A Head in the Clouds

The other day I was thinking.

I guess that’s technically true, but to pick out one particular day and say I was “thinking” then is a bit deceptive, as it implies that somehow makes the day exceptional.

It does not.

I think constantly, perpetually, with a frequency I often find endearing but occasionally also maddening. This habit is wonderful in the sense that it allows me to explore an unending range of possibilities in my head, every day of every week, for all my waking hours. It is maddening in the sense that it can make it difficult sit down and enjoy the simple moments of beauty that so often prove the most poignant events of our lives: the setting sun, a heavenly summer breeze, a gorgeous song played on the radio, a first kiss.

I experience these things, just like everyone else. I even cherish them. But it is an eternal and seemingly intractable habit of my mind to process every event – to analyze it, to examine it in a state of curious wonder, to try to understand its every inner working and mechanism. Perhaps when I view a sunset I’ll think of curving light rays bending in the atmosphere, or when I feel the breeze I’ll marvel at how tiny beads of sweat evaporating on my skin are what cause the cooling sensation, or when a song plays on the radio I’ll try to pick out all the individual instruments and harmonies and understand how they all work together, then wonder why it is that those sounds in particular are so delightful to our ears.

This constant state of deconstruction is an inherent part of who I am, a fact that is painfully obvious to my friends. A boss at an old workplace used to call me “sow-crates” in a playful midwestern dialectical spinoff of the name of the ancient philosopher immortalized by Plato. Another boss at a different workplace dubbed me “Pondering Dave.” When my law school financial aid fell apart, my closest co-student tentatively suggested it might not be such a bad thing and asked if I’d ever considered studying philosophy instead. After a few months of frequent conversations, I’m pretty sure what he was kindly trying to say was, “You don’t belong here with us cynics. Your head’s too far in the clouds.”

And he was right. My head is in the clouds. And though I try to mitigate the negative aspects of this state of continual contemplation (such as being in the middle of a kiss and, even while caught up in the passion of the moment, wondering if the reason that as humans we put our mouths together is because it’s the most tactilely sensitive spot on our bodies, or whether it’s because we connect intimacy and personality with the mouth from which our verbalized thoughts and emotions flow) still I wouldn’t change this part of me. Because as much as this philosophical idiosyncrasy of mine can make it hard to let go and submit to the sublime, my constant quest to understand the world around me also enriches my life and fills me with an unquenchable curiosity for all things under the sun.

And all things over it, for that matter. In my next life I’m going to be an astrophysicist. I’ve already got it all plotted out. That I have done so I suppose only proves the point. I am a lad whose head is often among the clouds.

Generally, when we use the expression, “That fellow has his head in the clouds,” we use it either as a term of loving indulgence or mild insult. We use it, in its kindest form, to describe a friend who has an endearing tendency to become lost in thought or. In its negative form, we use it to describe someone who has lost all touch with reality.

But no matter how it is used – as the endearing flaw in some friend or a less forgivable flaw in someone else – a person’s habit of having his or her head in the clouds is generally portrayed as a flaw, nevertheless. The implication is that to be too caught up in the world of theory, to be too enamored of the world of ideas, is dangerous and can easily lead to a frivolous, silly and wasted life.

Taken to an extreme, no doubt this is true. Yet I think too often the assumption is made that a person with his head in the clouds is incapable of simultaneously having a firm conception of reality. So long has the image of having a “head in the clouds” been in currency that we have forgotten that the statement makes no reference to the position of one’s feet. Given the air of skepticism with which having one’s head in the clouds seems to elicit, the general view appears to be that it is impossible to simultaneously have one’s head in the clouds and one’s feet on the ground.

Yet this need not be so. To have one’s head in the clouds is simply to be a lover of ideas, of implications, of futures, of possibilities. One need not give up one’s grasp on reality in order to dream of how it might have been, or seek to explain what makes it the way it is, or wonder what it will be like in the future. Is it not true that what happens among the clouds often has a great impact on earth? Why then should we take such a skeptical approach toward those who spend their times considering the heavens?

To return to the thought that started off this post:

The other day, like every day previous to and following upon it, I was thinking. And as I was thinking I looked at the clouds and realized my head was among them. And I thought about what clouds are – vast collections of almost-water, almost-vapor billowing in great hulking packs up there in the sky – and how we would never know what those clouds were and where they came from if someone hadn’t taken the time to look up and puzzle out why. If, in other words, someone hadn’t stuck his head up in them.

Then I thought beyond the clouds, all the way up to the atmosphere. I thought how it protects us, silently and invisibly, from the sun’s radiation that would burn us to a crisp if many of its rays were not deflected by it from their course. And I marveled at how some string of scientists, having no ability to fly up above those clouds and touch the space beyond, somehow yet divined the processes by which our earth continues on its life-sustaining course. Somehow, before ever a man was sent beyond the clutch of gravity, they knew that when he did he would need to take oxygen with him, and that his skin would need to be protected from radiation, and that when the time came for him to return his ship would need a massive heat shield because of the friction built up on re-entry.

And then it dawned on me that the reason those scientists didn’t need to have their hands and tools up above the clouds to know all this was because their heads had already been there. These explorers of the universe’s essence were able, through all their hours of experimenting and theorizing and arguing and testing and failing and trying again, to understand enough to allow us to send members of our species into space and get them back alive. To this day, this must be considered one of the greatest symbolic events in the history of our race. We have reached for the heavens, touched them, felt them, and come back alive.

Yet we would never have done so – would never have been able to go up beyond those hovering clouds – had our heads not been there first. A group of men and women got together and decided that the best place to ponder the things of the earth was in the heavens. So they took the phenomena of the earth – bits of minerals, bits of gas, measurements, tools and experiences – and pondered them in the laboratory of their cloud-borne minds.

And they taught us to fly.

As I looked at the clouds in wonder that day, pondering others who had done so before me, I suddenly realized that there has never been a time in which it was more important for people to consider the heavens, precisely because of their implications for us on the ground.

Above our heads, the very atmosphere whose nature was predicted by earth-bound scientists before the first rocket ever penetrated its shield is undergoing great changes. These changes, like the atmosphere’s deflection of harmful rays from the sun, will impact the lives of us all – idealists and pragmatists alike. The first world’s lifestyle of consumption, especially of fossil fuels, is stimulating changes above the clouds – even in the clouds themselves – at rapid rates, changing the face of our delicate planet, whose sustenance of life is so fragile and so precipitously balanced, forever.

All of this celestial drama is perhaps difficult to imagine for us earthborn creatures. We have other, more terrestrial things to consider, such as supporting our family, raising our children well, tending our business, mowing the yard. As earth-treading people, it can seem difficult – even superfluous – to imagine the workings of the heavens.

But it is less so if you are a cloud-dweller.

The cloud-dweller’s life is a constant exercise of theoreticals, of explanations, of actions and their long-term consequences. These are precisely the mental and moral skills we need if we are to live well, and while this has always been the case for humanity it has never been more so than now. The processes of climate change are invisible and insidious, but if you are used to conceiving of and playing out far-reaching scenarios in your mind, you will find it easier to grasp and accept the implications of our long-term habits of consumption and pollution. And if, as with cloud-dwellers, you are used to considering abstract concepts and tracing their relevance to our lives, you will be more able to understand how processes as tiny and distant as those involving micro-particles miles above our heads can have real and dramatic effect on things as massive and immediate as oceans and forests.

What happens in and above the clouds matters to us on the ground, and this is as true in the metaphorical sense as it is the literal.

Three-plus centuries ago in an age of monarchy, state-sponsored churches and divine right, a man by the name of John Locke published a series of cloud-conceived essays imagining something better, purer, more just. He imagined a world in which people chose their own leaders and in which the dignity of each individual was implicit not by the family into which they had been born but by the simple virtue of their humanity. If ever concepts were derived of the heavens, Locke’s Treatises on Government were. Yet few books have had such a profound, enlightened and benevoent impact on the earth.

A century before Locke, an Italian from Pisa named Galileo Galilei also bent his mind to the heavens, lending his support to a theory constructed by the deceased Polish mathematician Copernicus. The theory claimed the sun, not the earth, was the center of the solar system. Because of his public support of this “heretical” theory, Galileo was sentenced by the church – many factions of which for doctrinal reasons deny the existence of global warming, just as for doctrinal reasons they denied the heliocentric universe four centuries ago – to a life spent under house arrest. But the world would never be the same. Because of Galileo’s preoccupation with the clouds and the heavens above them, our notions of gravity, celestial rotations, tidal flows, and countless other things that impact the daily lives of we who live on the ground are now enlightened rather than obscure.

The vast majority of the people we have admired throughout history – Socrates, who whiled away his hours in endless questioning; Newton, who spent his days dawdling in the fields near Woolsthorpe thinking of how to explain the movements of comets; Gandhi, who wrote so many of his articles on abstract, celestial concepts like ahimsa and satyagraha – all of these and a thousand others were cloud dwellers who realized that the workings of the heavens have real implications for us mortals here on earth.

So, while I know that the people who tell me I have my head in the clouds mean it as an expression of mild or playful critique, I tend rather to take it as the opposite. In an age of global warming and political Machiavellianism, perhaps a life spent pondering the heavens is something to aspire to rather than frown upon.

It is the heavens, both of the mind and of our planet, that will determine our ultimate fate on this fragile ground. And if we do not spend some time with our heads in the clouds, we will be doomed to witness what havoc those untended heavens may wreak upon the earth.

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