In my solo tent, under the night sky I was alone in the Colorado woods, during a leadership workshop. I looked to the night sky as my bedtime reading. Seeing the Big Dipper, I was immediately oriented. By finding north from the Dipper, I then knew south, east, and west off the North Star. I could find my place, thanks to the Dipper.
So needed, so sure is the image of a Dipper, it’s easy to forget the Dipper is in my mind, not the night sky. Before the Dipper was our automatic pilot, the same stars were seen by other cultures, in other centuries, on their own terms.
To Native Americans, these same stars connected to form a Bear. Early Greeks knew north from this cluster of stars as a Wagon. The Chinese drew a Heavenly Emperor to remember the stars. We can remember things by associating them with the familiar. But all too often we get stuck in thinking the familiar is the only answer. The stars do not change. Only the map in our mind changes.
Many of us learned the periodic table of elements as a grid, lined up in rows of stacked straight lines to give us a familiar order. It’s easy to think of the elements as locked in a grid. Yet the same sequence of chemicals can also be drawn as a helix, or sequenced twirling in loops, or organized in a torus, the shape of a donut. The sequence stays the same no matter the format. The grid is not in nature; the grid is in our mind.
What could be more absolute than the sun rising each morning? Yet to the astronaut in a space station, orbiting the Earth, there are sixteen sunrises in twenty-four hours. The eternal constants of nature do not change. We change our perspective, and the picture changes. The very thing we understood as absolute, changes to a partial piece of a larger scheme.
What could be more absolute than numbers? We are familiar with calculating by tens. Yet other number systems use bases of two or twelve or sixty. Other systems give the same answer to a problem, but arrive at it through another model.
The cluster of stars, the sequence of chemical elements, the morning sun, or numbers all give ways to know the universe. These formations and formulations work. They point us in the right direction, unveil sequence, give us daily rhythm, and open the invisible world of numbers. They give us pattern we can rely on.
But there is another lesson within the sureness of these answers. Remember: these are our impositions, our templates, our models. Our answers are only toeholds to ever-larger truths. We fight wars, hold prejudice, picture the divine in a single way. The truths we hold most dear do not need to be dropped. They can grow as we grow. We still use the number ten system, even as we know there are multiple math systems, even negative numbers, even quantum realities.
We do not just live in the world, we live in our versions and views of it. Our answers can work so well for a time, we forget that there are other ways of seeing, believing, measuring. So multiply your points of view, enlarge your lens, and what looked like opposites may turn into variations on a theme.