Why Are We Here?

Dale Long - South Burlington, Vermont
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, February 22. 2013
Dale Long

When Dale Long had asked himself the large life question, "Why are we here?," he wasn't always sure of the answer. But one night of stargazing with his children brought him clarity on his place in the universe.

Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: science

Why are we here? This is a timeless question that expresses humanity’s fundamental desire to understand our collective existence and value.

On a more personal level, why am I here? Many other people seem to have a pretty clear opinion of why I’m here. My wife believes I’m here to take out the garbage, help the children with their homework, and rub her feet. My boss believes I’m here to do my job and do it well. The person in the car behind me this morning looked as if she believed I was there to make her late.

However, while living up to everyone else’s expectations may give our existence purpose of a sort, it’s not the same as figuring out our own answer about why we, personally, are here. It took a while, but I believe I found at least part of my answer a few years ago.

I remember clearly the first time I had a real sense of my place in the universe. I was forty-two years old and had just bought our family a telescope. The astronomy software that came with the telescope said we’d be able to see Saturn that same night. I’d never seen a planet with my own eyes before, just pictures. We located a bright dot in the sky where Saturn was supposed to be and lined up the telescope. Saturn came into focus, looking like a tiny, round ball suspended inside a small, flat washer.

As I stepped back from the telescope to let the children have a look, I realized my whole view of the universe had just changed dramatically. On an intellectual level, I had always known that the twinkling lights in the sky were stars and planets. But at some primal level I had never really believed they were anything but pinholes in the roof of the world. Now, I could not deny it any longer. Planets, stars, and galaxies were real. The universe stretches to as close to infinity as mankind will ever comprehend. I got to savor the moment for all of five seconds until the children bumped the telescope and I had to line it up for them again.

I believe I understand why scientists like Copernicus and Galileo risked imprisonment and death for reporting the results of their astronomical discoveries, and it was for the same reasons that prophets like Buddha, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad risked imprisonment and death for preaching their faith: they had discovered something wonderful and wanted to expand human understanding of our place in creation.

Many people are comfortable with their belief of where they are in the universe, of course, and will resist any attempt to dislodge their current view of reality, either spiritually or scientifically. But I believe mankind will only continue to make progress by seeking out and embracing new knowledge, wisdom, and insights into both science and spirit in tandem. Science without spirituality is cold and sterile; spirituality without science is merely wishful thinking.

Why are we here? Maybe it’s simply to find a balance between what we believe and what we perceive as we journey through life. I believe I can live with that answer.

Dale Long lives in South Burlington, Vermont, with his awesome wife and two wonderful children. He is a former professional musician, retired military officer, government technocrat, amateur astronomer, Aikido black belt, teacher, writer, and storyteller who believes that specialization is for insects, not people.

Independently produced by Dan Gediman for This I Believe, Inc.