Wondering about the real stars

Posted: Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Another holiday season is here. Christmas trees will soon have a prominent place inside most homes. Many of them will be topped by an ornament that's supposed to represent the star of Bethlehem. But if we look past its symbolic origins, we might see much more than a spiritual icon.

According to the Christian tradition, the Christmas star hung in the sky over the place where Christ was born. It guided three wise men across many miles so they could deliver their gifts to the newborn king of the Jews. It doesn't really matter if people accept this biblical narrative as factual or regard it as a theological metaphor. A single star would have no place in this story without first appealing to our innate sense of wonder.

The night sky has always fascinated humankind. Every ancient culture has its spiritual narratives centered on particular stars or constellations. And they have long held the attention of pragmatists as well. Just as the ancient Greeks mapped the stars to aid their navigation at sea, nomadic tribes used them as guides for crossing the great Egyptian and Babylonian deserts.

The split between the spiritual and practical applications of celestial phenomena grew wider as our civilization advanced. Some scientists looking for rational answers now believe Matthew may have actually been referring to a real astronomical event such as a comet or the explosion of a supernova. But scientists need to wonder, too. They don't seek to unravel mysteries that aren't first perplexing to the human imagination.

Today, the spiritual and scientific views of the world compete with a mutant phenomena we call the economy. It's referred to as a branch of social science that attempts to understand the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services. And many people trust Wall Street preachers while faithfully participating in the mass consumption effort made possible by the industrialization of society.

Sadly, the spirit of giving during the Christmas season is misconstrued by the money experts as an indicator of the country's economic health. Retailers see it as their busiest time of the year. The shoppers in their stores will pile presents under the Christmas tree which will draw attention away from the meaning of the lonely star perched on top.

In any case, it's only a mass-produced decoration made from some inexpensive synthetic material. The real stars are in the sky. That is, if they can find us through the glaring intensity of our city lights.

Do we ever wonder what happens when starlight doesn't reach us? Sure, we don't need them to navigate anymore. And we've become sophisticated enough to know they are like our Sun. They're just trillions of miles away and are of little consequence in our daily lives.

But does starlight travel light years just to intrigue the human mind? Until recent times we never knew that exposure to natural sunlight produced vitamin D which helps alleviate depression. If we can accept that daylight affects our psychological well being, can't we wonder if starlight might too?

What is wonder anyway? The word has origins in awe inspiring sights and the emotion they elicit. It often evokes a search for understanding. Could there be something to be learned by wondering about the stars?

I know. Looking to the stars for answers falls under the guise of astrology. It's that old superstitious-like desire to discover something important about our personalities or predict our future. It's nonsense.

Yet the act of wondering without wishes alters our state of consciousness. Dedicating some of our precious time to wonder might slow down the pursuit of material desires. Looking outward to phenomena that fascinates us can reveal uncharted depths in our imagination. Along the way we may even discover something profound about who we really are.

Unfortunately, the stars in the winter skies of Southeast Alaska are usually hidden behind clouds. That's all the more reason though to notice them on a clear cold night. Consider giving them a little more than a passing thought. It may take practice to restore wonder as a worthy endeavor in daily life. But maybe that's what the stars are all about.

• Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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