written by Alboricah Rathupetsane, PhD student at the Centre for Sustainability Transitions, Stellenbosch University who participated in the writing retreat program in Sutherland, South Africa organised by the OAD’s Astro for Mental Health team
A different kind of peace emerges from the vastness and emptiness of Sutherland. It is borne from the lack of embellishment and noise and movement and unending productivity that makes up my days otherwise. It’s a peace that comes from my mind emptying and being freed from constant synthesis, analysis and just thinking all the time. I think that must be the curse you sign up for when you decide to pursue a doctoral qualification. You sign up for thinking about something deeper than possibly anyone else has ever thought about it before. The PhD writing retreat that the OAD organised for us was essentially time to do just that – to dive into the chaos of concepts and justifications and never ending thinking that comes with pursuing new knowledge.
But when the Sun went down that first night, I realised that Sutherland was far from empty. It just carried a different kind of chaos – you just had to look up. I learnt from a young age that stars are always there, even during the day when the sun is out. But for the first time I finally saw just how much the Sun and atmosphere are actually hiding. And beyond that there’s stars exploding and others being born; there’s supernova explosions and who knows what else or who else. There’s so much universe, it doesn’t fit in our sky. And I thought my brain was overcrowded.
And I discovered more commonalities throughout the week as well. We’re apparently made up of the same stuff as the universe – hydrogen, nitrogen, different types of energy and the like. This should be an obvious observation since we’re part of the universe but I think we’re so unused to seeing it that we forget that we’re part of that cosmic mess. The earth is a mere dot in the vastness, too small to actually be different. Too small to matter? I wondered about this a few times. And even amidst our own conversations during the retreat, we discussed the idea of being so infinitely small in comparison that we’re perhaps insignificant? But simultaneously, so fleeting in the grand fabric of space and time that we matter just because every moment is so precious and fragile. I liked both concepts for different reasons. The first because it feels like all problems are really very small on the astronomical scale and maybe I shouldn’t stress half as much? The second because what I do matters for my fellow other fleeting beings and their fleeting life experiences and there’s a cosmic beauty in that as well. So thank you OAD for showing us that it’s important to look up every once in a while and remember that we’re part of something bigger.