“The sun, with all those planets revolving around it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.” —Galileo Galilei
When I was seventeen my family took a trip to Mexico, and for the four-day duration I made it my mission not to experience an ounce, not a molecule, of fun. It was spring break of my junior year—a week when my only desire was to haunt a dark basement with my best friend, choking down Beefeater gin stolen from my parents’ liquor cabinet. I wanted to marathon pirated Friends reruns. I wanted to gossip. But there I was, imprisoned at a luminous resort in Cabo San Lucas.
Pale-faced with a gothic drape of hair over one eye and two ear buds funneling Death Cab for Cutie into my skull, I snarled at the idea of getting my hair wet and deemed swimming with dolphins more cold-blooded than hunting them for meat. For the entire first day, while my parents and brother frolicked like the sparkling family in the commercial, I parked myself on an empty bench. Wearing a black backless tank top, I sulked in the sun, wanting nothing to do with the pineapple smoothies or the jet skiing or the smiling. So for the next five hours I sat with a pout on my face, hunched over my laptop.
Evidently I also wanted nothing to do with sunscreen, because the next morning, I awoke to a searing, charbroiled pain from my shoulders all the way down to my flanks. I’d apparently come to the conclusion that if I ignored the bright tropical sun, then it would ignore me too, and thus I didn’t find it necessary to slather my vampire-white back with SPF for the hours I spent outside, planted in the only spot for miles with adequate WiFi.
My raspberry-red sunburn was so severe that my parents were forced to summon the resort medical staff to administer a shot of painkillers directly into my mortified teenage ass. The relief was negligible and not worth the shame. My back stung and blistered for a week, before peeling off in long, transparent sheets, like a snake shedding its skin.
Thankfully, much of my teen angst sloughed off shortly after my top layer of epidermis; but in other ways, I’ve failed to evolve since the Cabo incineration of 2009. I wish I could say that dastardly burn taught me my lesson, and that I’ve cautiously caked myself in Coppertone for every UV-exposed occasion since. But, of course, this isn’t the case. Despite my experience, every year, I’ve managed to receive one bad sunburn. It seems to be a ritual between me and the mighty star above. It happens like this: on the first warm, cloudless day of the year, I sausage myself into a bathing suit, pat a little sunscreen on my nose and figure The Sun will take pity on me—much like a cop, who sees someone roll a stop sign instead of halting completely and thinks, Eh, good enough.
With a casual smile on my face and a two-year old issue of Us Weekly in hand, I think, Nah, The Sun won’t burn me this time. I’ve got a job interview tomorrow, surely The Sun won’t stoop to roasting my whole face, leaving just two pasty circles under my sunglasses.
But when it comes to The Sun, there’s no “good enough.” It burns the areas I fail to protect, and spares the others. Invariably, my burns ache and peel and look like hell; yet somehow, a year goes by and I forget all about the distant pain. That is, until The Sun does what it does once again, and I remember.
I get it. What The Sun demands is respect. Like the ocean. Like your parents when you’re seventeen. We need them to survive, yet we must fear them, lest we be smitten by back-burning or drowning or god forbid, a family vacation.
But there’s something special about The Sun. Something that distinguishes it from almost any other supreme, powerful force. Unlike your parents or your boss or that cop, The Sun only burns you in one way, for one reason. It does not choose to singe you or save you. The Sun does not sit perched in celestial judgment, twirling its flaming scepter, determining whether or not your skin protection efforts will cut it today.
No, in that beautiful mathematical way, The Sun is objective. Perfect in its predictability. We know The Sun: that it’s 4.6 billion years old; that it’s 93 million miles away; that a simple SPF 30 will block 97% of its radiation. We’ve figured out that billions of years from now, once The Sun has burned up all its Hydrogen, it will expand and expand, running on Helium, until it swallows the Earth whole, leaving no one and nothing and not a smidge of nostalgia. The ultimate sunburn.
I’ve heard that some people believe in a thing called god and in some ways the two strike me as similar. But The Sun doesn’t work in mysterious ways. For that, this god really reminds me more of a person. But thankfully our solar system isn’t run by a person, or anything like a person. And how comforting to know that in a universe where so many things make so little sense—a universe where there’s cancer and heartbreak and teenagers, where someone would rather sulk on the Internet than body surf in Mexico—how comforting to know that amidst such nonsense, the ultimate force, the force that will one day consume all the rest, is totally, inarguably fair.
My inaugural sunburn this year came hiking an 11,000-foot mountain in Southern California. On June 14, I descended Mt Baldy with twin crimson stripes down the front of each shoulder. And as much as they sucked and reminded me never again to allow another of these nightmarish burns, it puts me at ease to know that if I do, I’ll deserve it. That if I’m careless, The Sun will punish; but if I succeed in returning from my Vitamin D soak with a mild sunkissed glow, I’ll have earned that, too. Because somehow, in between lighting all the planets and anchoring their orbits; and boiling Jupiter’s Great Red Spot; and feeding all the billions of Earth’s hungry plants; still, the glorious Sun keeps an eye on me. Closely monitoring my tiny body, and yours, as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.