Nobody wants to be told that they’re insignificant.
But every once in a while, I believe it’s important to feel small.
I was 10 when my father took me on my first fossil hunt. We drove to Westmoreland State Park, a 1.5-mile stretch of sand and cliffs along the Potomac River two hours south of our home in DC. He told me what to look for: tiny bits of hardened coral; dark spikes of petrified wood; a hunk of limestone imprinted with chalky outlines of dead sea creatures. I told him I’d rather go swimming, or maybe I could wait in the car while he hunted for rocks. “Just try it,” he said. “If you’re really lucky, you’ll find the tooth of a Great White Shark.” I pictured Show-and-Tell on my first day back at school. My prize, a jagged triangle the size of my head, would put my classmates’ Disneyland souvenirs to shame.
We spent all morning crouching in the sand, sifting through wet handfuls of pebbles and broken shells. A half-hour passed and I began to feel discouraged. What were the odds of finding one tooth among thousands, maybe millions, of rocks? I was about to ditch the entire effort in favor of building a sandcastle, when I saw it: a tiny gray dagger with a serrated edge poking up under the water. Elated, I snatched it up and ran down the beach yelling news of my discovery.
Later we learned from a guidebook that the tooth had once belonged to a tiger shark from the Miocene Epoch. My 10-year-old brain could scarcely imagine turning 16, yet here in my palm was evidence of a sea predator that lived 20 million years before humans walked the Earth. To bring home the point, my father showed me a Geologic Time Table. My tiger shark wasn’t even “old;” its fishy ancestors had been swimming around for 400 million years. Humans had barely made it onto the chart, dipping in at 200,000 years ago. At that moment, I began to feel small. Very small.
This, I believe, is one of the most important life lessons my father could have taught me.
I still keep a Geologic Time Table hanging in my office. It floors me to look at that thin yellow box representing human existence relative to the bulk of the page beneath it. No matter how small, I also see that I am a member of the only species capable of understanding my place on Earth. For this reason, I believe in the importance — and the thrill — of feeling small.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.