“ … the vibrations set in motion by the words that we utter reach through all space and the tremor is felt through all time.”
Maria Mitchell was a Unitarian in the nineteenth century, the first female American astronomer, the first woman elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences … and she discovered a comet. “Miss Mitchell’s Comet” was observed in 1847, and is a ‘non-periodic’ comet, meaning its pathway is unstable and influenced by planets and other celestial bodies. Non-periodic comets reveal deeper underlying laws of gravity and the complexity and richness of a universe often painted as dark and unknown.
That was 170-plus years ago. More recently, today we mark the sixtieth anniversary of the launch of Luna 1, the first human-made object to break from Earth’s gravity. It was intended to crash into the moon, but a malfunction meant it missed its target; however, it did yield data that has helped in the progress of scientific inquiry.
Both Mitchell’s comet and the launch of Luna 1 give the image of breaking barriers. Maria Mitchell broke through the ‘glass ceiling’ of American astronomy, which itself gained prestige from her achievements. Luna 1 abandoned the earth and orbits around the sun, and the failure to achieve its original mission is subverted by the success of its continued existence. We can see progress and achievement (rightly) in these stories.
From another angle, these developments are far more natural than we might expect. The comet and the spacecraft do not defy scientific law but reveal a deeper layer. Mitchell’s accomplishments did challenge the perceptions of what women could do, but through the revelation of human equality, a deeper and more significant ‘law’ than our society would allow. There is order, which when broken apart reveals something greater.
This is, for some, a time of resolutions. I have joked in the past about breaking my resolve on day two, and have suggested that we abandon the practice of making resolutions. This year, however, I am trying a different approach: resolutions as ‘return.’
Resolutions are often described as our effort to ‘break free’ from some part of us that is ‘bad’ – bad habits, mostly. If only we were able to achieve an ‘escape velocity’ for our smoking, drinking, eating, laziness, what-have-you. Rather than bound around the solar system, being pulled aside by every distraction, we yearn for the safe orbit of a Haley or Hale-Bopp.
However, just as science reveals an ever-expanding network of laws, and human knowledge plunges deeper into its truth, maybe what we yearn for is actually indicative of some deeper connection with who we truly are? Have we asked ourselves why we want to follow a resolution in the first place? Does it speak of some deeper longing or conflict – a memory of childhood joy, an abandoned passion, an irrefutable truth?
If this were the case, holding fast to resolutions would be more about achieving a greater authenticity than abandoning who we are. We are stepping away from the shallow perception of ourselves and gaining a deeper insight into who we actually are.
What is important is stepping back and appreciating who we truly are, and plan our return. What do our dreams reveal about us? It would be remiss for me if I failed to mention that Luna 1 was originally called Mechta, meaning ‘dream.’
Just as we’ve returned to January, let us return to ourselves.
This does not mean it will be easy, but I think it will give us a greater drive and purpose in this new year. I hope whoever we are, however we work, our work may be geared towards a greater expression of ourselves and gifts. Maria Mitchell once reflected. “I was born of only ordinary capacity, but of extraordinary persistency” – may our persistency likewise uncover the stars within us.