Beauty, Cows, and Gnats

December 03, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

In Lawrence and Meg Kasden's 1991 film "Grand Canyon," there is a scene in which Mack, a wealthy lawyer, and Simon, a working class tow truck driver are discussing the Grand Canyon.  Part of their exchange follows.


Simon: [sighs] When you sit on the edge of that thing, you just realize what a joke we people are. What big heads we got thinking that what we do is gonna matter all that much. Thinking our time here means diddly to those rocks. It's a split second we been here, the whole lot of us. And one of us? That's a piece of time too small to give a name. 


Mack: You trying to cheer me up? 


Simon: Yeah, those rocks are laughing at me, I could tell. Me and my worries, it's real humorous to that Grand Canyon. Hey, you know what I felt like? I felt like a gnat that lands on the ass of a cow that's chewing its cud next to the road that you ride by on at 70 miles an hour. 


Mack: [laughs] Small.


We human beings often suffer from delusions of grandeur, assuming that we are the measure of all things. We labor under the illusion that our petty conflicts and triumphs are the metric of meaning in the universe. We imagine a world that exists solely for us, and we even refashion God into a cosmic sugar daddy who dotes over us, waiting to shower us with prosperity. But this small world with its even smaller god is an illusion.


It is very difficult to maintain this illusion when you sit on the edge of the Grand Canyon or hike in the deserts of the Southwest. In such places, we feel acutely our smallness and sense the landscape's inhospitality to human life. There is rarely water to drink. The sun scorches the skin. The wind drives fine dust into eyes and camera lenses. There is little shade. And then there are the rattlesnakes, scorpions, and tarantulas. Such places were not made for us. We are aliens in a foreign land. The God of this place is far more interested than we are in things other than us.


And yet, such wildness is terrifyingly beautiful. Such beauty transforms rather than entertains us. It tears loose our desperate, controlling grasp on ourselves and the world. It topples our little god.  Such beauty dislocates us. Then it relocates us in a new world governed by a vast and different economy of meaning. It frees us to be gnats on a cow's ass as the cosmos goes speeding by at seventy miles per hour.


This belittling power of beauty is not the same as the petty belittling we do to one another as human beings. It does not erase our or another's humanity. To be small in a big world means that there's room for all. Beauty frees us to be fully, authentically human together.


Poet Muriel Rukeyser reminds us that "the universe is made of stories, not of atoms."*  Beauty narrates a new story, a grand new epic with a new plot, new values, and new characters. Where we once worked anxiously to fit episodes of beauty into the big story of our lives, we now find that our lives are but small episodes in the grand epic of beauty that envelops them and all that is.


We are saved by smallness.



*Muriel Rukeyser, "The Speed of Darkness" (1968)


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