Robert Frost writes in his poem “A Question,” published in 1942:
A voice said, Look me in the stars
And tell me truly, men of earth,
If all the soul-and-body scars
Were not too much to pay for birth.
Frost was an American poet who died in the 1960s. His life was plagued by loss; his father and mother died young, as well as his sister, wife, and several of his children. Depression ran in both his and his wife’s family. Out of their six children, only two outlived their father.
Though short and simple, this poem has always spoken to me. It contemplates pain, it contemplates life, it contemplates death, and most of all, it contemplates the stars. He is saying, “You, person of earth: look at the stars, look at their beauty and vastness. Tell me if this really isn’t enough to pay for the pain you will endure – that this bright universe and being able to be alive and thriving in it isn’t a generous trade for enduring the hard parts of life. Tell me truly.”
I thought long and hard about the poem when I first read it, and tried to find the honest answer to Frost’s question. But as someone who’d never really seen the stars the way they should be seen, I didn’t have the answer.
Then I talked to an astronomer who claimed that light pollution affected human behavior. When he first said this, I didn’t understand.
He’d grinned enthusiastically. “The cosmos changes you! Starlight makes you happier!” he’d insisted.
“Wait,” I said, my right eyebrow raised. “You’re telling me that being surrounded by light in the dark affects how we think?” I frowned and pursed my lips. There is so much pollution on this earth, but as a day person, I’d never considered light to be a part of it.
But then I went camping with my class on the top of some godforsaken mountain – in the cold, but more importantly, in the dark. And as I gazed up at the blue-black night splattered in twinkling little lights, smeared with stardust as the Milky Way sprawled across the sky, I understood. I understood how I’d let myself feel so big, let my problems and emotions swallow me whole, let what was going on inside of me outshine what was happening all around me. In the city, when I look up to the stars and see maybe just a bright planet here or there and only one or two constellations, I can shrug and go back inside and stew about myself; I don’t feel like I’m missing much outside.
However, in the mountains, away from what the astronomer called “light pollution,” I couldn’t tear my eyes away. The night sky is a type of beauty one simply can’t tire of.
I also believe that it says something that you have to lie on your back, at your lowest point, at your humblest, in order to properly look up at a sky so big and so vast and so amazing. Sometimes all you’ve got to do is quit staring at your feet as you trudge through life – stop, and look up at the sky instead. You remember how small you really are, and yet somehow, on your back, looking up, you are your own little spot in the universe.
In a sky full of stars, you yourself can be a tiny twinkling light in a sea of twinkling lights. Sure, if one star disappeared, millions more would still light up the sky, but each one is important in your eyes. And you’d never know if the star that disappeared just happened to be someone’s favorite, the star that made them feel like they could wish for anything, the star that made them feel endless. Each tiny star is a special part of the whole endless universe.
And so, to answer Robert Frost’s “A Question,” when the “soul-and-body scars” start to wear you down, and your feet begin to feel heavy during the endless climb uphill, it’s important to pause and look up. The stars tell you the trade you are making by carrying on: you are enduring darkness so that you too can light up the sky.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.