Although I have spent most of my years since the age of 14 living in or near large cities (Tampa, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Chiang Mai, and Portland), I spent my childhood in the country. One of the habits I developed as a boy is staring up at the night sky. As long as the skies were clear, one could see many hundreds of stars in the sky, and as a young lad it was a very calming and relaxing thing to think of the larger order of the universe out there, so far away, a reminder that no matter what we faced, it was only a small part of a large universe full of empty space dotted with galaxies and solar systems, full of beauty and mystery.
Sometimes, if one watches a movie like Powers of 10 (which is a really good documentary on mathematics and scale), one can see hints of the complicated structure of the universe, in its threads, an order that has long drawn people to contemplate the supposed music of the spheres. No matter how far up or how far down one looks in the universe, there is a design far beyond our capabilities, that is within our grasp to appreciate if not to imitate fully. Sometimes it is an inspiring thing to see the way that creation is hung like a tapestry, for us to appreciate and enjoy it, but struggle deeply to understand it. Even if we cannot understand it as fully as we might wish, our efforts to wrestle with the creation around us make us better people for the struggle.
There is a certain meditation that can come from being in and appreciating creation. When I would visit the family farm in Pennsylvania, there was a place I would like to walk to on occasion by myself to muse and ponder my surroundings. The place where I would muse was near the edge of our farm, close to where a little creek that I humbly named after myself joined with another creek that was in the abandoned coal mine before meeting up with a slightly larger creek called that winded its way to a river (the Youghiogheny) that the local school district was named after, which met a larger river (the Monongahela) in the city where I was born, and then met another river (the Allegheny) to form another river (the Ohio), which went to a place famous in the Civil War (Cairo, Illinois) to meet up with another river (the Mississippi) that eventually led to the body of water (the Gulf of Mexico) near where I spent most of my life. It was comforting, in an odd way, to know that the water that came from the farm where one side of my family lived eventually would reach the area where the rest of my family lived. It was a comforting thought to think of how the distance could be bridged through the passage of water.
How strange it is that we are most ourselves when we are involved in what is around us. When we are focused on ourselves, we do not have the sort of perspective that allows us to see ourselves. As is the case so often, observation affects the reality that is being observed. It is striking, and somewhat odd, that an insight that we gain from somewhat advanced physics can help us when we deal with other people. The same insights that show how one cannot see the motion and position of an electron at the same time can analogously work in our lives so that we cannot see where we are and where we are going at the same time. And it is far more important to focus on where we are going than to be consumed with where we are in life at any given moment, especially when we are prone to be self-absorbed and overly critical about ourselves. At times, we just need the reminder to stare into the stars, or to meditate in a place where the still small voice that reminds us who we are can be heard.