Wednesday, September 20, 2023
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Stargazing’s Lessons for Living – Sky & Telescope

Crescent Nebula and the Soap Bubble in Cygnus
Enjoying an elusive dark-sky object, like the Soap Bubble pictured here, takes patience and diligence.
Jeff Reitzel / S&T Online Photo Gallery

I think stargazing can make you a better person. At least, it reinforces some of the qualities I most want to nurture and develop in myself.

Stick with me on this.

Stargazing teaches patience, because you have to wait for the Sun to set, for the stars to rise, for astronomical twilight and true night to descend, and for the turning of the seasons. By the same measure, stargazing is a continuing exercise in acceptance because, as much as I’d like to, I cannot push the cosmos.

I cannot will the stars to do my bidding any more than I can change the political landscape with a wish. Change comes slowly, but it does come.

This avocation requires diligence and a methodical mindset when it comes to choosing targets and tools, planning the evening, and setting up and using my equipment.

That’s not to say there’s no spontaneity or intuition involved; grab-and-go nights and opportunistic cloud breaks are their own kind of magic. But when you invest daylight hours in researching the coming night’s attractions and making an observation plan — for the night, the season, or even the next year — it builds a studious kind of anticipation. There’s satisfaction in successfully finding and enjoying an elusive deep-sky object, and sometimes I think the preparation — and trial and error — are easily half the fun.

Through my experiments with different pieces of equipment, I’ve learned that I relish the hunt for celestial targets. I like solving problems and figuring things out, which currently has me looking into setting circles and inclinometers. While I like the idea of a little robotic, electronically assisted astronomy scope for its pretty pictures, I would still be outside nudging along my Dobsonian or peering through a pair of binoculars in my zero gravity chair. I’m also the kind of person who prefers a manual transmission to an automatic, for what it’s worth.

Astronomy teaches community, communication, and both generosity and humility. The stars will show you what you don’t know; swagger is no substitute for quietly learning your way around the night sky — or, in my professional life, for figuring out how book marketing works. No matter how much experience you have, astronomy provides countless opportunities to ask questions, to learn, and to share what you’ve learned with others.

I especially love that backyard astronomy cultivates curiosity and inspires life-long learning and discovery. Stargazing encourages me to approach even really old things — like distant stars — with fresh eyes and a sense of awe.

My inherent and easy amazement is both a life theme and a running joke. Early in my relationship with my partner, M, we were in the freezer section of the local Thriftway when I stopped short to marvel at a box of Neapolitan ice cream bars — a novelty I’d never seen before. “Yes,” M teased me, “the world is alive with magic and wonder.”

It’s a phrase I’ve repeated back to him many, many times when I make a new-to-me discovery. So I suppose stargazing is a natural fit.

Courage is something I’m still working on. Amateur astronomy has led me to push personal boundaries and step outside my comfort zone — like overcoming anxious resistance so I could race across town at a moment’s notice when an 8-inch Dobsonian became available from my astronomy club’s telescope library. But I’m still the ninny who got chased inside the house by low growling coming out of the darkness. A flashlight revealed a pair of raccoons in a defensive posture a few yards from my stargazing spot. I’d already grabbed my binoculars, but I gave it awhile before I had M go out to retrieve the DeWalt LED red light.

I doubt stargazing will sweep the globe as the latest self-help craze. Plenty of naysayers might counter with the consequent lack of sleep as an obvious detriment, not to mention the persistent temptation to spend all your money on snazzy tools. But amateur astronomy has brought exponentially more to my life than it has cost me, and it has helped to instill and strengthen some core principles for living.

Maybe this is all just a fragrant load of fancy and romantic justification for my fancy and romantic hobby, but I don’t think so. Stargazing has led me to slow down, to appreciate the quiet, and to find both relief and meaning in the twinkling stillness. And these days, I think we could all do with more of that.


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