Being six-foot-six, I’ve always viewed the world from a slightly higher perspective than most people. For instance I see the tops of furniture and people’s heads, and I can see farther in a crowd. No big deal. But that each of us perceives the world and other people differently—sometimes dramatically so due to our unique physical, parental, educational, psychological, racial, social circumstances and belief systems—is a big deal. Differences in perception, with its attendant communication challenges, is at the root of prejudices, disagreements and abuses that can provoke violence, even war. It has long been my opinion and personal experience that the effective management, perhaps even healing, of the negative consequences of conflicting perceptions lies in a closely related word—“perspective.” (Latin: perspectus, “clearly perceived.”)
I selected this image for contemplation because it beautifully depicts the nature of perception in the context of a whole system. Here, individual drops of oil are seen moving in relation to one another in a tank of water. Although the drops are identical in essence they are all different, each unique in size, shape and tonality due to its position relative to the light source. If they had eyes, each individual would perceive a “reality” different from the others. And we would not be surprised to hear them say, “Get out of my face!” “I’m bigger than you!” “I was here first!” “I will only merge with drops my size!” “You’re blocking my light!” “You don’t belong here!” “You’re ugly!”
In these instances the individuals are operating from the point of view of “I,” or ego, defining and ordering their world from their limited point of view. Given our senses, that’s normal and natural. Eyes, for instance, evolved at the top of our bodies so we could survey the immediate physical and social surroundings. Relating to—and as—members operating within larger whole systems is how we survive, grow, acquire and contribute. Even when we look up at night, the stars and planets seem not to be relevant to our everyday lives. We know it’s vast out there, but beyond its beauty and curiosity the cosmos seems to have nothing to do with earning a living, parenting, managing work, getting an education or making a difference in the world. Except when viewing a cityscape or mountain range, from birth to death our eyes are largely fixed on a plane not much wider than a football field.
At times I become so focused on and engaged in what’s happening around and in front of me—especially when it involves other people—it seems that life is only about my personal interests and concerns. “Out of sight, out of mind.” Since the beginning, narrowly focused perceiving has and continues to have survival value. But on December 7th, 1972 the astronauts of Apollo 17 expanded our vision by showing us the Earth from space. Suddenly, many of us awakened to the broader reality—that the planet is a living system, whole, undivided and evolving a species that’s profoundly altering it. Since then the Hubble Space Telescope and other technologies have been expanding our perception of the universe dramatically. The knowledge of processes and immensities scientists are currently glimpsing are beyond imagination.
- The big bang occurred about 14.5 billion years ago.
- Seventy percent of the universe is dark energy; twenty-five percent is dark matter; and only five percent familiar matter.
- With light traveling at 186,000 miles per second, it takes one million years for the light from the center of our galaxy to reach the Earth.
- Nearly ninety-nine percent of our solar system’s mass is in the sun.
- Our galaxy is 100,000 light-years across and 1,000 light-years thick.
- There are more than 200 billion stars in our galaxy.
- The solar system orbits the Milky Way every 200 million years—at a speed of 570,000 mph.
- Earth resides 25,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way.
- Light from the sun takes 8 minutes to reach us. We never see the sun in the present moment.
- The Carina Nebula lies 7,500 light years from Earth. It’s 140 light-years wide.
- There are at least 125 billion galaxies in the universe.
- Star V838 is 600,000 times brighter than the sun. Its size would engulf the solar system out to the orbit of Jupiter.
- In the center of the Sombrero galaxy there’s a black hole with a mass equal to a billion suns.
- Hubble has imaged 10,000 galaxies in the Fornax constellation, which is 13 billion light years from here.
- Galaxies 300 million light-years from us are moving away at about 16.5 million mph—and the expansion is speeding up.
- By one astronomer’s calculation “there are tens of billions of potentially habitable planets in the Milky Way galaxy.”
How do we respond to such immensity? What are we to think? How does it affect our perception of “God?” Astronomy magazines and images from space always increase my sense of wonder and appreciation. It’s like seeing the face of the Great Mystery. Beyond that, something more subtle is happening. And it took me a while to notice—the expanded perspective of the universe was occasionally asserting itself as a way to contextualize the challenging circumstances of my life, including the disturbing information and images being reported in the news. Standing back, a planetary and then cosmic perspective puts everything into perspective. Tragic events, personal and social breakdowns, disfunctionalities, violence and so on can trigger compassion rather than fear, disappointment or confusion. I found that a cosmic perspective also promotes understanding and patience by recognizing that humanity is engaged in a learning curve with respect to personal interaction and planetary stewardship. Especially, it impacts the arena of meaning—Who are we? Why are we here? What is the best use of our time and energy? As a species, What does it mean to be fully human? How do we get to right relationship? What’s the proper use of our power? What kind of world do we want for our children four generations out?
I observed above that a broader perspective can contribute to the management and healing of negative consequences due to conflicting perceptions. What has happened in the Congress of the United States is an excellent example of the disfunction, divisiveness and stalemate that occurs in a living system when its members vigorously champion and cling to their perceptions rather than debate their differences with an open, respectful and receptive mind. Collaboration and compromise is difficult; we have to give something of ourselves. We all like to think we know what’s right and best, and we’re advised to have the courage of our convictions, but it’s critically important to understand that the universe is indifferent. There is neither judging nor measuring. No “objective” right or wrong. There is only choice and consequences. Like the oil bubbles in water, we have to decide who we want to be, how we want to behave, how we will use our power and how we choose to perceive each other and the planet? The choices we make are critically important, because we create in concert with our perceptions. So what is it we’re creating—by our attitude, work, family life, votes?
I saw a bumper sticker recently that read “Life Is Good.” Given what we are, where we are (physically and in consciousness) and how we got here, I’d say life is astonishing!
The impossibility of arriving at ultimate formulations of reality does not represent a defeat for the inquiring mind. It is only final assertions that are suspect, not the process of knowing itself. For we each have a valid and important perspective on what is. And to the extent that we can acknowledge the partiality of this perspective, what we say stays clear and true.
About This Image
Title: Cosmic Bubbles
File #: CDC915
The camera was placed above a fish tank filled with water, sitting on black paper. Using an eyedropper, I placed a small pool of cooking oil on the surface, stirred it up and in total darkness made an exposure with a flash unit to light the bubbles and freeze the motion. Being a random process, there was no way to predict the resulting image, so I shot nearly a hundred frames to get perhaps two dozen images that looked interesting.