Not long ago, I saw the Milky Way for the first time.
I was nowhere near a pristine lake in Montana, nor the windswept steppes of Patagonia, nor any of the vast, breathtaking landscapes I imagined would - and should - accompany that existentially perfect moment, both humbling and empowering, where one finds their place among the stars.
What was it that I imagined for myself, and why? In this fantasy I am probably someplace far way, literally and figuratively, from the grubby hands of civilization. Where sky and water and damp earth are untouched, where the light pollution that makes life so hard for astronomers and migrating butterflies and those who just want a good night's sleep, hadn't yet infiltrated. This is where you're closest to the universe as it really is, right? Where you can see, crystal clear, the giant celestial bodies from whence you came, stardust to dirt to life. We are all stardust, as Carl Sagan said.
And these are the places we come from: giant fireballs, hot, violent, explosive, spewing gas into the dark abyss. With no small amount of effort, their building blocks have collided and rearranged over millions of years to form drooling golden retrievers and stumbling chubby-cheeked toddlers and 29-year-old men who march into nightclubs and start shooting. We are all stardust. How does that make you feel?
If there is any place to feel the full weight and complexity of creation, I suspect that it is not in a place of purity, filled with all that is good and just and beautiful. We are obsessed with these places, our mythologies rich with eternal gardens and heaven and untouched forest. In its various manifestations there is an obsession with the idea of return, of going back to something purer - back to the land, back to God, back to simpler times, or, in its worst iteration, back to an imagined golden age that compels abusive policies to "make America great again."
But what does it really mean to go back? If you believe, as I do, that there is something transcendent in the human soul that connects us to a place of moral integrity and purity, how do we collectively find and return to that place? How do we find our way back to the stars?
As experience reveals, it is not by prayer, nor by escape. Not by simply wanting it so. In organic chemistry lab we learned how to purify compounds. There are many techniques, and most of the time they have to be used in combination. Distillation, recrystallization, precipitation, etc., etc. It is tedious and sometimes excruciatingly boring. It requires an enormous amount of preparation and documentation. The process is filled with error and you may have to re-do things multiple times before you get it right. And even then, it will never be perfect, but with enough hard work it might just be good enough.
Here are some of the impurities I want out of our world today: racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, loose and poorly enforced gun regulations, corruption in government, irresponsible investment on Wall Street, astronomical income gaps between our richest and poorest, disastrous drug and criminal justice policies. If we want to marvel at the stars in good conscience, it seems imperative that we have to put in the work. As our recently fallen champion Muhammad Ali told us, "Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth."
By the way, it was in a packed planetarium, neck craned up, uncomfortably sandwiched between strangers, that I first came face to face with the splendor of the Milky Way. The planetarium had recently installed new state-of-the-art projectors, and used them to throw bright satellite and telescope images of the night sky onto the giant dome above. It was not a perfect experience. But lots of people put in a lot of hard work to make it happen, and it was more than good enough.
For those gunned down in Orlando and every victim of violence on this planet, I hope you rest in power.