A couple of months ago, I got to see one of the Starlink satellite trains entering orbit. Starlink is Elon Musk’s system of satellites that are supposed to provide Internet access all over the world. SpaceX has been launching rockets full of satellites for the past three years. Each rocket carries 60 satellites. They’re all connected via a single long cable, and they stay connected as they exit the rocket, furling out into a perfectly straight line along the cable – that’s a satellite train. Then the individual satellites separate and move to their specific places in the sky.
I saw the train last fall when I walked outside one night by chance. I looked up in the sky and saw what I thought was a line of stars – dozens of them all in a row. That’s how my mind registered it at first, as stars. Then I realized they couldn’t be stars, and my mind tried another idea. There’s a cable that runs across my yard between the utility pole and my house, and I thought, maybe it was raindrops hanging on this cable, catching the light. But the line of lights was in the wrong place for that to be true. Besides, it hadn’t been raining. And besides, also, the row of lights was moving.
At that moment, I thought, I have no idea what this is. But it was mysterious and beautiful. Also, the way it was moving, it was about to disappear behind the roof of the house. So I just stood and watched it, reveling in the sense of wonder and mystery. I hardly breathed.
As soon as the lights disappeared behind the roof, I ran inside to Google “row of lights in the sky” and found out what they were.
What I remember most about that moment was the beauty of those lights and the way they moved gracefully across the sky. I remember feeling the surprise, and how lucky it was that I had walked outside at the precise moment when I could see them. And I remember the way my mind automatically tried to make sense of them, trying one idea after another until it finally gave up.
I think it was the first time in my life I’ve been able to watch my mind in action, in real-time, and see how driven it is to make sense of things – to find logical reasons and explanations.
It’s what we do, as humans. We’re homo sapiens – meaning knowing. Humans are the creature that can think, question, reason, find answers, make sense of things. Not only can we do all that, but we can hardly help doing it. It’s automatic. It’s what we are.
Humans love coming up with answers. Even if they’re the wrong ones.
It reminds me of a story Peter Bigfoot, out at Reevis Mountain School, tells. Years ago, the story goes, he and a bunch of other people were camping at Circlestone, in the Supes. In the middle of the night, someone woke up and saw the sky on fire. That person woke everyone else up, and they all stood around in the dark watching waves of light all along the horizon.
Peter remembers them all agreeing, “They’ve gone and done it” – started World War Three. They thought they’d be hiking back to civilization and find it in ruins.
In reality, the lights they saw were the aurora borealis – the Northern Lights. It was an amazing, unusual thing to see the aurora borealis from Arizona, but that’s what it was. But instead of being awed and amazed, they were terrifying themselves with thoughts of the end of the world. Because that happened to be the first way their brains found to make sense of the lights.
It’s a tough balancing act, being human. We have this brain that wants to find answers, see patterns, arrive at conclusions.
But we live in a universe that isn’t so easy to pin down. It’s complex, mysterious, full of wonder and surprise.
What we first think is a star turns out to be a mere piece of machinery (although an impressive one). What we think is the end of the world turns out to be just a light show – a gorgeous, amazing one.
God gave us eyes to see and brains to know. But He didn’t make us infallible. We can be wrong, and we often are. A little humility – suspending judgment until we get the full picture – can go a long way.
Pausing before you believe the first thing your mind tells you gives you time to gather more information and ponder a little.
After all, you don’t know whether the light at the end of the tunnel is the exit – or a train heading for you – when you first see it. Makes sense to wait a little before you run like heck in the opposite direction.
But not too long.
Patricia Sanders lived in Globe from 2004 to 2008 and at Reevis Mountain School, in the Tonto National Forest, from 2008 to 2014. She has been a writer and editor for GMT since 2015. She currently lives on Santa Maria island in the Azores.