Inconsequential. That's how I felt during my visit to Maui.
Immersed in nature humbled me and put into perspective how minuscule my problems are and how fragile I am. In day to day life, I live in my bubble, overthink my problems, and forget there's an entire world out there that's chugging along. Spending time isolated in nature really helped me realize how living in a big city has influenced me to become more individualistic.
We camped for four nights during our 8 night stay in Maui. For two of those nights, our campsite was in a relatively open area that was just about 200 meters from the ocean cliff. Apart from the house the campsite owner lived in, there was no other visible building in sight. Since we went during the winter season, we often heard howling wind, torrential rain, and crashing waves all at the same time. If I didn't just put in earplugs and sleep, I'd probably go insomniac over the anxiety caused by the sounds, fearing the tent will be blown straight into the ocean.
Those two nights, I observed the Milky Way the clearest in my entire life. In the city, the night sky is covered with light pollution and it's easy to forget the scale of the universe. In Maui, there's no light pollution and the ocean wind keeps the sky clear. Staring into the sky of infinite stars, I started to contemplate what each star represents and the sheer size of the universe. Every tiny speck in the night sky is another star or galaxy, with its own host of planets. I quickly became overwhelmed and even stressed trying to comprehend the infinite universe with my finite mind. Though overwhelming, the sight was majestic and captivating. I was unable to take my gaze away.
For a couple of days, we drove around the backside of Haleakala (the volcano). A large stretch of the roads was unpaved, single lane, and situated beside sheer cliffs dropping into the ocean. It's no surprise there were many flowers draped crosses on the side of the road, which I would presume are for people who died on the road. The mountain itself is mind-blowingly massive compared to everything else around it - you could see the mountain from almost any corner of Maui. From the sides of the mountain, frozen in time, there are kilometers and kilometers of black lava flowing into the ocean. There's an indescribable feeling of awe and power being in the presence of the volcano.
Unlike the mellow coasts of San Francisco, the wind, jagged volcanic rocks, and constant sea swelling made the coasts of Maui feel aggressive, hostile, and unforgiving. At a swimming spot, the Olivine Pools, there was a plaque of warning, telling the story of an unfortunate vacationer. The person was swimming too close to the edge in one of tide pools, and got swept away by a wave. The body was never recovered. I was trying to capture some waves on a cliff near where the person got swept away, but the plaque made me extra paranoid of being blown into the ocean and then smashed by a wave. I was crouched down, hugging the rocks and ground trying to take photos, they were definitely some very stressful photos.
Being in Maui made me reflect on my life a lot. In the past few decades, there are constant movements towards self-expression, liberalism, and equality. I'm not sure how good that is, actually, given how selfish people are in San Francisco. I think people often hyper-focus on personal problems and achievements that they forget there's an entire universe out there.
At least I know I do that. With more freedom and everyone being equal, I should be able to achieve more. I focus on my own problems. I stress about work, not being able to grow professionally and make an impact. I stress about photography, not producing high-quality work that can be recognized. I stress about the gym, fearing that missing a workout or a day of gluttony will result in the complete loss of all my gains (even though that's not how it works).
Isolated in nature for a while really puts into perspective my life and my problems. Back at home, I feel safe in my bubble, everything is accessible and there are laws and regulations to protect me. But out here, I'm vulnerable, fragile, and overwhelmed, it feels like me against all the elements of nature. In the face of such tremendous power and scale my ego falls apart, and I can't help but be humbled. It could only take a gust of wind or a single wave to take my life. These islands were carved out of volcanoes over millions of years, forces of nature humans can't replicate. They were here long before me and they will continue to be there long after I cease to exist. But compared to the universe, even the planet we know is nothing but a speck. My existence and problems are only even more inconsequential, no amount of money or power will change that.
The realization of the insignificance of my existence is both liberating and depressing. It's liberating to know that there's no need for me to be overly anxious about my problems - no matter my impact, be it good or bad, will impact the universe. At the same time, life feels depressingly pointless. For a large portion of my life, I’ve been trying to attach a grand meaning to my life. It’s sobering to know no matter how hard I try, the meaning I attach to my life is only relevant to me and it means nothing to the universe. Why worry so much if most things don't matter, anyways? Many things in life are created by other people to derive meanings for themselves (fame, money, power, validation, social media), but they aren't meaning I need to attach to myself. Knowing my insignificance, I feel encouraged to be more selfless. I want to spend more time impacting people and bringing joy to the people around me. Thankfully, being a Christian and having spirituality also alleviates much of the emptiness.
These realizations are nothing unique. After returning from Hawaii, I talked to a friend who went to Patagonia last year, telling him about my thoughts and reflections. He immediately responded, "I had the same thoughts!" I believe being in nature will make one come to these realizations, especially if they're isolated. It's hard to focus on one's own problems and doubts when there's something overwhelming bigger right in front of them. This year, I'll definitely try harder to be in nature to bring clarity to my life and personal growth.