Gravity and Orbital Mechanics: The Human Kind

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. — Steve Jobs

Sometimes when we look back, we like what we see. Pleasant memories. Positive associations. Powerful lessons.

But sometimes when we look back, we can slip into the stultifying behavior of creating negative patterns. We see only what we want to see that we can tie up into a not-so-happy bundle of personal history. Our thoughts act like dark gravitational muck, sucking us into a story that lacks a happy ending: “No one ever treated me. . . ,” or “I never had . . . ,” or “Why don’t they . . . . “

How we look at past relationships can fall prey to this thinking. Suns that once glowed brightly have now dimmed or exhausted their fuel altogether. We start asking ourselves questions such as “What did I do wrong?” “Why won’t they seek me out anymore?” Or, “Why am I always the one reaching back to maintain the relationship?”

The part of our brain that controls our emotions – the amygdala – works overtime without resolution.

So it’s time to “hijack” that bit of cranial constitution and remember that these negative thoughts are not outside us; they’re inside us. We can choose to listen to them or not. We can choose to look at our past and see only detritus. Or we can choose to capture them as beautiful moments in time.

We can choose how to respond.

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Fifty years ago this past December, the Apollo 8 spacecraft was nearing its rendezvous with history. For the first time, humans would leave one heavenly body, the Earth, and travel to another, the Moon.

Helping to signal that event was a phenomenon that would never make the evening news or flash across a billboard in Times Square. But to the jubilant bunch of plastic pocket-protected souls studying the numbers on their computer screens in Mission Control, the moment was a sine qua non of orbital mechanics. You see, thanks to natural laws and mathematics, heavenly bodies and rockets move in relation to each other in predictable ways, and so this phenomenon was predictable. It had just never been witnessed before. Until now.

The phenomenon, unglamorously referred to as the “equigravisphere,” is the point in space where the Earth and the Moon exert an equal pull of gravity on each other. 

Inside Apollo 8, which was hurtling at thousands of miles per hour toward the Moon, the event was but a blip in time.



The three astronauts neither heard heralding trumpets nor gazed upon a red arrow lighting up a spot in the otherwise darkness of space. There was nothing to signal the occasion because the occasion was already in Apollo 8s rearview mirror.

But on Earth it was different. The evidence of this gravitational truism was Apollo 8s speed as a read-out on one of Mission Control’s computer screens. At the point of equigravishere, the Moon’s gravity began to signal its presence, and the spacecraft's speed increased.

A predictable gravitational handoff.

“Yes, yes, come this way!” the Moon now beckoned.

This got me thinking.

We humans are composed of the same basic elements found elsewhere in the universe, and we are subject to the universal laws, of which gravity is one. Gravity is, after all, what keeps us firmly rooted to terra firma

Given those truths then, might we not be subject to a parallel sort of gravity and its companion of orbital mechanics – in this case, how we move and interact in relation to other people? 

There’s nothing mathematical at work here as there is in space, but there are factors that individually or collectively impact the orbits we have in relation to one another. And those elements are time, distance, circumstance, and need.

Think back for a moment on the various important relationships you’ve had in life. Friends from school. Colleagues from various places of work. Relatives from the family tree. How many of those relationships have you carried forward from their origins to right now? And of greater importance, how many still have strong gravitational pull?

That question has, at times, caused me a great deal of pain. 


I had many friends in high school, but I had one great friend. I will call him Doug, although that’s not his real name. We were largely inseparable. We’d sit in his basement and listen endlessly to Jose Feliciano belt out “Come on Baby, Light My Fire,” as we talked about sports and girls. And sometimes we’d date the same girl, although not at the same time. We did fall in love with the same girl once, but we sorted it out. We’d double-dated, I think, as much for our own company as for that of our dates. We ate at each other’s homes and were as familiar with each other’s parents as we were with our own.

Our human orbital mechanics were totally in sync; we lived life at our equigravisphere.

And today we never communicate unless one of us queries the other on Facebook. Time? Distance? Need? Circumstance?


And then there was Jim. Again, not his real name. Jim was someone I taught with for years, and later when we went our separate work ways, we stayed in touch – for decades. We’d talk periodically on the phone, and if I came into his city – my job called for me to travel, and his didn’t – we’d get together for dinner. 

Our human orbital mechanics worked. Our respective gravities ebbed and flowed like the tides in spite of distance and time. The circumstance and need – our shared interests and decades-long friendship – was always there. Until it wasn’t.

When we semi-retired, we decided to hang out a virtual shingle and work together. It worked for a while. And then there was an “incident,” some miscommunication between us. Today Jim would characterize the incident as me not staying in my lane. 

“OK, sorry!” I apologized, while still not fully understanding the depth of my apparent transgression. “Let’s move on!”

But Jim couldn’t, and we didn’t. I was in a car at the time our orbits went out of alignment, and I can still remember the very place on Route 95 in New Jersey where Jim hung up on me. We haven’t talked in four years. Circumstance.


And at this point, I could relate a dozen other stories about people with whom I was very close for decades at work. I used to say that “I grew up in the company with them.” But when they left the company, or when I left the company, our gravities weakened. Time. Distance. Need. Circumstance. Those factors all worked against us. Our orbits drifted apart. 

Whining and revelation

One morning at breakfast, I pointed out to my wife that while I often reach out to others, others don’t seem to reciprocate. They seem to be happy when I do reach out — “Jeff, it’s sogood to hear from you!” – but rarely is the favor returned. 

An aside: In the not-to-distant past, I would have internalized this behavior as a major character flaw. My inner critic, smugly sitting there with its feet up on the ottoman, alternately buffing and examining its nails, would have surmised, “Well, I guess people really didn’t like you that much.”

My wife looked up from her online chess game, pausing momentarily to collect her thoughts.

“There are two types of people in the world,” she concluded, “connectors and receivers. You are a connector. You want to maintain those relationships. You want what you had in the past. It’s the same DNA that made you teach history and makes you read only history books today. For others, it’s not that they don’t appreciate the reset button. Just don’t expect it from them. It’s not who they are.”

Some of their behavior is driven by distance and time: out of sight, out of mind. But those factors are symptomatic of another and perhaps more-powerful factor: circumstance. At various points in our lives, our circumstances change. We intersect with the orbits of other humans; we are drawn in by their gravity – and they now serve to meet our various needs. 

It’s not so much that we have lost a fellow traveler, it’s that we have gained another.


A predictable gravitational handoff at our human equigravisphere.

So, over time I lost Doug, Jim, and a host of others. I could choose to dwell in the darkness of that empty space, or I could choose to remain fully present within the gravitational pull of a number of new and truly wonderful space travelers. 

Some of us may stay in each other’s orbit. But inevitably some of our orbits will change as circumstances change. And we will feel the gravitational pull of others. 

Time. Distance. Circumstance. Need.

It will always be that way.

Jeff Ikler