Photo: Scott Sporleder

Notes on When the World Makes You Feel Small

by Matt Hershberger Mar 30, 2017

I WAS ON A BOAT in the Gulf of Mexico, fishing for mackerel and grouper. My Uncle Andy was a boat captain, and whenever we’d go down to Florida, he would take us out fishing. I was maybe 10, so I wasn’t partaking in the beers, but as the day wore on, my dad and my uncle started telling stories. The water was glass, which you almost never see in the Gulf of Mexico, and the gray clouds sat totally motionless above us in the heat.

I don’t remember which story Andy was telling. One time, when he went to drop a boat off in Cameroon, he was made to sit in port for 10 days, not allowed to disembark until he bribed a customs official. When he finally relented, the customs official boarded the boat and said, “Captain Hershberger, you will make me a cup of tea while I figure out the paperwork.”

Andy was pissed, so he decided to “give the tea a stir” before serving it to the customs official. But he didn’t stir the tea until after he’d heated the water to a boil, and, long story short, he had to explain to his company healthcare provider why they were paying for burns on his scrotum.

It may not have been this story in particular, but it was one like it, and it was exactly what a 10 year old wanted to hear from his dad and his uncle. And it was while the stories were being told that kingfish started leaping out of the water. Kingfish don’t really do that. So we watched a school of non-flying fish flew around us. And then we watched as a waterspout touched down a half a mile away. Then another, a little bit more to the north. Then a third, a fourth, and a fifth. We were surrounded by tornados on a totally placid sea.

The pit of my stomach

There’s a feeling I used to get when I would go alone into the woods at the bottom of our street. I would see no people, hear no signs of human life, and I’d only see trees and creeks. A dense stone would lower into the bottom of my stomach, and I’d know I was alone in the world.

I’m married now. I have a job and I live in the New Jersey suburbs. There isn’t much time spent alone in the woods. A 30-year-old man stalking through patches of suburban wilderness is insanely creepy, so I don’t do it. But I still seek out the feeling in the pit of my stomach. It comes much less frequently, and only when the entire world clicks into place to make me feel small and lonely. That makes it sound bad — it’s not. It’s my favorite feeling in the world. It’s uncanny — my body, in these moments, does not feel autonomous, but rather a part of a much greater whole. I am moving because the universe moves. And while the raw material that makes up who I am may someday dissolve back into the universe, I know the universe will remain. In some sense, I cannot die.

The word that best describes the feeling is “wonder,” but like all words for the ineffable, it is incomplete, and it sounds too religion-y to me sometimes. “Wonder” doesn’t fit stories in which my uncle tells me about his burnt scrotum right before the universe shifts into something unspeakably weird. But it gets the point across fine.

The night sky

It’s 1997, maybe a year after the cyclones surrounded us in the Gulf. I’m in Hawaii, and I forgot to bring my inhaler. There’s mold in the bedroom of our Maui hotel, and I can’t lay down or I’ll start to suffocate. My dad hears me wheezing and takes me out to the beach and sits me up on a chair. We talk — I totally forget about what — and listen to the ocean. We’re away from cities and the hotel’s lights are mostly off, so the sky is more star than dark. I can actually see the Milky Way. I can make out the silhouette of the mountains of Molokai across the water in front of the stars. And the feeling drops into my stomach again.

This is where it happens the most — in the face of a clear night. I know people who can’t handle a clear night sky — it’s too frightening, too vast. For me, feeling small is a comfort. It’s a reminder that all of the stuff that feels huge — the horrifying politics of the world, the violence and abuse we heap on each other, the thick fogs of depression and apathy — is actually tiny and inconsequential.

I’d feel the night sky again in 2012, when I caught a plane from London to Iceland to watch the Northern Lights. When I came home, my friends told me you could see the aurora from the East End, but I didn’t regret spending on the trip. In the East End, there weren’t as many stars. They did not, as I did, wrap myself up in my warmest clothes (which still weren’t warm enough), arm myself with a big bottle of wine, and look up over Icelandic mountains as a line of neon green cut through the Milky Way. They didn’t feel the pit in the stomach.

The streets of London

The natural world is the best place to find wonder, but the next time I felt it was in the hipster section of London. This section had once been home to Jack the Ripper and “the worst street in the world.” It was grimy and dilapidated and working class. During the Blitz, it had been constantly pounded by German bombs. And while it’s gentrifying today, there’s still plenty of poverty and desperation.

I was on a walking tour through Shoreditch. It was a street art tour, and while we’d all hoped to catch a glimpse of a Banksy, we knew most of what we were going to see was tags and a few commissioned walls. Shoreditch and Spitalfields are covered in street art, most of it the illegal variety, but it wasn’t until we were in the middle of a busy zebra crossing that the feeling came again. The tour guide stopped us in the crosswalk and pointed down to a tiny piece of gum on the ground. It was a Kool-Aid blue, Bubblicious-type gum, and in it, two yellow painted stick figures danced.

I felt the stone settle in my stomach. A city can feel like a place that is not built for humans but for machines. We’re just crammed in with all of the cement and cranes gears and cars and trains which could all easily destroy our soft, frail little bodies. But here on the pavement was one person refusing to see the streets as off limits, refusing to see a sticky piece of expectorant as litter.

The pit in the stomach, I’ve decided, is a biological response to the moments when my mind briefly clicks into sync with the world. In these moments, I know who I am in relation to everything. It comes rarely — maybe twice a year, if I’m lucky, but sometimes years pass with nothing. Looking up at the stars, I click into sync and know I’m small. Looking at a splotch of humanity on an inhuman cityscape, I click into sync and know I’m huge.

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