Sometimes I sit and watch water drops form and fall in the sink. One at a time. A small bead gathers on the faucet’s tip, its surface swarming with the water. Then it begins to fall, stretching into a strained neck that clips itself apart and separates into a falling droplet.
For those brief milliseconds, a world forms on the tense surface of the drop. It’s not attached to anything. An individual drop. At first I thought of the literal world of microbes and particulates swarming and whirring through the bead, like H.G. Wells describes at the opening of the War of the Worlds, “transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”
The rotifers and paramecium stretch and move along the drop, but then their world shatters like falling glass and rolls down the drain.
I soon imagined a world like ours: skyscrapers, cathedrals, complicated ideas. The infusoria building houses, getting an education, pondering their future, framing an ethical code, “finding themselves,” getting married, divorcing, fighting, killing, preaching, and dying amid the ritual and fanfare of civility. Then their world fragments and drains away.
The Earth, a single collection of rock and gas that happens to harbor life–and intelligent life at that–seems like a miracle, unique and praiseworthy. Our lives as individuals gain the same unique worth. In a way, we each are miracles living on a miracle. Yet, we are small, short-lived, and isolated.
We build our lives, our identities, our cathedrals of stone and idea on water droplets. Our Earth is a speck suspended in a sunbeam, revolving around a humdrum star in some insignificant corner of a galaxy adrift in a universe with more galaxies afloat than stars in the Milky Way. Astronomers trace the shifting web of galaxy into the arched ridges of “soap bubbles.” Earth is just one microbe lost in the web. The universe has been around for over 14 billion years, the Earth for about 4 billion, humanity for a few thousand.
We live as a species in a fraction of geological time, and as individuals a fraction of that fraction.
Yet we think ourselves superior to the microbes living in the drop of water who think their world complete, eternal. Our world must end as their world ends. Nothing last forever, not the stars or the stony planets that gather their light. We too live on water droplets.
A sort of feeling comes over me when this thought sinks into my heart, the same sort of feeling that hits me when I’m tossed into a crowd on a busy city sidewalk that can’t even hear individual footsteps, or when I wander home at night and linger in cafes, watching the lonely customers walk by, buy a coffee, gazing at their shoes, and wander home. Others sit at tables and flick through Facebook. Couples holding hands walk into townhouses, utterly enclosed by their love into a dazed fog, an island.
I can’t help but falter. I try to grasp a word–and image–but I grasp at a horizon of longing and uncertainty, angst and strange happiness. It’s terrifying, like a free fall with no bottom. I grapple with the air. I can’t see us existing any other way. It’s as if we must build our world on flecks of foam and tense water droplets tripping through the air, until it dissolves and conjoins with something bigger, forming on the faucet again, not the same droplet, but the same water. What that something is, I don’t know, if it’s anything at all.
But it’s a profound lesson in humility, rendering our differences and disagreements petty and our pleasures and purposes all the more precious.