Oh how the little irritations of someone else’s habits can multiply and spread like a virus in the petri dish of our relationships: My boyfriend squeezes the tube of toothpaste from the middle! My girlfriend leaves her toenail trimmings in the sink! Why can’t she close the garage door? Does he always have to watch the game at high volume? Aaargh! I can’t take his choice of pants anymore! If she texts in the middle of our conversation one more time, we’re done!
Time to start caring less. Yes, I’m arguing the fundamental glue that holds our relationships together—how much we care about each other—can and should be dialed back so we can enjoy longer, more intimate, more fabulous time together. At least, we should care a lot less about the small stuff. Let’s put irritation in perspective.
I stopped at three a.m. on a lonely, secluded highway in Iowa a few years back to stretch my legs. As soon as I stepped out of the car, a tumult of stars assaulted me. I felt as if the sky was tumbling on top of me—I put my hands above my head as a reflex. All around me, darkness: only the intense, present, pressing stars and their light.
I could see the outlines of the Milky Way! Being from the city, I had forgotten just how magnificent our galaxy looks from the vantage point of a deserted, dark highway. Carl Sagan was right: just outside our apartment, next to where we work, even as we sit beach side with a margarita, billions and billions of stars, billions and billions of galaxies just like ours, and trillions and trillions of planets swirl in a cosmic panoply so massive we are not even grains of sand: we are grains of sand on a grain of sand.
I felt a rush of generosity and patience.
The sublimity of the stars, and my miniscule place in them, did not make me feel small but grateful. I felt a rush of joy for the miracle of being alive and the great fortune of being a part of such magnificence.
My back didn’t hurt. I didn’t mind the crack in the windshield which had been irritating me the entire trip. I realized my smallness made me special.
Back in the car, I called my wife to tell her I loved her. She didn’t like being roused from dreams but was kind back to me.
Our universe, by most estimates, is 16.5 billion years old. Billion. The Milky Way: a youngster at about 13.2 Billion. The earth is a relative newcomer, celebrating a 4.5 billion year anniversary. The dinosaurs died out about 65 million years ago. The Antarctic Sponge can live about 1550 years. The Ocean Quahog, a delicious clam, can live for more than 400 years if not harvested for dinner. Bowhead whales live longer than 200 years. The average human gets about 70. The average human romantic relationship? About two years.
In the grand scheme of the universe, little annoyances are rather insignificant.
Toenail clippings and crimped toothpaste tubes are really not that big of a deal Muddy shoes, a ding on the credit card, a few extra minutes before you leave for dinner: dandelion fluff you can throw onto the breeze of time and forget about in less time than you take to forgive, smile, and say, “I love you!”
The next time you feel peeved, when the irritation starts to rise, when you absolutely must say something about the stack of newspapers in the corner, take a deep breath. We are miracles: in so massive and astonishing a universe, we have a place.
Remember the dinosaurs. Consider the stars, that magnificent array of eternity hovering above us, and spread a little of the joy of just being alive to everyone near you.