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26 Aug

I want to believe – Last week I went to the 10th anniversary meeting of the Korean Oral Literature Society (this is the same society to which I presented a paper a few months ago). Overall it was a very interesting meeting, with papers presented from a number of different fields, and a closing “concert” of folk music that consisted of songs traditionally sung by Koreans while working in the field or performing other tasks. To be honest, I had expected a rather dry presentation of the songs, but the teams came out in traditional garb and acted out the various chores and tasks while singing the songs. It was like watching a musical.

“Why are so many people fascinated by the idea of there being other intelligent life in the universe?”

Traditional folk music is certainly an interesting subject, but it’s not what I want to write about today. What I want to write about is UFOs. I know what you’re thinking: what do UFOs and traditional folk music have in common? Well, believe it or not, they both belong to the same field of study: folklore.

Professor Cho Dong-il, who presented the opening paper at the meeting, brought up UFOs. He pointed to the large number of UFO sites in existence, both in English and Korean, and used UFO lore as an example of a direction oral literature research (in this case, folklore research) could move in the future. It was a very interesting subject, and I couldn’t stop my mind from wandering back to my own few experiences with UFOs.

My first “real” UFO experience was in high school. Two girls from my history class and I had missed a field trip, so we made up the trip on our own one weekday night. To be honest, I cannot for the life of me remember what the field trip was about (I have a vague idea that it might have been a trip to a courthouse). I have a very clear memory, however, of what happened on the way home. We were driving by a lake in an isolated, wooded area, when one of the girls pointed toward the lake and said. “What’s that?”

We stopped the car and stared off toward the lake, where we saw a bright light hovering high above the water. The light was very large, too big to be a running light on a helicopter or other aircraft, and it wasn’t a spotlight either. I was just about to suggest we go down to the lake to check it out when the girl who was driving said, “Let’s get out of here.” She jammed the car into gear and we sped off into the night. I remember looking back at the light, watching it until it disappeared.

I must admit it was pretty freaky at the time, but looking back on it now I’m almost positive it was something that could be easily explained, like some kids testing out a miniature hot air balloon over the lake. I say “almost,” though, because I can’t know for sure—and since we never got out of the car to find out what it was, I will never know for sure. But I wonder if, were I back there at this very instant, I would really get out of the car and walk down to the lake in the darkness.

My second UFO experience was on a much larger scale, and in fact had a whole city on its toes. It was 1997, and I was in Ulan Bator, the capital city of Mongolia. I was a founding member of an English school there, and as such I worked from morning to night and did not get home until fairly late. When I got home one night, my wife excitedly told me that she had seen a UFO. I smiled slightly and asked her what it looked like. She told me it was a large circle that hung low over the city, with dim spots of light that rotated around the perimeter.

I was surprised to hear such a detailed description, and all sorts of images began to form in my head. She then told me that everyone else in our apartment complex had seen it, and people were standing outside starting at it. I was intensely curious, and wanted to see it for myself, but the sky was dark and empty.

The next day it was in the newspapers, and that night my wife said she saw it again at the same time. I was burning with curiosity now, and I could barely wait until the next day, when I would be home from the school early. When evening came the next day, I eagerly went outside and scanned the heavens, searching for the massive saucer and its whirling lights. All I saw, though, were empty clouds.

My wife came out to join me, and suddenly she pointed up at the clouds. “There it is!” she shouted excitedly. I looked toward where she was pointing and saw nothing at first, but then I saw it—a circle of dim lights spinning in the sky. And then I laughed, partly relieved, partly disappointed. “They’re spotlights,” I explained to my wife. “When new establishments open up they sometimes have a set of rotating spotlights on the ground that shine up into the sky. They attract people’s attention and provide a way to locate the place.” We found out later that the spotlights were operated by a new dance club that had opened up downtown—the first of its kind in the city, I think.

I had often seen this sort of thing growing up in the suburbs outside of New York City. They don’t do this in Korea or Mongolia, though, and neither my wife nor the six hundred thousand other people living in the city had ever seen anything like it. And so while it was instantly apparent to me that it was a set of rotating spotlights, to everyone else it was a spacecraft hovering in the clouds.

The mixture of emotions I felt at that moment was strange. Relief, because, after all, the idea of a spacecraft hovering about your apartment building is kind of freaky. But also disappointment, because, after all, the idea of a spacecraft hovering above your apartment building is also pretty cool. Did I want to believe? Yeah, I guess I did. I don’t think I ever got past the “intense curiosity” stage, but I think it would have been cool if it had been a real spaceship.

As a student of folklore, though, I can’t just stop at what would be cool or what would not be cool. I have to ask myself why I wanted to believe, and why an entire city was so quick to come up with a flying saucer as their primary explanation for a phenomenon they had never seen before. Why are so many people fascinated by the idea of there being other intelligent life in the universe?

I won’t pretend to be an expert on the subject of UFOs or the psychology of UFO believers. I know no more than what I’ve seen on TV and in the movies. I have been thinking about it since I heard Dr. Cho’s paper, though, and I think there are a number of reasons for our fascination with extraterrestrial life.

For one, anyone who has seen a particularly starry night will have wondered, at least in passing, about humanity’s place in the universe. For some the vastness of it all is overwhelming, and many people say that they feel “small” when looking at the stars. I can vividly remember lying on my back in Mozambique and staring up at a sky untainted by artificial lights of any kind. I could clearly see the meandering, silver band of the Milky Way, and there were so many stars shining out of the darkness that I thought the sky would burst. As I stared at those cold pinpoints of light, streaming through unimaginable distances of space, I couldn’t help feeling small myself.

I suppose the next step would be to wonder if even one of those millions of stars is like our Sun, with a planet like Earth revolving around it. And if there were another Earth-like planet, could there not also be people—beings—out there like us? Frank Drake, an astronomer, developed an equation to calculate the number of technological civilizations that might exist in our galaxy. After all, with all those stars out there, surely there must be other intelligent life. The counterpoint to this, of course, is known as Fermi’s paradox (named after the physicist Enrico Fermi), which basically asks the question: if there is intelligent life out there, and it has had so much time to evolve, why haven’t we seen any sign of it?

Still, no matter what you may think about Drake’s equation or Fermi’s paradox, this sort of thinking is more reasoning for or against the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life than it is a reason why we would believe in such life in the first place. I suppose the belief in extraterrestrial life might have developed along these lines, but it seems to me that there might be something deeper in the human psyche that acted as fertile ground in which this seed could grow.

It is my opinion (and I realize that it’s not a new one) that humans, in general, feel the need to believe in something greater than themselves. When we are young, we look up to our parents, and believe them to be infallible and all-knowing. Even after we realize that they are only human, we continue to set up idols and heroes for ourselves, and we continue to be dismayed when they display universal human flaws.

It is comforting to know that there are others greater than yourself, to know that the buck, in fact, does not stop here. There is always something to fall back on, there will always be someone who is reliable and steadfast. Some people seek these qualities in other humans, some people seek them in any number of gods. Ultimately, it is a reaction to that loneliness we feel when we look up at the stars. We don’t want to be alone—somehow life is easier to deal with if we know we’re not the only ones here.

This may sound a bit childish and immature, but it is merely an extrapolation of what happens to humanity on the individual level. The most difficult part of adolescence is coming to grips with your place in the world. Many teenagers feel that no one understands what they’re going through, and they are overwhelmed by immense loneliness. They long for someone to understand them, but at the same time that is their greatest fear, for they are not yet sure of themselves and who they are, and to have someone understand you would be a fatal blow to the only shred of uniqueness you have at that time in your life.

Teenagers grow up, though, and as they grow most of them realize that they are indeed not alone, and that there are others out there like them. The truth of the matter is, though, that very few people are ever free from adolescent insecurities, or at least not until much later in life (I can’t speak for much past thirty, but I’ve still got plenty of insecurities left lying around). Now take human society as a whole and what do you have? A planet that’s afraid of being alone in the universe.

Therein lies our human need for a god. It may not be “God” in the religious sense, but each of us has something that we believe in. Now that God has become less fashionable than He used to be, and human beings are seeing more and more of what technology can do, more people are holding up the idea of intelligent extraterrestrial life as something to believe in.

This wasn’t meant to be a flawless, logical argument—I was just flushing out onto paper (er, “into cyberspace,” I mean) the ideas that were swimming around in my head. After the exercise in historical research that was my last entry, I wanted to go a bit easier on my brain today. This is not the last word on the subject, but it’s the first word for me on something I’ve thought about for years. Thanks to Dr. Cho for the spark that got this fire going.

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