illustration by Patrick Lowden
A few years ago, I became overwhelmed.
This situation is far from unique. Many of us live in a perpetual state of overwhelmedness. There are times when feeling overwhelmed seems to be the new normal to which our nation, perhaps even species, has grown accustomed. And my reasons for this inability to cope were pretty standard fare too: My work situation was tenuous, our family was growing while our finances were not, and life, on the whole, just kept behaving erratically.
In earlier times, I would have resorted to old standbys — panic and anxiety — but that pair can really take a toll on a person and, besides, I was looking for a new way to handle myself in the face of insurmountable odds. So I looked up. To the night sky, to be more specific.
You see, a friend had told me a meteor shower was set to hit its peak, and that astronomers believed this particular astral event, an annual shower known as the Leonids, was going to put on quite a show. Sleep didn’t find me easily during this period, so after the rest of the house had drifted off, I slipped on my wool overcoat and stepped outside into the cold, November air of a Kent, Ohio, night. Late fall’s arctic bite immediately grabbed me through my flannel pajamas, and I grimaced as I trained my gaze on the patch of sky above the garage. A ray of white light dashed across the darkness. Then another. And another.
There’s a Japanese term called kensho that roughly translates to “seeing nature.” Though it’s dense and complicated in the way that many philosophical things are, and without even mentioning the significant cultural differences between my place in society and ancient Buddhist teachers, I liken my skygazing that evening to a suburban kensho experience, my front yard enlightenment: I became overwhelmed by the universe. I remember childhood camping trips where I was afraid to look up because I was so scared of the vast darkness, and I can’t say I made a habit of starwatching in the interim between my fearful youth and that night with the Leonids, but as I watched streaks of luminescence cut across the inky blackness above, I confronted young me’s fears and found that, where terror had once held supreme, I now found peace. People have told me they feel intimidated by the incomprehensible enormity of the universe, and that’s totally fine but I, for one, relish feeling insignificant in the total scheme of things — it really eases the burden of the nominally overwhelmed to understand that, really, none of that matters.
And then I became slightly obsessed (as I remain now). Another friend gave me a telescope, and I invested a cash Christmas gift in a better lens. I gazed at Jupiter and pondered Europa, its life-probable moon; studied our moon’s scarred surface and considered how that big rock took hits Earth otherwise would have; and spent countless hours staring at Saturn, the ringed jewel of the solar system. I saw what I could in Kent’s light-polluted skies and then, when leaving that glow for jet black nights in the country, I gazed upon the Milky Way that stretched itself above my roof and my feeling of blissful insignificance deepened tenfold.
As for that feeling of general overwhelmedness, it stuck around, but I handled it much better when I thought about my telescope and the darkness that awaited me after sunset. Cloudy skies made me incredibly grumpy (and this being Northeast Ohio, you must understand I spent some nights feeling pretty low), but then I found NASA’s online library of space photos and found my astral wonder again from the comfort of the couch.
My predisposition toward article-length memoir aside, I do have a point to make here. This time of year, when holiday preparations are in full swing and the crush of a year’s worth of building expectations weighs fully on your back, feeling overwhelmed is kind of the national pastime. Cleaning house for far-flung and unimpressible family members, buying gifts that’ll make loved ones feel loved and assuage children’s roiling tempers, leveraging everything you own just to make one day of the year feel special even though there’s a polar vortex coming and you’ve got to heat this place somehow: This is overwhelmed, and our culture tells us it’s right, good even, to find yourself on the emotional brink during the holidays.
To some extent, it’s probably unavoidable, but this year, when Aunt Gertie’s calling your furniture “interesting,” your sister won’t stop talking about her breakup and that kid who came with your nephew keeps trying to steal the silverware, do yourself a favor: Pour a glass of something nice, step outside and look up. You may not achieve kensho, but there’s a lot to see up there.
/ Rodney Wilson is a freelance writer who can still be found slumped over his laptop, rewriting a young adult novel and, as always, listening to Taylor Swift.