Reflective about life: Profound, peak experiences
Listen, I just hit the big six-oh-my-god, and that makes one a bit reflective about life in general.
I realized that of the many peak experiences I have had in my life, none have been more profound than the astronomical ones.
Don’t get me wrong. My marriage day and the birth of my children are way up there. But standing alone or with my family at night in the dark ranks up there, as well.
In my youth, I watched the moon set behind the trees. At that moment, as I watched Luna disappear slowly, I realized that the moon was not setting. I knew, not just in my head but in my heart, where it counts, that I was on a speck of rock spinning in the opposite direction. I was on a spinning ball hurtling through space.
Again in my youth, I saw the rings on Saturn for the first time. I realized at that moment that the universe was far different than my familiar world on Earth. I have watched, countless times, other children have that experience. They look. There is a quick intake of breath and a slow exhale. “Is it real?” they say. Yes, it is real, more real in some ways than our lives on planet Earth. In fact, showing the rings to kids is almost as good as seeing them for the first time myself, and I’ve had the honor of showing the rings a thousand times or more.
And later, as I looked up at the sky from Anderson Mesa in Arizona, I saw the Milky Way stretched across the sky like the backbone of God. I was looking at our neighborhood, our galaxy, 300 billion stars so far away that they looked like a silvery band cascading across the night. At that moment I knew, quite startlingly at three in the morning, the complexity of the universe we live in.
Even later, I stood alone at the eyepiece of the telescope at Perkins Observatory. In the field of the eyepiece was the Hercules Cluster of galaxies, each one a tiny smudge. I vaguely discerned one galaxy, five and then a dozen, each one a Milky Way, each one a galaxy of billions of stars. The cluster is one billion light years away. One light year equals about six trillion miles. That distance is incomprehensible, but it amounts to only 1/12 of the distance to the edge of the visible universe.
I felt small, but I felt powerful. I was in that glorious moment the tiny part of the universe that had come to know its vastness. I had become, however briefly, the mind of the cosmos.
And just recently, I awoke one morning from a deep sleep in the Shawnee State Forest and looked upon the “leaves of grass,” as Walt Whitman put it, waving proudly in a gentle summer breeze. And I knew I was seeing life and that the earth below me was alive and that the azure-blue sky above me was alive. I realized at that moment the oneness, the aliveness, of all things and that I was part of that grand, living unity.
To the grownups reading these lines, let me say frankly, I pity you because you will probably never know these things. More than a few of you will consider this emotional outburst silly and embarrassing, and I fully understand why. You are, most of you, caught up in the daily grind of surviving in this crazy, mixed up world. I myself am now caught up in that grind, and I experience these moments only in memory.
But your children may someday know. Above all things, I wish it with all my heart for them and for you. So take them out to those special places. I don’t mean those RV-invested places. I mean those empty, neglected places in the middle of nowhere. I mean some fine night when the moon is setting behind the trees. I mean those places where the stars still shine like diamond dust against the uncorrupted blackness of the night. I mean the places where the lawns are not manicured and the leaves of grass still wave untouched, unshorn, bravely in the wind.
Tom Burns is the director of Ohio Wesleyan University’s Perkins Observatory, and he would be very happy to answer your questions or sell you a ticket to one of its upcoming Friday-night programs. He can be reached at email@example.com or 740–363-1257.