Monday, July 2, 2007

A Tale of Two Fourths of July

Central to the American collective self-picture is the story of the Fourth of July. It commemorates the declaration of political independence on this day in 1776 by colonial activists who had become disenchanted with exploitation by a distant monarch, George III of England. This led to the founding of a new and unique nation-state in its time.

We celebrate Independence Day in the classic American fashion through colorful excess. We engorge ourselves on rich food and drink. We parade ourselves in a proud and militaristic manner down our flag-decked main streets. And, we set off the most awesome fireworks that can be devised.

Interestingly, fireworks had originated with the early Chinese, who did not initially consider the warfare potential of the gunpowder they’d invented for the purpose. But after Marco Polo brought the explosive powder to Europe, the Chinese eventually did learn through the example of the Europeans and Americans how to devise potent weaponry – first from gunpowder then uranium.

Americans have another interesting connection with the Chinese on this summer’s day. A distant fireworks event was witnessed by Chinese astronomers on July 4, 1054 AD. Had they known what it truly signified they would have held the celestial phenomenom in deepest awe.

Chinese skywatchers could not have missed the presence of the ”guest star.” Even in the noonday brightness it was possible to discern the supernova, which appeared six times brighter than Venus. Being superb astronomers, the supernova was carefully noted and tracked by them. One account read:

On the 1st year of the Chi-ho reign period, 5th month, chi-chou (day) [July 4, 1054], a guest star appeared approximately several inches to the south-east of Tian-kuan [Aldebaran]. After a year and more it gradually vanished.
- Sung-shih, Annals of the Sung Dynasty; Astronomical Treatise, chap. 56 -

Had the Chinese not viewed the patterned movements of the sky as the model for order and stability in their Middle Kingdom, information on the supernova in the constellation Taurus (and whose remains are the Crab Nebula) might not have been so well preserved for posterity.

And, one wonders, had gunpowder not been invented so early, might its eventual use in destruction and death somehow have been minimized in later times? Unfortunately this appears unlikely, given the conflicted nature of the human condition. There seems to be a base human attraction to gunpowder’s belligerent use, as in: “the rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air,” words which every American has learned to sing but rarely reflects upon.

So when we set off fireworks, are we simply revisiting that heavenly awe experienced by the Chinese? Or do we also need the shock and awe of fireworks to help defibrillate our humdrum lives? On each Fourth of July, Americans celebrate while not really knowing why.

Yet amid the patriotic fervor, good times with family and friends, the exhuberance of fireworks, cookouts and colorful parades, there is something else that could be celebrated.

We might pause for a moment in the festivities to contemplate how fortunate we in fact are. And in evoking a sense of thankfulness for our good fortune, health and happiness we might also wish such good fortune on others.

With each burst of the fireworks we might envision sending our best wishes out to all the world’s people, as if saying: “here is a gift of light, vitality, hope and goodness.” Indeed, it has been known to every world wisdom tradition that good things come when we wish them on others. But when we pull the benefits greedily to ourselves, little good comes of it.

I for one will send out my good wishes with each firework’s blast. I will envision them as harbingers of light and life in this suffering yet glorious world.

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
- William Blake –