At age 24, I found myself attending the Faculté de Médicine of the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. Incidental to the storyline is the fact that, a child of the ’60’s, my academic performance was erratic: all A’s one semester, half C’s the next. This all preceded the great grade inflation in the academy, thus grades at the time reflected actual performance. I was thus not accepted to the US medical schools to which I applied. It may also have had something to do with the fact that I was suspended from school in my (first) junior year, because my roommate and I built a bomb and blew up a tree as a prank – which turned out to be literally earthshaking and attracted unwanted attention from the authorities. We were arrested, pled guilty to malicious mischief, made financial restitution and served one year probation. I was pleasantly surprised, in retrospect and in light of subsequent pyrotechnic events of various stripes, to have never had a visit from the FBI or ATF.
[digression mode – ‘off’] It was in beautiful Lausanne I was first exposed to the majesty of real mountains. The guilt I felt from my father’s paying my way led me to few trips into the mountains, so I initially enjoyed them only from afar. It soon became apparent to me that visual reference to the distant mountains (13 miles directly across Lake Geneva is ´Evian, France and just behind and to the east of it the Alps rise one mile vertically above the surface of the lake). Other mountains farther east were visible as well, on clear days.
In addition to the esthetic sense the mountains gave me, they also functioned as a primordial sort of GPS (or Lausanne Positioning System). By a kind of intuitive triangulation, I discovered I had a sense of my location in and around the city and, for that matter, throughout the “Suisse Romande” (in airplane cockpits, where situational awareness is sacred – so as to avoid the necessity of receiving other, more final sacraments – one has an HSI – a Horizontal Situation Indicator). Beyond its practical benefits, this phenomenon gave me a deep, almost mystical sense of comfort and reassurance. I have pondered the meaning of this, off and on, for many years (I am a self-confessed “meanings” junkie).
I suspect the comfort and reassurance I felt comes from a deep place in the human pedigree. Situational awareness, as we now call it, undoubtedly had great survival value (as did recognizing friend from foe – but that is another post on why humans have racist tendencies by virtue of their default wiring). Now, my life surely did not depend on knowing precisely where I was, yet I had (still have) an abiding sense this is rooted in something deep and pervasive in the human psyche.
I think this need for “situational awareness,” is multi-dimensional, beyond the merely physical. I believe it is generalizable beyond awareness of geographic position to all reflective human thinking, to all consciousness of self. It partakes in what seems to me to be an equally deep need to understand absolutely everything about our surroundings – macro, micro, north, east, west, south, up, down, past, present and future. In myself, I am driven to understand everything I can. As better evidence of the existence and power of this deep thirst for broad knowledge and mastery I cite various individuals throughout history, now called “renaissance (wo)men;” our own John Walker is a living example, known to us by he generous sharing of knowledge. The mastery of our surroundings – the entire human habitat and even places formerly uninhabitable – witnessed particularly since the industrial revolution, is nothing short of breathtaking. The brevity of the period in which this has occurred is nothing short of miraculous, viewed in the sidereal or even merely the geologic time scale. This feat reflects what can be only the fruition of the most fundamental motivations rooted in our being as a species.
Some undoubtedly think of this drive, this search for infinite knowledge, as the quest for God, or believe it represents the spark of God within humanity. Maybe so. More recent philosophers suggest humanity verges upon God-like powers and thus will, effectively, become Gods. This assertion immediately brings the First Commandment to my mind, despite not practicing a religion. It gives me pause.
I wonder if Ratburghers (sic) share any of these impression or thoughts, particularly about my initial fascination with geographic reference to distant things like mountains. This initial impression has led to my presently spending a good bit of time on Google Earth and in the past few months Google Earth VR, as seen through Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. It is, for want of better words, really cool “flying” anywhere at any height, hovering, zooming in or out.” As well, I have downloaded a good bit of DLC (downloadable content) scenery for my two flight simulators (one using VR and another). I just can’t seem to get enough of seeing the Earth from above and witnessing the relationships of all things in my ken.
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