So it seems like the country is going to hell in a weirdly hyped hand basket. Maybe the whole world, even.

No matter what you are for, there are others vehemently against it. More than ever, things that seem obvious, like two and two equals four, are being challenged from all points on the spectrum: “Four is just a concept,” “numbers are relative,” “it’s not really two and two,” “it depends on your point of view.”

So many voices shouting so loudly and shrill, often with such overwrought force and media-driven hysteria, my throat aches even trying to reply, like stupidly attempting to have a serious discussion at a decibel-pounding after-hours club. One feels compelled to pull back, Balkanize and stop even trying to communicate ideas, thoughts, beliefs.

It wasn’t quite dark enough outside, and the New York City sky is among the most light polluted in the world, so not a single star could be seen. Yet what I saw through that telescope blew my mind.

What’s needed is to instantly get away from it all. Get some perspective. See your life as part of a much, much bigger, timeless continuum and way less all-important. But getting some actual, physical distance is essential—not just from your immediate surroundings, politics, routine, future, problems, this country… but also from this planet!

“The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well,” wrote Douglas Adams in The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time, “on the surface of a gas-covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.”

Sorry, but I don’t have the quarter million dollars that it would cost me to grab a seat aboard the Virgin Galactic Spaceship Two. Besides, who knows when it will really be ready for takeoff? Months from now? Years? We need to leave Earth now, and I found a simpler and much cheaper way to leave…

* *

About a month ago, while strolling along Manhattan’s glorious Highline at sunset, my wife and I happened to pass a small group of amateur astronomers. How did I know they were amateur astronomers? Because each had a telescope and a small crowd of excited Highliners surrounded them, forming loose lines waiting to get a free glimpse. Also because I asked one and he told me: They were members of The Amateur Astronomers Association of New York.

Okay, this might not sound so awesome to everyone, but I have had a lifetime jones for all things astronomy. As a kid I would lie alone in my backyard on summer nights and record the exact times I saw various moving objects float across the sky. Then I’d call the Griffith Park observatory and, at least back then, be able to speak to someone who could confirm that what I had seen was, in fact, a particular satellite. I knew the names of a bunch of them. (I would also will any potential aliens to come down and choose me to communicate with, sadly to no avail.)

I relished learning about our solar system. I quickly memorized the acronym “Many Very Early Men Ate Juicy Steaks Using No Plates,” which was how I remembered the planets in our solar system in order of their proximity to the sun: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Asteroids (not a single planet but a belt of approximately one million, small, rock-like objects), Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto (recently sadly downgraded—thanks, Neil deGrasse Tyson!).

But I digress. On that perfect warm evening my wife and I waited, and within moments I too was looking in the eyepiece of a Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. It wasn’t quite dark enough outside, and the New York City sky is among the most light polluted in the world, so not a single star could be seen. Yet what I saw through that telescope blew my mind.

After a few seconds of eye adjustment, I spotted something, a tiny but bright object that all at once came into focus: Saturn! There it was, with its rings and everything. It was quite small, but it was definitely Saturn! The way I’ve seen it in photos a million times. Now I was connected to it, at least visually, 746 million miles away.

As I reluctantly pulled away to let my wife and the others take their turn at the telescope, I heard myself proclaim to the telescope’s owner, “I feel lighter.” With a nod he smiled and said, “I know.” Simultaneously, everyone in our cluster of stargazers began to concur. Yes, we all felt… lighter.

Literally lighter. And care-free-er. And momentarily without the burden of our bodies. And the sense of space around us seemed expanded and endless. And those are exactly the sensations that getting distance on something can produce.

That’s what happens when you connect to 746 million miles away: You intuitively realize that compared to the magnitude and scale of the universe we’re fairly, wonderfully, insignificant.

Plus, and this is an enormous plus: We also felt tiny… in the best sense of the word. Instant humility. In this world, in New York City especially, where it’s all about becoming big and never feeling big enough, where we can’t help chronically comparing ourselves and our size with everyone else, what a relief, what a fucking relief to suddenly feel unabashedly, unapologetically, uncontrollably and equally… tiny.

That’s what happens when you connect to 746 million miles away: You immediately, intuitively realize that compared to the magnitude and scale of the universe we’re fairly, wonderfully, insignificant.

In an instant my normal, human self-centeredness, including all my concerns about money, career and death, diminished to nearly nothing and what was left was the indefinable, ineffable aspects of air and expansion—my connections to others, the stuff of love and relationships… and delightfully, not much else.

* *

Planets, stars, solar systems, galaxies, spaceships, satellites—all of it turned me on until math stopped me in my tracks. Higher algebra, calculus, whatever—math just did not compute and that was the end of any aspiration I had of a professional career in outer-space-related endeavors.

But my awe and fascination continued and I’m obviously not alone. That’s why there are numerous amateur astronomy groups all over the world. That’s why celestial events like eclipses and meteor showers, among many astronomical phenomena, have such powerful universal resonance. Maybe this also explains why science fiction films are consistently among the highest grossing of all time.

During periods of change, uncertainty and stress, getting a fresh perspective might not last long and/or fix everything. Some suggest that a time of uncertainty is an invitation to grow beyond yourself and everything you have known. Whether a telescope alone is the answer and should be among the basic gear of the 21st Century gentleman or gentlewoman may be up for debate.

But finding a way to feel the awe and humility of a nearly secular religious experience should always be possible and available—especially for navigating our wild, breathtaking future.

Learn more about author Loren-Paul Caplin here and follow him on Twitter here.

Lead photo: twenty20.com/cuda1071 

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