Last night,Â the management company thatÂ owns the business complex where I work set up a stage in the quad between my building and the one across the way. Every once in a while, they’ll do special things for all the tenants, likeÂ host ice cream socials, picnic lunches, or beer and barbeque happy hours. It’s good PR, and it keeps everyone happy for at least a little while.
Well, after work yesterday I wandered outside to discover they had an evening of live music planned.
You know, it’s funny the situationsÂ whereÂ an understanding of the world through science andÂ critical thinkingÂ actually bolsters the “spiritual” state many think is reserved for only true believers. I practice healthy skepticism, but as an emotional creature, I still often need my opiate, I need something good for my soul. And even though I don’t use the opiate favoredÂ by the proverbial masses, I’ve found thatÂ one borne ofÂ understanding instead of ignorance can be extremely powerful.
You see, as the sun was setting, the sky was clear, and the band and the lunar eclipse were bothÂ but a few moments away. I was excited, because I was going to get to see the eclipse and listen to some live music all at the same time. Two very goodÂ opiates for this heathen.
Those of us in the quadÂ gathered into a more cohesive crowdÂ just as our little square of the Earth rotated away from the reach of the sun’s rays. And while milling about, waiting for music, thinking about theÂ beauty of nightfall and the grand celestial mechanics that make it work, I realized the hour had progressed toÂ a moment when our early brothers and sisters (early humans)Â perhaps felt the first pangs of fear at the approaching darkness.
Onstage, a man arranged the instruments for the show.
Before long,Â the sun dipped far below the horizon, and that old, inky nemesis leaked into the sky, as it does every evening. But with a child’s knowledge that in due course, the world would be light again, we offered no prayer that the great fire would return to the sky, and sought no shelter from the emasculated spirits that haunted the dreams of the ancients.
Neither darkness nor superstitions about its denizens stir more than mild amusement in us now, and none in the sparse crowdÂ last night troubled his head over either. At this point in our history, weÂ may still be a scared and trembling species, but as time goes by, and as our need to discover compels us to progress farther from the trees and caves and the plains, we tremble less and less.
It may well be that I alone attended the foibles of our early brethren at that moment, for such is the state of our thinking, or lack thereof,Â most times. But when the universe awoke fully, and the night sky exploded with starlight, many of my companions took note, offering prosaic yet heartfelt words on its beauty.
I personallyÂ was movedÂ in aÂ familiar way. Seeing and imagining the size of the universeÂ and its terrible beauty has always been a source of inspiration for me, and the factÂ that itÂ ebbs and flowsÂ according to naturalÂ processes, a source of amazement. The stars twinkled from the other side of time, and the moon rose slowly. It would only be a short while beforeÂ it was eclipsed, and turned an orangy-red.
IÂ prepared myself for that moment, butÂ instantly marveled thatÂ such profound anticipation could beÂ triggered byÂ simply anÂ impendingÂ eclipse. I know why an eclipse happens.Â Observation tells usÂ that an eclipse is not really that rare, and it’s not a great leap to think that eclipses, or some variation thereof, happen millions if not billions of times everyday throughout the galaxy.
But that knowledge doesn’t reduce the feeling of wonder I get when I see one. It doesn’t diminish my amazement. The size of the bodies involved, the forces at work, moving those bodiesÂ along their paths, and the geometry they have carved out consistently for eons, enforce the feeling that I am small and insignificant, but also instill the feeling that I am a living part of something large, something grand.
There is something very comforting in that, and something very spiritual, even though we have an understanding of how it all works. It has an emotional impact on me, even though we knowÂ the universe needsÂ no magical beings to do what it does. It evokes a desire in me to commune with it in more meaningful ways,Â and I’m elated because IÂ knowÂ weÂ will get there without having to die first.
How fitting that that which exists beyond this globe be referred to as ‘the heavens’. For if heaven be paradise, certainly to venture out among the wonders and the unknowns is a paradise meant for us to attain. Why bandy a comparison between ‘the heavens’ and ‘Heaven’ from the old mythologies? In one lies the future, in the other stagnation.
The old fantasies are great diversions, but diversions that can ground us forever, if not held in proper perspective.
But as we looked to Venus and at the very old light of the constellations and as far as we could stretch our vision, science muscled in, announcing itself in the lights and amplifiers onstage.
A nugget of sadness lodged in me, and dare I say others, that our dreams of the heavens had been interrupted. ButÂ in the activity onstageÂ and in the devices and equipment used to present the show, we all saw that ours is not merely to dream, ours is to achieve, and the method that allowed the interruption is the magic that will ultimately take us to our dreams.
We clapped and cheered as the band played. The celebration was underway.
The joyous cacophony seemed to stir nature, and she sent a dark legion of clouds to investigate, each spewing fire and strident anger at having to perform the chore. I was disappointed. Seeing the eclipse, and indeed the canopy of stars overhead, would now beÂ impossible. But at the same time, I was elated that the atmosphere had given me another opportunity to beÂ astounded without anyÂ need forÂ dogma or mythology or blind faith. The thunderstorm was powerful, and frightening, and right in front of our faces.
How those of old would have trembled.
But contrary to the fashions of poetry, we no longer find gods and demons behind thunder and rain. There is no one to thank or to curse for the storms. There are instead the amazing mechanisms of nature to inspire awe.
I imagined that somewhere in each of us, the idea that we are the product of beautiful randomness took hold, but the further notion that our reason for living isÂ only what we make it also flowered. We have such a short time to walk this planet, and to breathe, and to laugh, and to love, we dare not waste it on dusty contrivances whose withered beauty pales next to that of the truth.
It seemed others had similar thoughts, as we set aside our umbrellas and reverted to something that might have seemed primal. We pulled off our shirts, and we danced in celebration of the glorious cosmic eye blink called life. The instruments and magic we created resonated onstage, and the cool shower sprinkled from the thunderheads, and the heavens awaited our arrival beyond the angry blanket and the ever-thinning air above it.
And we raised our hands and our faces to the sky, and we all sang.