By Christopher Cudworth
From the top of a ridge in Governor Dodge State Park 45 miles west of Madison, Wisconsin, you can see the Milky Way quite clearly on a clear summer night. The stars that cover the rest of the sky are both random and collegial in terms of their apparent constellations. The Big Dipper, for example, is always visible if you know where to look. Yet lying on my back in the dark waiting for "shooting stars" to go zipping through the night sky, the odd shape of Scorpio seemed to emerge as well.
It is kind of sad that we usually view stars when we are in our most tired state of mind. Perhaps we would revel even more in a brilliant night sky if we had not done something like ride our bike 64 miles in the hilly highlands of Southwest Wisconsin, followed by ample amounts of Old Style on a float trip down the Wisconsin River. That kind of day makes you kind of tired. But perhaps being tired enough to accept your humble state in the universe is really a good way to gain perspective on your worth and position in life.
It takes the Milky Way about 240 million years to make one full circle on its axis. That's plenty of time to get everything done in life if you correctly plan it out. But then again, life tends to happen rather quickly in the human sphere, as opposed to the cosmos.
Some people used to think we human beings were the center of it all, as if God invented earth to be some special sort of place in the greater realm of infinity. Well, guess what? The night sky says differently. It turns out we're really not that special at all. Even the love of God cannot entirely rescue the human race from its isolation in the cosmos. In the metaphysical sense, maybe, but in the practical sense, we're stuck here on earth for a good long while if we don't breed and pollute ourselves to death first.
The realities these days are stark. Whoever thinks we're headed in a good direction over the last 100 years must not really read the Good Book with any sort of insight or perspective. We're given this great gift of a place to live at the long end of a spinning galaxy that looks like milk against the blackness of space and all we can do is fight about whether the Bible says we have dominion or not?
That's pretty stupid stuff. It points out the reality that even the love of God cannot entirely rescue the human race from its well-documented narcissism. So we're screwed both metaphysically and in the pragmatic sense. What do we do about that?
Some of us try to exhaust ourselves sufficiently to have some humility. If you run or ride or swim far enough a certain sort of practical survival begins to enter your mind. Just like a soldier coming home from war, you are at once separated from society by your experiences and at the same time a bearer of great truth if anyone has the will or patience to listen.
Instead people keep shoving junk food in their mouths and pretending that things like the NFL and the NBA and MLB and the NHL are really what matters, 12 months a year. What we chronicle in those leagues is a weak reflection of the greater Milky Way and massive cycles of cosmic evolution and the conflicts of survival and death that occur every day, and all around us. Still, we lack in depth of appreciation when we substitute logos and jerseys for the real thing, our own cycles of existence.
How to Get Real
Here's a clue on how to get real. Take your bike out and go ride up a big hill. When you're halfway to the top and can hardly pedal any more because you're exhausted and going too slow to care, try saying a prayer and see if God actually helps you up the hill. Most likely you'll see it doesn't really work that way. Oh, you might get a really great answer about your destiny once in a while, because God is as entertained by the theater of destiny as the rest of us.
But it's never even as simple as "God helps those who help themselves." It's more like,
"God provides inspiration and a grace in purpose to help you up the hill, but the rest really is up to you." That's true whether you're a believer or an atheist.
Surprise! So much of life is common ground if you strip away the ideologies we wear like Ray Bans over our eyes. Then you can actually see the tarsnakes under our collective feet, and it's called humanism. It joins us all, but some people fear it as if it were hell itself. Those people cannot tell the difference between reality and fantasy. Frankly, their religion suffers as a result.
What do you honestly expect God to do? God is not some cosmic control freak pushing you around like a pawn. The concept of spiritual free will and the theory of evolution both lead us to an inescapable conclusion. That is, the more you are attuned to the breaks you have been given, the more likely you'll comprehend the luck of your own survival and salvation, the righteousness and fulfillment of humility in the face of the cosmos. In other words, you'll appreciate that bad things teach us good things while good things teach us now not to be bad, or stupid, or wasteful in the face of the very grace of our meager existence. And that, my friends, really is the secret of life.
The Human Race
As a human race we might already be halfway up the hill of history as far as our sustainable existence goes. With Americans burning up 25 % of the world's resources for something like 3% of its people, we're really not a very good role model for cosmic stewardship. In fact, we're little more than a black hole even as we claim to be a City on a Hill.
Gaining a Little Perspective
But those of us who stand outside the galaxy of our own hubris, looking into the nation's history as if we were gazing into the Milky Way itself, can see that what goes around comes around. Some call that karma. But it doesn't matter what faith tradition or agnostic insight or atheistic formula you use, because it all teaches us the same thing. We're not the center of anything, and we control even less than we can imagine and we waste far more than we can afford.
Which isn't much, because all you have to do to throw your imagined world into complete chaos is to go out and gaze at the clear night sky. Then you'll realize that nothing you imagine about the world we live in is consequential at all. The 7 miles of atmosphere we claim to possess is little shield against all that burning gas and dark energy. So why poison our fragile existence by crapping it up with wasteful disregard? Because we can.
Because we can? Because God gave us the right of dominion? That's not the way it works, folks. And here's a clue: if your literal interpretation of the Bible or the Koran or any other book tells you it does work that way, that you get to be selfish because God gave you the right, then you didn't learn anything about selflessness or sacrificial grace in the first place. Causing earthly ruination, death and suffering through exercise of your own ignorance and selfishness is not the pathway to salvation. If your Bible seems to tell you that, perhaps you're reading it upside down, or backwards. The book of Revelation is a warning, alright, against the practice of religion that says everything you see is something you own. People borrow time on earth. We do not own it.
Working Off the Hubris
You appreciate these things when the sweat is rolling down your sunglasses so hard it looks like rain on a Tuesday in April. And when you've climbed hills and shivered down terrifying mile-long descents in the early morning dusk, you begin to appreciate that any moment you could keel over and crash, and be done with it all.
I have personally stared that specter straight in the eye. A year ago yesterday I rode downhill near the American Players Theater in Spring Green and felt my bike defy the apparent laws of physics as the entire frame began to shake as if it were made of rubber. Bike wobble, they call it.
Losing most of the control over the bike, I did all I could to crash in a grassy ditch, shattering my collarbone in three places but surviving for the choice I was able to make in those precious seconds. You can read more about the experience, but the point this year's return was, of course, to confront the scene of death-defying destiny that almost took my life.
More Lessons Than You Can Handle Sometimes
The spot where I crashed last year was 25 miles into the ride and just past a mile-long climb where the last 40 meters were a 13% grade and let me tell you, that hurts. You're barely recovered as the road tosses to the left and then pours down a hillside toward the Wisconsin River and Taliesin, the home of Frank Lloyd Wright. That's why the ride is called The Wright Stuff, which is a play on words for those of you who still like to think in strictly literal terms.
This year I knew to clamp my knees on the top bar of my bike to prevent bike wobble. Still, the road turned bumpy and I was forced to will away fear and until I passed the spot where the crash occurred last year. And at that moment, I knew I had come full circle in a number of ways.
Cycles of Change
Things have changed in profound ways from just a year ago, as if all 240 million years of my personal galactic cycle had passed in just 365 days.
A year ago my late wife was entering the final phases of her life and those final months were like a repeated eclipse of her physical and emotional presence.
But strange things were at work. Weeks before she passed away, I found a job I love after being out of work longer than I'd have liked. That gave her some peace knowing things would turn out okay for me and the kids. The 8 years we spent nurturing her through repeated cycles of cancer treatment were concluded. It was over. It had been a fantastic journey.
As for me, the metal plate holding my collarbone together these days is a quick reminder to pay attention to the cycles of life, and their interruptions.
Rotation and Expectation
The galaxy keeps on rotating. Good and bad things continue to happen. So you keep on moving whether you like it or not
When you find yourself halfway up a massively difficult hill (re: Sisyphus) you somehow keep turning the pedals to keep coming full circle. The real goal is to come out of the experience humble and true. That's the best path, after all.
We could all do well to keep such goals in mind. Not of conquering life and this world in the sense of domination, but of nurturing our abilities to know what's best, with insight, so that we can all survive together.