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Michael and the whale

| Sunday, November 16, 2014

Bearing two exams and a paper, last week wasn’t the most gentle of welcomes back to Notre Dame after a relaxing and blissfully unproductive fall break. As I am confident we all know by now, being subjugated to the crucible of academic stressors often brings out some interesting reactions and coping mechanisms in a person, as was my personal experience the night before my physics exam last Thursday.

After working through well past my wit’s end of pulleys, incline planes and frictionless loop-de-loops, I was taking a “well-deserved” study break (meaning, of course, that I was scrolling through Facebook). After finding some innovative how-little-clothing-constitutes-an-outift Halloween ideas, I stumbled upon a YouTube link that would end up having a much more profound impact on me that I anticipated or thought possible.

The three minute-long video — entitled “Sleeping Humpback Whale,” with self-explanatory subject manner — was recorded by a researcher by the name of Kieran Brown in an unspecified ocean. Perhaps I didn’t pay close enough attention to the whale sleeping habits section of General Biology B, but apparently they normally sleep with their bodies completely vertical with their heads down. I kept watching the video until about the 2:30 mark or so, wondering if anything special was going to happen (and also wondering what exactly I was expecting from a video called “Sleeping Humpback Whale”).

It was at that moment that the whale awoke from her deep slumber, rapidly raised her body to the horizontal, shook her head back and forth and briskly swam on her merry way. That simple, typical-for-an-awakening-whale moment was the spark that led to an unexpected journey of self-reflection (and procrastination). The suggested videos sidebar fueled my addiction as I flitted from video to video about whale migration patterns and mother-child interaction, culminating in the eventual discover of a “Whale Call” playlist on Spotify (so you know it’s real).

Being consumed by this sense of whale wonder, I pondered the immense scale and scope of these animals, reflecting upon how utterly unbelievable it was that nature molded such a complex creature from the same molecular machinery found in the smallest mouse. I meditated on the vastness of the ocean and the incomprehensible variety of life it fosters, a topic with which even the most intelligent of scientists are still grappling. When I finally got back to working on physics and contemplating how much work needed to happen between that moment and my exam the next day, I had quite a difficult time getting motivated again.

That video got me thinking about the sheer vastness of our world in terms of space, time and content, along with how difficult it is to wrap our heads around that complexity. The context we live in inevitably feels all-consuming — between work, play and life’s daily challenges, it’s often times difficult to fathom the enormity of something so much bigger than ourselves. Attempting to do so can perplexingly lead to both wonder and fear — both an appreciation of immensity as well as worry of how we fit in the grand scheme of things.

It can make you question how you — one little brush stroke of the seven billion on the canvas of the world — can possibly be of any significance whatsoever. If you sit and just really think about this fact and let it sink in, it’s actually remarkably overwhelming and disorienting. And this sense of smallness doesn’t stop at the present moment, either. From a reductionist standpoint, we are simply the latest endpoint of the long, relentless timeline of human history, with millions coming before us and even more to follow. I hope I am not alone in marveling at some of the greatest figures of history and thinking, “Well crap, what the heck am I doing with my life?!”

I think that this sense of insignificance is, on balance, a good thing. Taking a step back to appreciate the enormity of the world and the endless wealth of possibilities it offers provides an essential sense of perspective with which to view our lives. While some would say that the fact that it is physically impossible to experience the entire wealth of human experience the world can offer as discouraging, I see it as motivation to appreciate the small sliver of that whole we are fortunate enough to get.

Whether it is a humpback whale, history lesson or a higher power, recognizing that there are things in this world and beyond that are so much greater than oneself is a humbling, worrying, yet necessary experience. Find wonder in the mundane and the supreme, for it is that wonder that will inspire true introspection and self-awareness.

Michael Fliotsos is a junior science-business major living in Duncan Hall. He would sincerely appreciate feedback or suggestions for future topics. Contact him at mfliotso@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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