In 1879, the preservationist and explorer John Muir took his first trip to Alaska. As he explored the fjords and rocky landscapes of Alaska’s now famous Glacier Bay, a powerful feeling struck him all at once. He’d always been in love with nature, and here in the unique summer climate of the far north, in this single moment, it was as if the entire world was in sync. As if he could see the entire ecosystem and circle of life before him.
His pulse began to pick up, and he and the group were “warmed and quickened into sympathy with everything, taken back into the heart of nature” from which we all came. Thankfully, Muir noticed and recorded in his journal the beautiful cohesion of the world around him, which few have ever matched since.
We feel the life and motion about us, and the universal beauty: the tides marching back and forth with weariless industry, leaving the beautiful shores, and swaying the purple dulse of the broad meadows of the sea where the fishes are fed, the wild streams in rows white with waterfalls, ever in bloom and ever in song, spreading their branches over a thousand mountains; the vast forests feeding on the drenching sunbeams, every cell in a whirl of enjoyment; misty flocks of insects stirring all the air, the wild sheep and goats on the grassy ridges above the woods, bears in the berry-tangles, mink and beaver and otter far back on many a river and lake; Indians and adventurers pursuing their lonely ways; birds tending to their young—everywhere, everywhere, beauty and life, and glad, rejoicing action.
In this moment, he was experiencing what the Stoics would call sympatheia —a connectedness with the cosmos. The French philosopher Pierre Hadot has referred to it as the “oceanic feeling.” A sense of belonging to something larger, of realizing that “human things are an infinitesimal point in the immensity.” It is in these moments that we’re not only free but drawn toward important questions: Who am I? What am I doing? What is my role in this world?
Nothing draws us away from those questions like material success—when we are always busy, stressed, put upon, distracted, reported to, relied on, apart from. When we’re wealthy and told that we’re important or powerful. Ego tells us that meaning comes from activity, that being the center of attention is the only way to matter.
When we lack a connection to anything larger or bigger than us, it’s like a piece of our soul is gone. Like we’ve detached ourselves from the traditions we hail from, whatever that happens to be (a craft, a sport, a brotherhood or sisterhood, a family). Ego blocks us from the beauty and history in the world. It stands in the way.
No wonder we find success empty. No wonder we’re exhausted. No wonder it feels like we’re on a treadmill. No wonder we lose touch with the energy that once fueled us.
Here’s an exercise: walk onto ancient battlefield or a place of historical significance. Look at the statues and you can’t help but see how similar the people look, how little has changed since then—since before, and how it will be forever after. Here a great man once stood. Here another brave woman died. Here a cruel rich man lived, in this palatial home . . . It’s the sense that others have been here before you, generations of them, in fact.
In those moments, we have a sense of the immensity of the world. Ego is impossible, because we realize, if only fleetingly, what Emerson meant when he said that “Every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.” They are part of us, we are part of a tradition. Embrace the power of this position and learn from it. It is an exhilarating feeling to grasp this, like the one that Muir felt in Alaska. Yes, we are small. We are also a piece of this great universe and a process.
The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has described this duality well—it’s possible to bask in both your relevance and irrelevance to the cosmos. As he says, “When I look up in the universe, I know I’m small, but I’m also big. I’m big because I’m connected to the universe and the universe is connected to me.” We just can’t forget which is bigger and which has been here longer.
Why do you think that great leaders and thinkers through-out history have “gone out into the wilderness” and come back with inspiration, with a plan, with an experience that puts them on a course that changes the world? It’s because in doing so they found perspective, they understood the larger picture in a way that wasn’t possible in the bustle of everyday life. Silencing the noise around them, they could finally hear the quiet voice they needed to listen to.