March 18, 2021 | Feature
The More Loving One
To the moon and back again
The More Loving One
By W. H. Auden
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be
Let the more loving one be me.
Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.
Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.
I first fell in love with the cosmos on the dim shore of a Maine lake when I was 10. My older sister, Shreya, had poked me awake at 2 a.m.
“Come outside. The stars are amazing.”
The cabin my family and I were staying in stood behind us as we laid on the dock. A lazy July breeze danced over my arms. Tall evergreens climbed into the sky around the lake and loons sang their muted calls in the distance. I wrapped my arms around myself, basking in the empty light of what felt like a billion stars. They glimmered like silver dust in the heavens. I couldn’t move from the solid earth below me; a strange weight had settled into my stomach, a feeling like I was leaning over the edge of a cliff, peering into the pulsing chaos of an infinite abyss. I felt wonder and reverence and fear and veneration as the scope of the universe crashed over me like a wave. I turned to my sister and said the only thing that could begin to describe the ecstasy churning inside of me: “I feel so… small.”
Shreya gave me a warm smile. “I know.” She turned around and went inside, leaving me alone under the pinpricked sky. An hour later, I reluctantly turned my back to the lake and headed in. The moment the stars were out of sight, the breathtaking feeling of smallness melted away in my stomach.
Immediately after getting inside, I did the only thing I could think to do. I stole my parents’ computer from their bag, opened up YouTube, and found a crash course on astrophysics. Another hour later, and the reality that the Sun is 1,400,000 million kilometers across and 4,630,000,000 years old and just one of 100,000,000,000 stars in our galaxy and the Milky Way is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilometers across and just one of 200,000,000,000 galaxies in the observable universe and the universe is 13,000,000,000 years old and 8.8×10^23 kilometers across and only getting bigger and the infinite stars I thought I was seeing were only about the 3000 visible to lucky observers shattered my entire understanding of the world. The same feeling of smallness, the awe at the ancient churning of an apathetic universe unconcerned with my existence, the weight deep in my stomach, returned.
I loved it.
In the following years, this feeling became a fixation for me. I found it where I could—watching Doctor Who with my mom, sitting back in the planetarium at the Museum of Science, or sneaking out onto the roof at night, waiting patiently for a shooting star to paint its silver arc across the sky. Without fail, I only ever found that feeling on the cosmic scale, in the nebulous reaches of the universe where light years are the new miles, and even our sun looks like a speck of dust in comparison to larger stars. My mom would chastise me, telling me I’d hurt my neck if I kept looking up for so long. I graduated from watching YouTube videos and NOVA shows to spending my Saturday afternoons in free physics courses at MIT. I marveled at the young grad students scratching on the blackboard, writing out wave functions and describing quantum systems like it was all intuitive. During the car ride back, I would babble to Shreya about whatever bizarre theory we had learned that day.
“Neutron stars are these collapsed stars that used to be massive. They implode under their own gravity. Isn’t that crazy? They get tiny. Only 20 kilometers in diameter. That’s literally the size of a city. And then there is this specific type of neutron star that are called pulsars. The pulsars spin a thousand times per second and are so dense a teaspoon of it weighs a billion tons. Isn’t that just wild?” My sister nodded patiently along, smiling.
Every time my imagination wandered to the universe, I felt the weight in my stomach grow. It became an obsession. I wanted to know it all. I wanted to understand everything, pull on the threads of the universe until it unwound in my hands, its secrets revealing themselves in immutable equations and laws. I wanted to dedicate my life to the stars. Black holes, dark matter, and supernovae constantly floated around my mind. I began to religiously follow the SpaceX launch schedule with my dad and applauded the likes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos for funding the next generation of space travel. Once high school rolled around, weekend classes became college courses at local universities. Books by Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson piled high on my bedside table. I looked to college to begin my journey into a life of astrophysics research.
The more I learned, the more my universe grew. The more my universe grew, the more I thought of myself on a cosmic scale. Under starry skies and in windowless lecture halls, I began to tremble at the inescapable insignificance of my existence. Constantly placing my short life amongst the colossal heavens, I began to feel like I didn’t matter.
I let go of the stars on the dim shore of another Maine lake, not too far from where it all started. Shreya sat beside me, legs crossed, on the dock. She had poked me awake as she usually did. It didn’t happen all at once right then. I think it started a couple months earlier, during an English class on a particularly sunny spring afternoon, when my teacher read us The More Loving One by W. H. Auden to start off our poetry unit. For the rest of the day, the poem’s third stanza looped endlessly in my mind: Admirer as I think I am / Of stars that do not give a damn / I cannot, now I see them, say / I missed one terribly all day.
On the dock with Shreya, I read the poem out loud. “I love it,” she responded. We sat in silence for some time, lost in the landscape of shimmering starlight and chirping crickets.
“I don’t get it,” I said. “Doesn’t this all make you feel so small?”
“Of course it does,” she replied.
“But we’re nothing in the history of the universe. We’re barely a blip in time, much less space. We’re tiny little beings, dramatic and terrified, running around for our 70-ish years and pretending to do things, but none of it matters. Stars will keep forming and dying and things will keep happening in the billions of galaxies light years away and how can anything I do matter when everything out there is so vast?”
She smiled knowingly before she spoke. “How can everything out there happening matter when you and I and everyone on Earth are so alive? I feel small when I look at the stars, but that doesn’t mean that we’re insignificant. You’re alive. What would the stars be if nobody was there to see them? We’re all stuck here on Earth. What you do might not matter to the stars, but it matters to me. It matters to the people that love you. You should never believe that you’re insignificant—you’re not. You can make such an impact here on our small Earth, on the people and the space around you. Burning stars a billion light years away can’t do that. We’re the lucky ones.”
I stayed quiet for a while, listening to the loons calling and the wind rustling the leaves. “I never thought about it like that.” I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. The weight in my stomach melted. For the first time, I looked up at the starry sky and felt peace in smallness, felt power in my little life. Shreya said goodnight and gave me a hug before heading inside. I glanced up at the cosmos again and smiled. I turned around and went inside, mulling over the last verse of The More Loving One as I fell asleep. Were all stars to disappear or die / I should learn to look at an empty sky / And feel its total dark sublime, / Though this may take me a little time.
These days, when I get lucky enough to find myself outside under a particularly starry sky, I no longer feel the same overwhelming insignificance that characterized my relationship with the cosmos when I was younger. I look at them in wonder and feel grateful I get to live life in such a beautiful universe, on such a beautiful planet with such beautiful people. I still marvel at humanity when I watch live streamed rocket launches or look at images taken from the Hubble telescope, but I stopped following things like SpaceX and Elon Musk. All the money used for space travel that could be used down on our Earth leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
And I decided against concentrating in astrophysics. It took me a little time, but I started finding the feeling of awe in other, healthier places—in the unfathomable complexities of a chess game, in the bottomless kindness of my friends’ hearts, in the breathtaking majesty of a tall mountain, in the soul-stirring sentences of a good work of literature, and in the endless possibilities of a blank page. I realized that my obsession with the stars was never just about the stars, but rather about that inimitable feeling of wonder that comes from really paying attention to the beauty of human life and the universe around us. I realized, thanks to Shreya, that the distant stars and their unfathomable majesty don’t make our journey on Earth futile, but rather remind us of how much we do matter. Now, looking up at the stars, I remember how short our lives are and how small our planet really is, but I don’t feel hopeless or scared. Instead, I turn my gaze downward to the friends and family around me, and I feel a quiet power in how much we mean to each other. It never fails to make me smile.