Gravity and Levity

by Elder M. Lindahl

There’s a silent, constant force around us which pulls us all down toward the center of the earth. Though it’s invisible, we see the effects and experience the pull of that steady, encircling force everywhere. There are some great benefits for the steadiness it provides, and yet we’d all like to find some relief from its everlasting grip. I refer to this relief as a search for levity, the desire to be light of foot and heart.

Sir Isaac Newton first discovered this force, the law of universal gravitation, which explained the movements of both celestial and earthly bodies. Though the force was present long before his discovery, the fundamental insight dawned on him as he sat meditating under an apple tree. Whether the falling apple, his eureka moment, hit him on the head or not is beside the point. In a contemplative mood, he wondered why a falling apple always descended perpendicularly to the ground. Why doesn’t it go sideways or up, but always down towards the center of the earth? It came to him, that the power of gravity which brought an apple from the tree to the ground was not limited to a certain distance from the earth but that this power must extend much further. Why not up, even to the moon?

It was an amazing discovery. Gravity holds the moon in its orbit around the earth and the earth in its orbit around the sun; it indicates some overarching design in the cosmos. Gravity holds us down firmly to the earth, and that’s wonderful especially as one grows older and less steady. I read recently about a lady who purchased a digital camera with a stabilizing feature because, as she put it, “I sway very easily.” We all do at times. Sometimes medications include a warning, “May cause dizziness.” It’s great, especially when coping with adverse prescriptions, strong winds, earthquakes, tidal waves or hurricanes, to feel securely anchored to terra firma.

The poet Alexander Pope celebrated Newton’s understanding of the law of gravity in these famous lines:

Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night;
God said “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

Though we all seem to appreciate the law of gravity and Newton’s discovery of it, we do enjoy and delight in levitational possibilities. We enjoy watching the space pioneers as they float weightlessly in their capsules as well as Superman’s maneuvers. Mary Poppin’s flights never cease to amaze us. The Harry Potter novels, I think, continue to be best sellers because they help us imagine what it’s like to gain some degree of independence from the law of gravity. In a nation of overweight people, diets that decrease one’s avoirdupois as they increase lightness are popular topics of ads and conversation. Circus acts and magic shows defy gravity in various ways and continue to intrigue both young and old. Unless we are the kid who let go of the string, we love to watch a helium-filled balloon disappear from sight. Gravity plays an absolutely necessary role in life, but let’s have some levity, some levitation!

Claims of exceptions to the regularity of the gravitational pull are found throughout history. Some, like air and space travel are fairly well understood in physics. Others, like the alleged levitations of saints in most all of the world’s religions are controversial. St. Teresa of Avila was said to have levitated a foot and a half above the ground for about a half hour. Ms. \Eusapia Palladino claimed, until Harvard philosopher and psychologist Hugo Münsterberg caught her by her ankle, to be able to make a table float miraculously. Fakirs, sidhas, yogis, and other holy men claim to employ a counter universal force to levitate themselves or objects. To be judged spiritual, or sometimes in partnership with the devil, means to have found a way around universal gravitation. Illustrations of human ways of finding exceptions to the pull of gravity are endless.

The church also promotes levitation, if not levity, in various ways. The Bible celebrates the point that Jesus walked on the water, ascended into Heaven, and so on. In funeral sermons we often hear that a loved one is taken up from the earth into the arms of Jesus, into heaven, and now lives forever beyond the force of gravity. Christians are encouraged to pray for Divine release from the law of gravity: “Protect my loved ones as they fly.” In short, we like the ups rather than the downs, we desire the mountain tops more than the valleys.

The question finally comes down to one of balancing gravity and levity. Bound by gravity to this good earth during our lifetimes, we know we shall at some point be tackled and downed by it. We hope the final tackle will not be one of those painful NFL varieties. Bound to this good earth, we must say good bye to all its treasures, material things, and possibilities at sometime. That’s pretty somber, weighty stuff.

And yet, optimism, levity, and hope spring eternal in the human spirit. The earliest virtue, according to Erik Erikson, to form is hope. It is also an essential part of the Christian triad—faith, hope, and love. Hope means to imagine an alternative situation, to look optimistically above and beyond the inevitable descent toward the earth’s center.

Whether one looks to the future with the Christian view of the resurrection of the body, the ultimate levitation, or believes there is nothing beyond the grave, the ultimate gravitation, or something in between, striking a balance between gravity and levity is a significant challenge for the human spirit. I am as grateful for gravity and the reality such a force brings to my daily life as I am for the many creative ways friends, writers, artists, musicians, actors, upbeat comedians, film makers, children, and others bring out levity.

Elder Lindahl (d. 2015) was a well-known North Park University professor and long-time contributor to Pietisten.

See all articles by Elder M. Lindahl