Viewed from an altitude of 37,000 feet, the Earth looks a lot different than our everyday experience.

The majestic Rockies are a bumpy patch of acne. Mighty rivers look like static, crooked lines. Teeming cities become their smoggy, Google Earth counterparts.

We build our lives in these places, we take vacations to them, we photograph them in order to precisely relive their beauty at a later time. We make clear distinctions between desolate, flat farmland and the beauty of California, where mountains meet the sea.

But from high above, the differences between these places are blurred.

***

The place where I work is made up of several buildings that surround a courtyard. There is a pond in the courtyard and a small, man-made waterfall. There are trees and grass. And there is a also network of sidewalks in this courtyard that shuffles us workers between buildings.

On one particular sidewalk, there is a place where ants cross from one plot of grass to another. I often stop to watch the ants speed down their narrow highway, wondering where they are going with such single-minded conviction. Sometimes traffic increases, and their roads widen. Sometimes I find them in the process of dismantling a dead wasp, breaking it into pieces and carrying it back to their hidden home.

Occasionally misfortune befalls the highway, and the ants are forced to clean up a group of their suddenly-dead brothers.

Imagine what an ant-produced television news segment might be like:

“Yet another giant footstep kills hundreds on I-280! Field reporter Buggy Buggerson interviews surviving worker ants tonight at 10!”

To ants, an average rainstorm is like Hurricane Katrina. Thousands wash away. Hundreds drown.

Every time a kid knocks down one of their carefully constructed hills, the ants lose their homes and are forced to rebuild.

Your average drainage ditch is the Grand Canyon.

But size isn’t the only difference between humans and ants. We’re also a bit smarter than them. Right?

I mean, we can calculate the orbits of planets and the relationship between speed and time, but we still go around killing each other for money. Or turf. We strap on diapers and shit ourselves during cross-country drives to murder rival astronaut girlfriends.

Is it a blessing or a curse that our minds, powerful as they may be, are so influenced by emotion?

To a biologist, emotions are governed by mappable, electrochemical processes. They can be altered chemically or physically. I can trigger a release of dopamine by drinking alcohol. Doctors prescribe all sorts of drugs that influence (for better or worse) the brain’s delicate chemical balance.

If emotions are so easily influenced by mechanical processes, how should we define them? Are they really as special as we like to believe?

Admittedly, thinking of the world this way–from a purely mechanical point of view–is not very romantic. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t accurate. Romance itself is an emotion, in fact, a filter through which we interpret the world.

And yet these are the brains we have. How would we interpret the world except through these emotionally-charged minds?

Just because we humans imagine the universe in a certain way, just because we like to impart meaning on inanimate objects and places, just because we look for patterns in events that might ultimately be random, it doesn’t mean it is necessarily the only way or even the best way.

How do we know someone or something isn’t watching us like we watch ants, observing our human struggles with a sort of amused detachment and maybe a little pity…pity that our understanding of the world is so limited?

I wonder if we would better off knowing more or knowing less? If it turns out the universe is meaningless, if it really is nothing more than a soup of matter and energy brewing in spacetime, would you like to know exactly how it works? Or would you rather be oblivious, a worker trudging back and forth on the ant highway, day after day, blindly working toward a goal that will never become clear to you?

When you die, does it matter at all?

Does it matter even now?

For the moment I leave these questions to you. I’ll be chasing a little white ball around a plot of grass for the next few days.

-R

Let’s talk about relativity.

For every observer, things seem slightly different. From a physics point of view, you do not occupy the same location in space as anyone else, and you might be moving at different velocities, and so on.

This is why using astrology for anything other than entertainment seems silly to me. Constellations don’t physically exist. A group of stars that from the Earth seem to form the shape of a bull could in reality be millions of light years apart and share no relationship with each other whatsoever. They only form the shape of a bull from where we’re looking.

If I were the citizen of a third world nation, it probably wouldn’t piss me off when someone insisted on driving slow in the left lane of the freeway. There might not be a freeway. And in any case I wouldn’t be in a hurry to get to the golf course.

I’ve written blogs in the past about people who refuse to leave a one-stall buffer when they join you in the bathroom. If I were homeless, I probably wouldn’t worry about something so insignificant.

But something that seems insignificant to me could be important to you. Something that hurts you might not faze me.

Experience is relative.

My grandparents endured the Great Depression and for most of their lives didn’t have a lot of money. I remember my grandmother would rush me off the phone when we were talking long distance…even after rates had dropped to seven cents a minute. She couldn’t get her mind around the idea that a long distance phone call could be cheap.

I don’t even think in terms of distance when I make a phone call. If it’s overseas I have to buy a calling card, sure, but the cost to me seems negligible. Six cents a minute to the UK? Whatevs.

Recently I’ve had some bigger things in my life to think about, and the minutiae that I sometimes obsess over sort of disappeared from my radar.

Comfort affords you the luxury to worry about things which in reality are pretty insignificant. And yet who can judge the significance of anything when it concerns someone else?

You look at a famous actress, an NFL star quarterback, a person born into money. You might wonder, What do these people have to worry about? They seem to have everything they could ever want.

But whatever they perceive their problems to be, to them they are difficult. The most intense emotional pain you’ve ever felt in your life is all you know. How can you compare it to someone else’s?

You can’t. Not really.

But we often think we can. We make judgments about each other, we assume we know how someone else feels, what they are thinking.

Right now I’m 37,000 feet above the earth, cruising along at a ground speed of 550 mph or so.

Did you know that time for me is passing at a different rate than it is for you? Really, it is. This is an outcome of the relationship between space and time.

Imagine you’re on a road trip. There are two primary directional types you can travel: north-south or east-west. If you’re traveling northeast, it means you are going a little bit north and a little bit east. The more north you go, the less east you can go.

Time and space are like that. When you move through space, you take away from your movement through time. So the faster you travel, the slower time passes for you.

Cool, huh?

It’s useful to remember that observations are relative.

We all see things just a little bit differently.

And would we have it any other way?