Saturday, February 22, 2014

Changing Perspectives 3 - Sun and Stars

This starts out as a continuation of my last post (“Night and Day”), so it might not be a bad idea to start with a quick recap.  The general idea was that, although we (especially as kids) sometimes see the night as a scary time when goblins and ghosts come out to play, the night also has a magical quality to it (of the benevolent kind), a quality that can make us feel more connected to the entire universe than we might feel during the day.  In the dark, we can see stars that are inconceivably far away, reminding us of our smallness, but also suggesting our potential to be more than what we are now.  We are reminded that our bodies, and all things in the world around us, are made up of atoms created in the heart of a distant star a very long time ago, and this simple fact establishes a connection with the rest of the universe.  But, there might be even more to that connection…

            “In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
            “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”

                                                            C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

I haven’t looked for any sources that might corroborate this theory, but I think that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third book in Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series, is, at least in part, an allegorical description of a mystical journey to God.  We can find a number of mystics, throughout history and across various faith traditions, who strove to connect with the internal divine spark, with the universal consciousness, with God.  Through meditation and contemplation, through solitude and asceticism, the approaches may differ a bit, but some common threads can be seen in the descriptions of their spiritual journeys.  For example, in some writings, we can see a simultaneous movement outward, toward the boundaries of the physical universe, and inward, toward a greater realization of one’s own strengths and weaknesses, one’s place in the universe, one’s relationship with the divine, and one’s own heart.  “Further up and further in,” as Lewis writes in the final book in the Narnia series, The Last Battle.

Here are two examples from the classical Christian tradition.  First, let’s take a look at Dante.  By the time we get to Paradise, the third part of his Divine Comedy, Dante and Virgil have already traveled down through the nine circles of Hell, popped out at the base of the mountain of Purgatory, climbed the mountain, and come to the garden at the top of the mountain.  At this point, Dante leaves Virgil (representing human reason) behind and ascends into the heavens.  Guided now by Beatrice, Dante moves through various “levels” of heaven, represented by the planets, the moon, the sun, and the stars.  As he moves further and further up, he also becomes more and more aware of himself and his place in the cosmos, before finally experiencing a vision of the divine.

Second, we have Saint Bonaventure, who described several stages of contemplation in his work The Soul’s Journey into God.  Much like Dante’s vision, these stages move through aspects of the natural world and the human soul, and they eventually lead to a joining with God.  In both cases, movement seems to go in two directions at the same time, up to the heavens, and in to the soul. 

Certainly, several centuries ago, when these works were created, these two directions represented something of a movement into the unknown.  Today, we know much more about what happens in the cosmos and inside our own bodies.  However, many mysteries still remain, and the persistence of this felt connection between our inner souls and the outermost reaches of the universe is not so easy to explain.  A star continues to be something more to us than simply “a huge ball of flaming gas.”

In quantum physics, there is a phenomenon known as “non-locality”.  Albert Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance” and found it very hard to accept, because it seemed to violate one of his basic conclusions: that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

Now, I’m not extremely well-versed in quantum physics, but I’ve read a little bit about it, so I’ll do my best to give you an explanation, which I think is fairly accurate.  Here’s a link to a website that might do a better job:

More or less, the idea of non-locality is that, when two particles interact, they become permanently linked, and that, no matter how far away they move from one another, a change in one of the particles will result in an instantaneous, corresponding change in the other particle.  For example, electrons have a property called spin.  If two electrons are created together, they have to have opposite spins.  Later, after they have moved apart, say that the spin of one changes.  The spin of the other also changes at the same time, even though they’re not together anymore.  The question, of course, is “How does the second electron ‘know’ the spin of the first electron?”

The answer seems to be that distant points in the universe can be intimately connected, in ways that we don’t fully understand.  Now, I’m moving completely into the realm of conjecture and speculation here, but could the connections we feel be related to this idea of non-locality?  Is it possible that, right now, we are literally linked to different points on Earth and in the universe, within an infinite web with unseen strands?  Does it mean that changes in one’s own life, maybe even changes present only in one’s mind, can affect those distant points?  What would this mean?

In my opinion, it speaks to the complex interconnectedness, and the profound interdependence, of our lives.  We can say, with Douglas Sturm, that “we cannot be what we are, we cannot do what we do, we cannot accomplish what we accomplish apart from one another.”  We can say, with Elie Wiesel, that “as long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true.  As long as one child is hungry, our life will be filled with anguish and shame…Our lives no longer belong to us alone.”  It speaks to a great responsibility that defines our relationships with one another, that informs our connections to the natural world, and that shows us the value of all life.  It shows us the unity of all life, while maintaining the diversity that allows this life to flourish in all its various aspects.

About a week ago, I was riding in a taxi in the late afternoon, and the sun was approaching the western horizon.  The clouds and the sky on that day made the sun appear as a soft, red globe, and I could look straight at it without hurting my eyes.  It looked so calm and so peaceful, gently sending out the energy that fuels life on this planet.  Then, I thought about what is happening inside of that star, the chaos of atoms flying around at crazy speeds, passing one another, bouncing off each other, and, sometimes, fusing together to create something new and different, giving off huge amounts of energy in the process.  I saw it as a kind of model for our own connected lives.  We are, all of us, works in progress, trying to do the best that we can, but often falling short in our efforts.  We don’t always live up to the responsibility we have to one another.  We don’t always show the compassion and acceptance that should characterize our connectedness.  Sometimes, we seem to take steps in the wrong direction.  We see the diversity that characterizes a healthy community, and we mistake it as a source of division, conflict, and chaos.  We see the differences of others as threats, rather than as opportunities for growth, understanding, and love.

But, through it all, we maintain our faith – our faith in one another, our faith in humanity, and our faith in the forces that pull us towards greater levels of connectedness and community.  We maintain our hope that, one day, chaos will turn to cooperation, hatred will turn to humility, loathing will turn to love – that our discordant interactions will eventually coalesce to create something new, life-affirming, complex, and beautiful.

Sunlight contains all the colors of the rainbow.

Harmony cannot exist without diversity.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Changing Perspectives 2 - Night and Day

This is the second installment of my little “Changing Perspectives” series.  If you read the first post, you know that I talked a little bit about common connotations of the words “black” and “white”, and how those connotations might be harmful.  The topic for this post, “Night and Day” (mainly focusing on the “Night” part), certainly sounds very similar, but, while I think its starting place has parallels with the previous post, it ends up moving off in quite a different direction…

            Now it is the time of night
            That the graves, all gaping wide,
            Every one lets forth its sprite,
            In the church-way paths to glide

                                                 - Robin Goodfellow (aka Puck)
   A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare

I counsel you by way of caution to forbear from crossing the moor in those dark hours when the powers of evil are exalted.

 - Sir Hugo Baskerville, in a letter to his sons
   from The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I had an interesting relationship with the night when I was a little kid.  I remember trying, however I could, to figure out ways of pushing back the inevitable end of each day known as “bedtime”.  To this day, I continue to stay awake deep into the night (and the early hours of the morning).  But, I remember a few instances during my early years when I was seriously afraid of the dark, afraid of being alone in my bedroom, afraid to close my eyes.  This usually occurred after watching a particularly scary movie (for example, when I was very young, I’m pretty sure I thought Ghostbusters II was really creepy – only years later did I realize that it’s supposed to be funny, when I started actually listening to the dialog and not focusing all my attention on that creepy picture of a very angry-looking medieval guy).  Anyway, during those times, I remember buying into the whole idea that night was the realm of scary things, of demons, goblins, ghosts, and gremlins, and that the morning sun would send all of these evil beasts running for cover and wash away our fears.

Why does the night get this less-than-savory reputation?  Why are the powers of evil supposedly exalted during these dark hours?  My guess is that it has something to do with our difficulty seeing at night.  Without that huge light bulb shining above in the sky, our vision becomes pretty limited.  Even on clear nights, with a full moon, we lose quite a bit of the depth of that particular sense.  The myriad colors of our waking world fade into varying shades of gray, and objects that would be simple to identify during daylight can appear distorted, and potentially ominous.  Perhaps the night brings to light a subtle fear of the unknown.  “I’m not completely sure what that tall, dark object is over there, and I have to say that I’m a little afraid of it.  Perhaps it’s just a tree, swaying in the breeze, or perhaps it’s something a bit more sinister…”  We’re not sure what’s out there, what’s coming, what’s up ahead, and that uncertainty can be a little frightening.

And yet, for the most part, I experience the night as something beautifully different than the day, as something that feels almost magical.  Indeed, literature does not only highlight the seemingly evil aspects of the evening.  Some works are much more balanced in their portrayal of the magic that takes place in the darkness.  Take those poetic lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which began this post.  The lines that immediately follow put different magical creatures on display, ones who are a bit more benevolent (although, if you know the play, they also enjoy jokes at others’ expense from time to time…)

            And we fairies, that do run
            By the triple Hecate’s team
            From the presence of the sun,
            Following darkness like a dream,
            Now are frolic; not a mouse
            Shall disturb this hallow’d house

When I say that night is almost magical, it’s important to know that I’m not referring to the nightlife one might experience in a big city.  I’m talking about night out in the country, when the world goes to sleep, when I feel the cool, refreshing evening breeze blowing across my face and through the leaves on nearby trees, when I hear the ensemble of insects and other night-time creatures serenading the darkness, when I smell the grass beneath my feet, the grass that, perhaps, seems a bit more welcoming at this hour, when the sun is gone and the warmth of another life is close at hand.  (Admittedly, it’s probably much easier to enjoy the night and feel its beauty when one lives in a place where every night throughout the year is basically a midsummer night.)  It’s true that our sense of sight is hindered during these hours, but our other senses can become heightened as we accept that fact.  The past few nights, I have sat on the floor in silence, with my eyes closed, and have marveled at the music all around me, music that often goes unnoticed when other thoughts, and other sights, are flying through my mind.

But our sight is not completely gone.  Perhaps the most beautiful part of the night, for me, is the starry sky above.  I also like looking at the moon, but sometimes I prefer the nights when the moon does not make an appearance, when the only lights in the sky are those distant suns, burning billions of miles away.  Some nights in Kalisizo, especially when the power is off, I can look up in the sky and see, in between the bright stars that I recognize, faint ones that I never even knew existed.  This little experience reminds me that, beyond these visible lights, there are millions more out there somewhere in the vast expanse.  Stars lead us to remember the grandeur of the universe, and they help us to recognize that this place we occupy is only an incredibly small corner of an infinitely larger existence.  Stars might even suggest to us our own seeming insignificance in this great cosmic reality, and yet, they might also help us to realize our potential to be more than what we are.

When I stand outside and lift my eyes to the sky, I feel, and I would guess that many of us feel, drawn to the stars.  For some of us, that draw might be related to scientific exploration and discovery, and, for some of us, it might be related to philosophical contemplation.  In any case, I think it always connects to an innate desire to know more about ourselves, to learn more about our place in the universe, and perhaps it even relates to an existential connection with the stars themselves.  In other words, by knowing more about those stars and what they are, we might be able to learn something about ourselves.

Several people have made the point that we are more closely related to stars than we might at first think.  If we look at the sun, and then look at a person, it’s pretty easy to tell that they are very different things, right?  Well, if we look at it from a different perspective, we find that we can actually trace our origins back to the stars.  (Don’t worry, I’m not about to go off into one of those theories about aliens coming to Earth and “planting” us here.)  Here’s a short excerpt from a book called The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, by Thom Hartmann:

“This is where all the matter of our world (except hydrogen) came from: it was created in the heart of a star.  Not only that, the star had to die for those elements to reach us.”

The point Hartmann makes is that, early on in the life of the universe, we basically had a lot of subatomic particles, which eventually combined into hydrogen atoms.  Those atoms of hydrogen came together, as a result of gravity, to form clouds that eventually collapsed into stars, which are fueled by nuclear fusion.  Nuclear fusion reactions are ones in which smaller atoms (hydrogen) fuse together to create larger atoms (helium).  This type of reaction gives off a ton of energy, which is why the sun is so hot and can supply the earth with so much radiant energy.  Anyway, as stars age, larger and larger atoms are formed (carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, calcium, iron, etc…), and, when a star finally dies, those various elements shoot out to find a new home.  In other words, the building blocks of all life on this planet were born in some distant star, long ago and far away.

So, in the middle of the night, we look up to those stars, and we feel a connection.  We feel that there is more to us, and more to the universe around us, than we can see with our eyes, and we search for that thing which we feel but cannot yet pinpoint.

            We are stardust, we are golden,
            And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden

                                                Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock”

I’m planning to go a little deeper into this whole idea of our connection to the stars in my next post.  Tune in next time…

P.S. – In fairness to other viewpoints on the concept of us as stardust, I will say that, in an episode of The West Wing, a NASA scientist is explaining the origin of the elements that make us up and comments, “I guess Joni Mitchell was right.  We are stardust,” to which Josh Lyman replies, “Or, put another way, nuclear waste.”