Radical Amazement

On the evening of December 21, 2020, we waited all day for the sky to turn dark. Perhaps you did the same. In fact, life on our planet had waited 800 years for a night like this to return. Jupiter and Saturn were a fraction of an inch apart in the night sky. I left the house with excitement to see this once in our lifetime event. As I searched the sky, a voice from across the street proclaimed, “This is amazing!” I walked toward him in the dark asking, “Do you see it?” As I drew close it became apparent he was looking through a large reflector telescope. “Here, take a look,” he said. The view drew me silent. There was Jupiter with several of its moons accompanied by Saturn, its rings, and two moons. Magic.

In the back of my mind was a seemingly contradictory reality. Saturn and Jupiter are separated by 403.3 million miles, much farther than the thin line of dark sky that kept them from appearing as one.

More neighbors gathered to look through the telescope and I moved into the background remembering that it was about 239,000 miles from earth to our moon and 742.5 million miles from earth to Saturn. The distances get crazy. Light travels at 186,793 miles per second and it would take light 5 ½ hours to get from earth to Pluto that is in the outer reaches of our solar system. Astronomers estimate there may be as many as 100 billion solar systems in our galaxy and 2 trillion galaxies in the observable Universe. And now some scientist say our universe may be one of many.

Size moves in the opposite direction as well. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis estimate there are 100 trillion (100,000,000,000,000) atoms in a single human cell and a similar number of cells in an average human body.

Somehow it doesn’t seem to make much difference if I choose to have beans or carrots for dinner.

December 22, 2020, Morning:
I reflect on the night before and how much it added to experience the night sky with our neighbors, some of whom we had never met. It hit me like a ton of bricks that none of us had been wearing masks. We were caught up in the moment, enjoying the event together. We had all forgotten the pandemic circling around us. Observing unfathomable distances, we had failed to remain six feet apart. Our shared magical moment was not a safe one.

December 22, 2020, Afternoon:
Directly across the street from us lives a woman whose husband had died three years ago. She is fighting a brain tumor and was not with us to witness the two great planets and now….and now, it front of her house was an ambulance preparing to take her to the hospital. Her universe shrank to the size of a stretcher and the distance from her front room to the ambulance.

Outside Space and Size:
Like the fraction of an inch between the planets, there was little distance between us and our neighbors and our friend across the street fighting to remain on earth a little longer.  Today it does not matter that the Universe is infinite. In our small universe our neighbors matter. Family and friends, separated for the holidays by the virus, matter. All are as close in spirit as Jupiter and Saturn in last night’s sky.

“He who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sunrise.”

William Blake (1757-1827)

I reflect on age. At 78, each morning I can feel my bones creak when I get out of bed to spend another day in my small universe. I am reminded this morning the universe is approximately 13.8 billion years old. The thought makes me feel young and grateful to experience the wonders of life. Securing my morning fix of coffee, I move to the backyard, sit in my familiar Adirondack chair, and watch the universe of small birds feast on birdseed and bathe in the birdbath. “The universe is more than size and distance,” I hear the birds say. “It is where the heart is.”

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement.… Look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted…. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

Jewish Theologian Abraham Heschel (1907-1972)

And what is it we hold onto as the years go by? Within the countless ages and immeasurable distances resides mystery. Does our flicker in time reveal that interwoven with the ages and great distance is amazement and love? It is faith that believes in our short time on a small planet we can reach out and touch the eternal.

Written by: Hartzell Cobbs

Hartzell Cobbs is the retired CEO of Mountain States Group (now Jannus, Inc.), a diverse nonprofit human service organization.  He is the author of the recent book, RavenWind, that is available through outlets such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Archway Publishing. His first book, Thanatos and the Sage: A Spiritual Approach to Aging, is available through Amazon.

More about Dr. Cobbs’ latest book, Ravenwind…

From ancient lore, down millenniums, traveling through worldwide mythologies, legends, and folktales, the mythical raven is entwined in the history of mankind. Most researchers agree that about twenty thousand years ago the first Americans came from Siberia across the Bering Land Bridge to what is now North America. The Siberians and their shamans were accompanied by the mythical raven who mediated between the physical and spiritual worlds.

With the Siberian influence, Northwest Native American mythology speaks of the raven as creator, destroyer, and trickster. As in Siberia, raven soars on the wind between the great spirit/mystery and the physical world. Raven teaches respect for earth and the oneness of all that is.

In RavenWind, author Hartzell Cobbs offers at look at the raven’s role in world history and in Native American myths, legends, and folktales. He tells how the raven of folklore calls one to follow, to listen, and experience life with all its complexity, insight, ambiguity, contraction, and humor. With an emphasis on Native American tradition, Cobbs explores the presence of mythical raven in the mundane.