are now forgotten and whose names were likely never even recorded anywhere, and understanding with an overwhelming sense of awe that they must have all led lives as complex and interesting as ours; and though we are unable to know them now, touching the very same stones they touched with our hands makes us feel a fleeting sort of connection through time — as if in some way, we are being sympathetic to their cause, to their hopes and dreams and struggles, and thankful for whatever fleeting influence they left upon our planet.
What makes us feel excitement about things we will never be able to fully experience, and cannot be sure that even our children or grandchildren will experience? There isn’t really a scientific explanation for it — there isn’t much evolutionary advantage in standing still watching the sunset, and yet it’s one of those things that almost everyone is likely to have done. You could say that it pushes us onwards to create, to learn, to make more things that can create feelings, like stories and music and poetry — maybe this longing is what invented art, made us discover art and the thrills it could cause us.
“Man ever aspires to greater heights and loftier goals. He ever seeks to attain a world surpassing that which he occupies.
This love of transcendence is one of the hallmarks of man.”
-Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions