When I was a young boy, I used to entertain myself by standing on my balcony, gazing at the moon, the stars, and the planets through my telescope. Looking up at that sea of twinkling lights, it fascinated me that, upon closer inspection, some of those lights were actually colored discs instead of mere points of light. Eventually I learned how to identify several planets and constellations with the help of my trusty star wheel. As with many of my passing interests, I didn’t delve far enough into astronomy to actually make anything of this hobby. But even thirty years later I find that one residual trait has stuck with me all these years: I still get a calming sense of location whenever I venture out at night and look up at the stars. It helps me think. A clear night makes for a clear head, if only I take a moment to go outside and look up.
What you see when you look up at those stars tells an awful lot about you, doesn’t it? For centuries, different cultures have looked up at that sea of lights to find shapes of animals, mythological characters, or even kitchen utensils. People have ascribed ultimate power to the stars, as if some omnipotent intelligences therein are controlling our destinies from above. We’d better learn what those stars are up to, they argue, for they have the last word on everything from whom you should marry to which business venture you should invest in next. Still other people look up and see a single Creator’s artwork–the luminescent splattering of one giant proverbial paintbrush filling the skies with beautiful lights, perhaps for little else besides our own enjoyment, or for his, or both.
Both of these perspectives always struck me as terribly egocentric, even when I was a kid. Standing out there on that balcony, looking up at the stars, I usually felt something totally different: I felt my own smallness, my own insignificance. Far from being the center of the universe, I am actually just one organism living amidst billions of others (or is it trillions?) on one small planet in one small solar system in one galaxy among billions of others (or is it trillions?). My coming and going will make little difference in the vast scheme of things. That’s what a starry night tells me. And you know what? There’s something unexpectedly calming about that. It’s strangely comforting to have your mind snapped back into reality from time to time because it helps you deal with the world as it really is, rather than as you wish it would be. It puts things in perspective for me.
Like the ancient stargazers who saw lions and tigers and bears in the sky, we are always superimposing order and design where there isn’t any. It’s a human trait. Everybody does it. What we do to the stars we also do to our own lives–we superimpose order and design where there isn’t any at all. We look back and see countless experiences blending together to make us precisely who we are today. From this perspective looking back, everything seems perfectly arranged to produce who we are now, as if by deliberate design or fate. But the appearance of design is an optical illusion produced by the backward glance itself. If different things had happened to us along the way, we would have become slightly different people and would thus have viewed those alternate events with the same nostalgic reverence as the original ones. That’s just the way memory and human personality work. This tendency brings us comfort, of course, which explains its persistence. But it’s a quirk of consciousness and shouldn’t be too easily trusted if we are to ever learn to deal with the world as it really is.
I no longer believe that there is an invisible hand guiding the world around me. I believe that is about wish fulfillment; or if you will, it’s the ultimate conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theories appeal to us because it’s much easier to understand a single, powerful person or family or organization orchestrating major events to their own ends than it is to take in hundreds of unrelated causes blindly working together to make things happen the way they do. That’s too hard to wrap our heads around, so we prefer the simpler, more unilateral explanations. Realizing this bias does wonders for your ability to process life. Maybe this is what Socrates meant when he said you should first “know thyself.”
Nowadays I find when things get stressful and cloudy inside my own head, I can step outside on a clear night and lay down on the hood of my car, gazing up at the stars. The quiet vastness of it all grounds me, ironically, reminding me of how things are. To get to that mental place, you almost have to go outside, away from all the buildings, the clamoring conversations, demands, calendars, and computers. Out there you find a world that keeps spinning, keeps living, keeps growing, even without human ingenuity to keep it going. Life goes on and Nature keeps doing what it does regardless of what we do to change it for our own purposes. In particular, the stars themselves stand there, burning their fires and shining their billion-year old light towards us, telling us that the universe is a really big place. That makes me infinitesimally small by comparison, but it helps me to know my problems aren’t so big in the vast scheme of things. And the expansive silent emptiness of space also reminds me that there’s not someone “up there” pulling the strings to make certain things happen “down here.” Down here is where everything happens, and that’s where our minds need to be.
We need to be reminded of that so that we can get on with our lives and quit waiting around for someone else to save us or make our lives go the way we think they should go. It’s not gonna happen. The sooner we realize that the better. Life is short, and there are no do-overs. So this one life we have is suddenly worth so much more. It’s so precious because of its limited nature. Maybe this just strikes you as a depressing thought, but it inspires me to find all the meaning and value I can in the here and now. I want to make the most of this life now because I believe it is the only one we will get. It makes me take responsibility for what’s going on in my life instead of shrugging my shoulders as if to say, “Oh, well. Que sera sera.” This is a healthier approach to life and its challenges because it forces you to face things squarely, more directly. It makes you less inclined to stick your head in the sand (which is a recurring temptation of mine) and deal with what’s in front of you with all you’ve got.
So go outside once in a while and take a long look up at the stars on a clear night. Think about what you’re looking at. Then tell me what you see.