I picked up a greeting card years ago that caught my eye.
It was a perfect square, and on the front was an illustration of a black but brilliantly starry sky. Inside were the words: “We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” — Oscar Wilde.
That simple sentence captured my imagination. I found it sarcastic but inspiring. I bought the card and took it home.
I had no idea at the time who Oscar Wilde was, and I’m pretty sure that line was the first of his work I had ever read. I have since read plenty more but that sentence has remained my favorite of all.
Throughout high school and college, then into my career, I kept that card pinned to my bulletin board above my desk. At some point it got lost, but I carry those words with me still, everywhere I go. I’ve pondered it hundreds of times, repeated it to myself at some of my most dark and challenging moments.
Slowly, I’ve come to the recognition that that sentence both summarizes and has shaped my philosophy of life, and what it means to be human on this Earth.
At times, my view of the stars has been better than others. At times, I’ve not been able to see them at all.
As a teenager, whenever I felt overwhelmed by where I should go in the world or in despair because I had failed or made a bad choice, I imagined myself lying facedown in the muck of the gutter. Those words inspired me to at least roll over, look up at the stars and dare to dream again.
As an adult experiencing the up and down cycle of stress the world often becomes, those words have more than once compelled me to slow down and literally spend some time looking at the night sky, pondering all its mystery.
Life can be a long, tough slog but we are surrounded by magnificent things. Little problems can seem so big, but there is nothing like looking out of our little window into the universe to put things into perspective.
Now, as I’ve learned even more about the greater world around me, those simple words have taken on yet more meaning. I find myself pondering them in relation to my place as an American among the billions of humans in hundreds of countries with whom I share this planet.
Sometimes I imagine to myself, all the mass of humanity, squeezed into a steep, wide cement gutter. It is filled with a vile sludge comprised of all the cruelty and harshness of our world.
There we all are, surrounded by that putrid liquid, stinking of death and disease, violence and hatred, ignorance and poverty. Each of us clamoring just to stay afloat.
Some of us are looking at the stars, myself included, mostly because of chance and the good fortune of where we were born. I entered life on the top layer of humanity and have only had to maintain my position.
And while it is a constant fight to stay among those suspended between the sky and the dark depths of the bodies and muck below, every glance at the stars is a reminder that all around me there are countless others grappling, moaning and shoving — trying with all their abilities and might —just to get there for the first time.
While it is harder and a scarier prospect to tread water instead of float, I wonder if by doing so I can share the view with a few more of those fighting all around me.
CARRIE STAMBAUGH can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2653.