Billions and billions.
Have you ever asked a child to draw their world? It is interesting to see how the drawings differ depending on the age of the child. A three year-old will give you a few lines and maybe a circle for the sun. A five year-old will add in some people, some green grass, and maybe a rainbow. Or two!
But something happens in grade school. A third-grader will give you a picture of the round earth, and the sun and the moon, and maybe some planets and stars. Theirs is a completely different "world" -- instead of one centered on themselves, the older child draws their conception of a small planet moving around a massive solar system.
I can remember my first trip to the local planetarium. I'm sure I was seven or eight years old at the time. I remember giggling when the lights went off, and then oohing and aahing as the stars lit up. I can even remember Carl Sagan's voice challenging me to reflect on the limitless cosmos. And in that moment was planted the first seed of a frightening and profound thought: "Wow, maybe the world doesn't revolve entirely around me."
Almost all of us learn this lesson at some point in our lives. Most of us start to understand it as kids. The lesson deepens when we are adults, maybe as an outgrowth of tragedy or hardship, or perhaps as a result of immense gratitude. A few of the more preoccupied among us don't fully get it until we are very old. An unlucky few never really get it, and die missing one of the core messages of the universe.
Here's the thing: There are billions of people on the earth, and the fact is that the worries and concerns and goals and priorities each of us carry around don't matter much to anyone we meet, and don't matter at all to the people we don't. We are immeasurably insignificant to the universal machinery.
And yet the other truth is that we each have been given a unique combination of gifts and talents. The limitless cosmos is made of individual stars. As much as you might not want to admit it, you are distinct. There is a role somewhere that only you can play. You are immeasurably important to the universal outcome.
As we enter the new year, I find this duality daunting and inspiring. If my worries don't matter, I must be wary about my own vanities and understand that I will be most useful outside of my own head and in the world at large. And if my part is uniquely important, I must find the courage to push myself past my own doorstep.
As we enter the new year, I have no doubt that you offer something unique and I have no doubt that we need you to offer it. My 2014 wish for us all is that we find the humility to push past our individual conceits and find the courage to unlock our distinctive talents. It is indeed a big universe, but we need as many stars as we can find.
Happy new year!