Northern lights in Iceland
by Stephen Sachs
A wondrous event happened last month in Reykjavik, Iceland. The glorious mind-blowing spectacle of the northern lights refracted a kaleidoscope of color across the night sky. But that wasn’t the only astounding event occurring that evening.
In a remarkable demonstration of forced reverence, the Icelandic city government ordered the power of all public lights be switched off at 1opm local time for one hour so the citizens of Reykjavik would be compelled to look up into the heavens to experience the otherworldly splendor.
Reykjavík is the capital and largest city of Iceland.
Think about that. The city government ordered — as a mandate of civic policy — that all public streetlights throughout Iceland’s capital be turned off so its people would be forced to experience the otherworldly glow of the aurora borealis dancing in the sky above them.
Can you imagine such a thing happening in our country? Can you envision politicians in Washington DC, agreeing to switch off all public lighting throughout the district to compel its citizens to step outside, look up, and witness, say, the cosmic majesty of a lunar eclipse? The dazzling array of a meteor shower? Neither can I.
Fortunately, awe doesn’t have to be government ordered. We can sanction it for ourselves. If we only would.
I don’t know about you, but I am often so locked into my own wheel-spinning routine that I seldom take a moment to stop and absorb the overwhelming miracle of the world around me. Or take time to marvel at the astonishing, the mind-boggling, in daily life.
I scream and curse at the GPS on the dashboard of my Honda, bellowing over being late to a meeting, never considering the technological miracle of this tiny device sending signals up into outer space to four different satellites simultaneously orbiting 22,000 miles above the earth, each racing through the galaxy at 17,000 miles per hour, then sharpshooting signals back down to the exact location of my tiny car as I drive on a planet that is spinning at 1,040 miles per hour, so I can turn left on Ventura Blvd. I use NASA technology to find the next In-N-Out Burger and don’t give it a second thought.
But more than just being dazzled by the wizardry of our own self-serving inventions. There are times when we must switch off our devices, set them down. Step outside. And look up. To give ourselves permission to gaze upward — and inward.
The natural world around us offers limitless opportunities to peer upon and ponder beauty, majesty and wonder. A lush forest, a glowing sunset, the meditative ocean, a breathtaking mountain or canyon.
I believe, at its best, a good play can do that. It can gift us with the chance to view the wonder within ourselves. Reveal the glorious mystery of being alive.
Seeing a meaningful play is more challenging than going to a movie. It requires more of us, demands a deeper concentration and emotional investment. Sometimes we drag ourselves to the theatre like we go to the doctor, not because we want to but because we know it’s good for us. That’s okay. I don’t mind. Whatever it takes. Even if the city government has to switch off your lights at home to get you outside, that’s all right. As long as you come, sit in a chair, and view wonder.
As futurist and philosopher Jason Silva says, “We have a responsibility to awe.”
Before a play begins, we are instructed to turn off our digital devices. Not only because of the distraction to others. We must also switch off the distraction to ourselves. And savor the opportunity to experience something miraculous.
Viewing a powerful play — like gazing on the heavens — requires us to stop. And look. In wonder.
The reward is there. When we look. When we give ourselves permission — or are forced — to do so.
Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.