In the 2014 movie Men, Women, and Children, one of the characters is a teenage boy grappling with his mother abandoning him, losing interest in playing football, meeting a girl he likes, and other experiences of teenage angst. In viewing a YouTube video of Carl Sagan talking about the Pale Blue Dot, he becomes aware of the relative smallness of human life on earth. On one hand, this new perspective emboldens him to rebel against the conventions of his own community and gives him a certain courage, such as talking to a young woman he is interested in and deciding to stop playing football. On the other hand, his interpretation of his newfound big-picture perspective carries a certain darkness and nihilism with it that leads to a crisis of meaning for the young man.

I could really relate to the character of the young man. I remember as a teenager myself becoming aware of the cosmos and also found this broader perspective to be very liberating to my specific life on earth. And like the character in the movie, I also felt a darker aspect of my liberation, a feeling that “nothing matters.” In my mind, it was this “nothing matters” that was the pre-condition for my newfound freedom to choose, to act independently, to make my own decisions. Although I made many mistakes in exercising this liberation, I also felt that I could love and care and be kind to others, not out of obligation or convention, but as a free choice and responsibility because “nothing matters.”

Recently, however, I had a “lightbulb moment,” probably due to an increased tolerance for paradox that seems to come with age. I realized that the cosmic perspective doesn’t only equate to “nothing matters” as things come into perspective for us. It also makes the specificity of a life on earth all the sweeter, rarer, and even more meaningful, as we experience our lives in this context of awe. I could just as easily say “everything matters”. Nothing matters and everything matters — apparent opposites that are both true at the same time. And both are interpretations of one big-picture, cosmic awareness that is just as liberating today as it was when I was a teenager becoming aware of the Pale Blue Dot for the first time.

Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot