A slap of reality from a cartoon scientist

One cool spring night a few years ago, I drove out to the desert with my two best friends. We passed around a bottle, and made jokes, and played guitar, and finally just lay looking up in silence at the stars. And after a few minutes, a strange feeling came over me.

To put this feeling in context, I’d recently fallen out the bad end of a failed romance — the kind that, after the first few days of reeling, leaves you with the realization that you’ve packed away your true self in a box somewhere in the basement of your brain, and you can barely remember what it felt like to be you before this all started. I felt small when we drove out to the desert that night.

But as I lay there watching the stars, I started remembering their names — thunderous fantasy-character names like Aldebaran and Antares and the Pleiades. I thought about the light-years of distance — and the thousands of years of time — between me and the sources of those lights. I thought about the photons hurled all that distance, across all those centuries, to finally collide with my retinas at 186,000 miles per second and set off singing choruses of neurons and dances of neurotransmitter chemicals in my optic nerve and occipital lobe.

I suddenly felt both microscopic and enormous. Microscopic because the mind-shattering hugeness of the universe felt inescapably real; enormous because I’d suddenly remembered that this kind of cosmic wonder is exactly what I live for. It’s why I started The Connectome. It’s why I write essays on monsters of the abyss and millennia-old Mesopotamian empires and the birth of mathematics from the Palaeolithic mists.

The more I learn about history and biology and neuroscience and physics and astronomy, the more everything looks like one astonishingly vast and interconnected organism/machine — which of course it is — and my endless wonder at this realization comes rushing out of me, through me, through any and every creative medium I can get my hands on.

That, I remembered that night, is who I am.

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I thought back to that night again this week, as my friend and I were talking about the TV show Rick and Morty. Whether or not you’ve watched it (and I highly recommend you do), here’s a quick spoiler-free summary:

Rick Sanchez seems to be a stereotypical mad scientist who lives and works in the garage of his suburban sitcom family. The first few episodes deliver the kind of cartoon comedy you’d expect from this formula — but soon a darker truth starts to emerge: Rick is on the underdog side of a very real power struggle against very dangerous people; and each of his loopy Fear and Loathing-esque capers turns out to serve a completely necessary purpose — usually to hide his family or protect them from an incoming threat he’s anticipated.

In the sitcom suburbs, Rick’s behavior seems eccentric if not hazardously insane. But the more we, the viewers, discover the real context in which Rick operates, the more his down-to-earth suburban family start to look like wilfully oblivious infants, while Rick himself starts to look like the only level-headed character on the show.

As my friend and I talked about Rick and Morty — and about how surprised we were to have gotten so hooked on its plot — I remembered what he’d told me the night we’d sat staring at the stars, when I’d described my realization to him.

He’d said, “It sounds like one-to-one intimacy with reality as a whole.”

Sounds New-Agey, doesn’t it? But that’s not at all what he meant.

What I experienced that night was not some kind of sensual union with “The Universe” as an abstract concept. It was a personal confrontation with the reality that the universe — not just the world, or the stars, but the entire quarks-to-galaxies clockwork comprising everything there is — is an incredibly real, incredibly intricate; incredibly dangerous beast that dwarfs me at every scale; and I love that beast like I love my own body.

In short, I remembered the scope in which I truly operated. And I remembered that in the full-scale world, I had Things to Do.

If you know this feeling, you know how easy it is to lose your sense of the context that sustains it. The suburban sitcom life gets comfortable.

Maybe someone puts arms around you and tells you you belong there; that you’re loved for your silly eccentricity; that you’re always welcome as the mad scientist in the garage.

And so the sharp-edged clarity that fired and forged your mission starts to slip away, leaving behind only its amusing byproducts; those quips and quirks that make folks smile and say, “Isn’t he cute? Oh, we love our little mad scientist.”

This is a kind of living death.

But we all fall into this death sometimes, because operating on the real scale, the true scale, can be a lonely business.

Japanese philosophers understood this when they described wabi-sabi — a concept that’s been de-clawed by modern interior decorators, but in its classical sense connotes a “serene melancholy;” a lonely intimacy with the full scale of ever-shifting reality.

This sounds a lot more melodramatic than it really is. The simple truth is that the more things you see straight-on and clearly, the less coherent you start to sound to many people. Which is, of course, exactly how paranoid schizophrenics justify their behavior.

The difference is that you, eventually, will be proven right.

You hope.

That hope doesn’t always measure up to more immediate pleasures, does it? The simple joys of being accepted into a social circle, or being liked by someone you want to like you, or just taking some time off…

All of those things are fine. Great. Dandy.

Sooner or later, though, you’ll find yourself walking alone in a new city, or lying under the stars in the desert — or maybe sitting among friends or dancing in a crowded club — and you’ll remember there used to be more to you than this. You used to know about something — something really important — and for the life of you, you can’t remember what it is; but your world used to feel so big and lately it’s felt so small.

And though you may try to distract yourself with movies and books and friends and drinks, and that may work for a long while, one night you’re going to find yourself all alone (even if you’re in a roomful of friends), and you’ll remember that your loneliness was once a thing of fire and lightning; a chasm filled with everything; a signless road that leads everywhere.

That’s when, in a flash, you’ll remember that in your actual full-scale context, every weird thing you do serves an entirely straightforward, logical purpose.

When you fill in the gaps that’ve emerged between your entertaining eccentricities; when you unbox all those boxed-up connections and components and fit your full self back together, you remember that a) you are far more bizarre than your suburban sitcom friends ever guessed, and b) you are exactly what’s necessary for the task ahead.

Welcome back to the full-scale world. We’ve missed you. Let’s get to work.

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