Looking At Stars With Alan Lightman

Along my youth, in the brief Wisconsin summers of my hometown, I use to creep from my bed and go sit on my family’s back porch roof and look at stars.

I could never sleep. The night was an electric zap that would shock me to life. I’d pray to the moon, who I sometimes would refer to as God, whisper my secrets in the indigo lush hours, and at moments would cry at the famous hush of greater things. This stillness and silence—the sound of divinity or mystery, was both a comfort, and disquieting, as the racket of my inner uncertainties and deepest hopes roared like a waterfall in my lit mind.

When young one can philosophize in ways that only the young can; with angst and an unbridled sense of certainty. There exists a mere two great paths of thinking: Knowing and Not Knowing. As children we rarely question whether we truly Know or Do Not Know. Complex processing, such as Might Know and Might Not Know, do not cross our paths. So writing and thought is pure freedom when we are juvenile; we do not parse our words. The universe is very reachable, and one reaches most eagerly.

Most of us will lose much of this ability as we age. We grow and our roots sink further down, and it becomes harder and harder to uproot us. We are not so easily surprised, not so easily scared, not so easily swayed, not so obsessive, not so pure. Complexity, both the grasping and performing of it, is something laboriously acquired. The ability to wonder and pick and choose shrinks inside the increasing days. We more and more so move into the arenas of Maybe, Perhaps Some, and For Now. But certain individuals have chosen professions that keep them in the Know and Do Not Know. Scientists and religious leaders often frequent this youthful way of being, remaining tucked inside wonder and concentrated thought.

In Alan Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine he states, “The most profound questions seem to have this fascinating aspect: Either they have no answer at all, or all possible answers seem impossible.” So Lightman’s questions are all our questions: Who are we; are we alone; what is truth; how should one seek truth. In these veins, all the blood flows back towards the heart. Lightman’s essays explore what combines and differentiates us, and in no less than poetic terms, waxes and wanes on humanity’s place in the cosmos and existence as a whole.

Searching_Stars_Lightman“Despite these exceptions, the Absolutes and the Relatives can be considered a large frame in which to view the dialogue between religion and science, or between spirituality and science. But I suggest that the issues go deeper, into the dualism and complexity of human existence. We are idealists and we are realists. We are dreamers and we are builders. We are experiencers and experimenters. We long for certainties, yet we ourselves are full of the ambiguities of the Mona Lisa and I Ching. We ourselves are a part of the yin-yang of the world.”

Lightman does what few writers can: He writes with the deft precision of both youth and age. Though a book that would attract more adult hands than young ones, make no mistake, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine is a book for youth. Lightman is an excellent teacher. His explanations for complex systems and far away concepts are down to earth and visual. His vocabulary remains within the margins of rudimentary comprehension while simultaneously willing his readers to stretch beyond their capabilities and perceive things through a glass darkly. He uses metaphor to aid in understanding, and stops it there, not risking the fall into misinterpretation by cementing the metaphor as strictly non-literal. Lightman does what few modern day writers think to do: He does not want to confuse you. Lightman acts as a cartographer to thinking, drawing out the roads of thought: Know, Might Know, Do Not Know, Might Not Know, Perhaps Some, and For Now. He travels these roads himself throughout the pages, guided by science, religion, curiosity, and simple faith. He at times gets himself lost in his attempts to chart uncharted lands, spiraling into meta-cognitive Möbius bands leading himself and the reader in circles. But Alan Lightman hopes for what everyone else hopes for: A place among the stars. And this openness creates space for readers of all kinds. Lightman makes room, and even through sections of disagreement and dismay between writer and reader, one still feels one is in the company of a teacher who respects and understands them.

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Portrait of Alan Lightman. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Books about science often chase certain readers away. This sometimes happens before the first page of an informed book can ever be turned. Intellectual snobbery, or the mere anticipation of snobbery, is a deep wide canyon that has been carved over centuries of scientific jargon being lobbed like gunfire in the faces of those who chose differently or had limited choices to start. The fixed mindset model has flourished in the post-Human Genome Project, neurobiological age, where it seems everyday there’s a news article reporting on some obscure study claiming to have found the latest brainbox or success gene. So determinism haunts Alan Lightman as well, and he questions whether he has ever truly chosen anything or if he is but a cog in the machine. Yet, in reading Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, never once did I feel Alan Lightman was telling me, “You can’t get it.” A patient instructor, Lightman whether consciously or unconsciously, believes in the power of teaching; that the mind is plastic, that change is not only possible but unavoidable, and that the great mysteries of the universe can and might be known, and that you – person not knowing what to do with their weekday off – can participate in this grand search. Be you scientific or spiritual, be you pessimist or optimist or pragmatist, you too can ponder the fabric of space and time and the meaning and intricacies of existence. And you don’t even need a PhD in quantum physics.

I am older now than I was back in the days of gazing at celestials on my back porch roof in a small town in Wisconsin. I live in Seattle, Washington now, and the stars are faded and gulped by the light pollution and smog of my congested, wakeful city. But I still look up. I think differently now than I did back then, kinder in my thoughts and less selfish, my place in the cosmos having shrunk from a gilded throne to a seat in the nosebleeds, but I still wonder. Wonder about space, about gods, about time, about ecosystems and evolution, and my own body and its multitudes. And it is comforting, and strangely beautiful to know, that on some island shaped like a lute in Maine, Alan Lightman is doing the same thing.

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Beautiful photo of the Southern Maine forest and the sky. Image Credit: USM/Southworth Planetarium – Thank you

Four out of five stars for Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine.

“I Will Remember You”: Lessons on Suffering and Joy

I was thirteen when the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu first reached my ears.

“Nothing, no one, no situation is beyond redemption, is totally devoid of hope.”

This is not the exact quote I heard on a PBS program back in 2000, but a rendition of these words reached me, and it is a lesson Desmond Tutu has reiterated time and time again over his long life as a religious leader and advocate for peace. My adolescence was turbulent, and unhappy, and those words resonated inside me, like a bell being rung. I bought Desmond Tutu’s book, No Future Without Forgiveness that very weekend, and have been reading Desmond Tutu’s words ever since.

And so in 2017 The Book of Joy made it to my hands. A collaboration between His Holiness The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, told through the genuine pen of Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy is much more than your typical self-help manual. It is a testament to Friendship, Perseverance, and perhaps most of all, to Hope.

Hope is the coalescence of our strengths and fears; it unifies all inner and outer complexities and molds them into a force for good. If we can hope, we can survive; if we can hope, we can still act; if we have hope, nothing’s lost, merely delayed. And though the book is titled The Book of Joy, I tend to think of it as ‘A Book of Hope’. It is a beacon of sure light in a dim, confusing time. The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, with knowledge and intuition, mind and heart, gracefully navigate through the labyrinthine landscape of the modern world, producing simple, practical truths. In the deft hands of these two practitioners, Buddhism and Catholicism merge happily, and we are taken on multiple journeys, exploring existence along many angles, all in the pursuit of experiencing our highest emotion: JOY.

The Book of Joy“I feel there is a big contradiction,” the Dalai Lama continued. “There are seven billion human beings and nobody wants to have problems or suffering, but there are many problems and much suffering, most of our own creation. Why?” He was speaking now directly to the Archbishop, who was nodding in agreement. “Something is lacking. As one of the seven billion human beings, I believe everyone has the responsibility to develop a happier world. We need, ultimately, to have a greater concern for others’ well-being. In other words, kindness or compassion, which is lacking now. We must pay more attention to our inner values. We must look inside.”

How do we look inside? The inception of The Book of Joy I believe comes from that question. Back in 2015, the Archbishop traveled to Dharamsala, India, to be with his dear friend the Dalai Lama on his eightieth birthday. Desmond Tutu, now 86 years of age, has been in turbulent health since a diagnosis of Prostate Cancer nearly two decades ago. Despite the warnings from his doctors, Desmond Tutu took the 20+ hour flight. His Holiness, and the Archbishop, both knew that it was possible their week together in Dharamsala might be their last, so it had to count. The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu have spent their lives in adamant purpose. Both from early life set out to carve a path for others, to create methods in which we may use to reflect on ourselves and others in ways that are emboldening to our better selves, pushing us towards a higher meaning. This book does not deviate from those paths, and in a way it is a joining of their journeys. Both religious leaders know their lives are closing, slowly, they feel it. The Book of Joy is a culmination of their large and daring existences on this planet, and the lessons they most want to impart to us before they go are inside the pages of this book.

JOY is nourished through eight roots, what in the book are called “The Eight Pillars of Joy”. These steps are punched out succinctly and quickly. They are:

Perspective

Humility

Humor

Acceptance

Forgiveness

Gratitude

Compassion

Generosity

Here, with this framework, one can begin to cultivate JOY. But it does feel a bit ‘cookbook’; it all makes it seem so easy. Is this really all it takes to be happy? To be joyful?

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Fabulous picture of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (right) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (left). Image Credit: Science and Religion Today

Understanding the onslaught of skepticism coming, the two teachers are quick to admonish this ‘mix and bake’ mentality. From the words of Desmond Tutu: like any muscle, you’ve got to work it to make it stronger. From the Dalai Lama: like any skill, you’ve got to practice. Nothing will happen over night, and depending on external/internal circumstances, it might take longer then you’d like. And though very few of us are ever likely to reach the enlightened state of the Compassionate Powerhouses Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, we will, through time, begin to see results. Joy can come into our lives, it can be achieved, no matter who we are, no matter what we have done; Joy can be had, and the chief way to attain it, is by giving joy to others.

The premise of Ubuntu comes up multiple times in this reading. Ubuntu, a South African word meaning, “a person is a person through other persons”, sums up one of the overarching lessons of The Book of Joy, submitting a reality of life often neglected by the modern world: that we are interdependent. No one is an island, we all depend on each other, for food, for protection, for happiness. We need each other. The other lesson, which is of Buddhist teaching, is impermanence. Nothing lasts, everything moves on, all ends and all dies. This is how the world is.

And the world is not always pleasant. In fact it is often hard. Throughout The Book of Joy we are told stories of heartache, exhaustive struggle, awful pain. I found myself openly crying on many occasion, my chest clenched as I would have to place the book down, heat rushing to my face with tears. This would seem to be in contrast to the book. A book about joy should be full of the good times, no? As revealed, tragedy is often a necessary component to JOY. We cannot know joy without knowing sorrow, a lesson that feels as old as time. The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu are no strangers to danger and heartache. They speak of their struggles openly, and their sincerity and acknowledgement of their pain nourishes their inner serenity rather than dispels it. There is a quietly spoken, resounding message in these pages: that living joyfully takes courage.

The end of this book was difficult for me. One of the greatest gifts this book brings us is the friendship between Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Their love for each other really, really shines. The affection reaches you, their connection is soulful, deep, lovely, full of fun and comfort. As someone who is lucky enough to have exceptionally close friendships, friendships I have held since the cradle and the first days of kindergarten, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama’s friendship was perhaps the most important part of this book for me, and it touched me in ways few books have. The ending is as most endings go: with a parting, uncertainty, and bittersweetness. Bittersweetness, which is by far my favorite emotion to experience, hits hard in the last pages. These two friends know that they must say goodbye, for perhaps the very last time, and their final words address the specter that everyone is thinking but none can bring themselves to say.

All things end, even great human beings. Even spiritual leaders have a number. In their final hours together, the Dalai Lama so elegantly phrases his deep and profound friendship with the Archbishop, that it is worth sharing.

“Then the Dalai Lama’s playful tone changed as he pointed at the Archbishop’s face warmly. ‘This picture, special picture.’ Then he paused for a long moment. ‘I think, at time of my death…’ The word death hung in the air like a prophecy. ‘… I will remember you.'”

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Five out of five stars for The Book of Joy.


The featured image of His Holiness and Desmond Tutu was taken at Dharamsala, India, during the Dalai Lama’s eightieth birthday celebration. Witness the irrepressible boogie of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Photographer/Image Credit: Tenzin Choejor – Thank you.