Lights In The Night
The first thing I learned after seeing a UFO is that life is stranger than I can imagine. The second is that nobody wants to talk about UFOs.
Socially, it’s a subject on-par with the Illuminati, flat-earth theory, Tower 7, and Atlantis (if you don’t know what these are, do not under any circumstances Google them). It’s a private obsession, my number one reason for clearing my browser history, and a vital threat to my credibility as a human being. As I write, each key click is a painful reminder that these words will be immortalized on the internet until a solar flare wipes out the grid. And even then, Elon Musk will have probably downloaded everything (literally everything) and launched it into space on a homemade rocket. So, if I do indeed hit the send button, smothering my second-thoughts with a forced chuckle, I know that unless I make it big on a reality TV show and accumulate a worldwide Twitter following, my political career is likely shot.
But in writing about this I can tell the story without seeing the light fade from your eyes and feeling the awkward tension of you inching backward while trying to change the subject. In writing, I don’t have to accelerate my words like I do when conversing. I’ve discovered that once the word “UFO” is in the air between me and another person, I have about five seconds of their attention left to make my point. You may not believe me, but everything I’m about to tell you is true to the way I remember experiencing it. And because this is the “unexplained” edition of Bozeman Magazine, I hope I’ll at least be in good company among other writers who’ve had experiences that aren’t supposed to exist.
I’ve seen many UFOs since, but the first time was the most profound. I was freshly 21, up in the Bridger mountains at a gathering of bass music enthusiasts and having a very strange night. Anyone who has been to a similar party will know what I mean. I was wandering between groups of people, attempting to enjoy computer thumps blasting from the speakers and mostly failing. For hours, I fluctuated between deep conversations with a close friend and confused introversion as I struggled against a new environment in a stew of amplified social anxiety.
I couldn’t get into the party and the music and the dancing. I was trying too hard. Eventually, as the sun started rising into the blue July sky, I felt the awful psychic pressure of unexpressed tension. I stared West toward the morning glow mountains, trying to appreciate them - to appreciate anything. My hands were stuffed in my pockets and I was hunched forward, wanting to go home. Way across the valley, pockets of snow dotted the top of the ridge line and for a few brief moments, I enjoyed them, and felt genuinely glad to be there. Then I heard shouting.
Turning around, I saw two men throwing punches at each other. Like every YouTube fight video ever, a girl screamed.
“Stop it! Stop! Stoppppppp!”
They ignored her.
I wasn’t sure what to do, frozen between the fascination of witnessing a real life fight and the icy emotional residue of a long, weird night. A friend and I started walking toward them but, before we got there, they gave up. Walking away from each other, muttering, the drama ended and we were again left with the pounding bass. And then, catching something from the corner of my eye, everything stopped. I still carry a frozen image of that moment just after the fight, a snapshot that comes to visit whenever I start thinking I know what’s going on.
A thousand feet off the ground against a backdrop of the Bridgers, a triangular craft like I’ve never seen before or since hovered in a way that implied it was watching. There were three white lights, one at each corner of the equilateral triangle, and the space between the three lights changed color every 10 or 15 seconds. It bounced up and down, wobbling as if on a breeze. It was just there. Floating above a rave. Observing. Or, who knows what else.
My jaw dropped open but my voice wouldn’t work. Luckily for my sanity, my friend was staring up at it with me. He and I looked back and forth, from the craft, to each other, and back again. More curse words were exclaimed and a few hugs were exchanged. We kept watching in awe, and after a minute or two, the three lights somehow morphed into a single black circle. And then it began floating away. With the music still beating in the background, slowly and patiently, the craft headed South and then West, passing over Bozeman toward Butte until it was gone. After a night of uncomfortable silence, we were left standing in a totally different quality of quiet. Gazing into the distance, I already knew it was an experience of the “life-changing” variety. When my friend and I could move, we got in the car, drove into town in a stupefied daze, and haven’t really spoken of it since.
photo Joey Wishart
When I got home, and in the seven years since the happening, I put days and weeks of research into attempting to understand what I saw. It’s a fruitless pursuit in the sense that I’ll never actually know, but it’s fun to wonder. With that in mind, I’ll offer the inspiration that my wonderings have led me to.
The word I’ve found that best fits the experience is “numinous.” Utilized by the great psychologist Carl Jung, it means “having a strong religious or spiritual quality; indicating or suggesting the presence of a divinity.” Because Jung is my patron saint, I will draw on his work for the rest of this article to offer the explanation that makes the most sense to me.
Ultimately, what fascinates me about the UFO phenomenon is the power of a single moment - a living symbol - to change the entire trajectory of a life, and potentially, a culture. For me, it’s not about military secrets or whether there are sentient beings from other planets, or even if what I saw has a physical reality. I’m not interested in “disclosure” (at least not anymore) or proving to anyone - not even myself - that what I saw “exists.” The part that has me hooked is the psychological impact of an undeniable confrontation with the “Other.”
As a student of Freud, Jung’s work was focused on the unconscious, on the aspects of self and culture that hide behind defense mechanisms like denial, repression, and projection. It’s the dark side; dark by virtue of being unknown. The stuff we don’t want to look at. He believed that as individuals and as a society, the more we push away the unpleasant aspects of reality, the more we suffer and the more destruction we cause in the attempt to avoid ourselves. And he believed that when the imbalance was great enough, when too much pressure was exerted on repressing the unconscious, a psychic symbol would appear as a pressure-release valve. A symbol of power and wholeness that would be profound enough to remind our conscious ego (or cultural belief structure) that there is an unseen world inside ourselves with immense power that requires attention and integration.
Jung became fascinated with increased UFO sightings in the 1950s, as the Cold War deepened, because he believed they could be just such a symbol. In his autobiography, “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” Jung explains:
“In [ancient] times the omnipresent, crushing power of Rome, embodied in the divine Caesar, had created a world where countless individuals, indeed whole peoples, were robbed of their cultural independence and of their spiritual autonomy. Today, individuals and cultures are faced with a similar threat, namely of being swallowed up in the mass. Hence in many places there is a wave of hope in a reappearance of Christ, and a visionary rumor has even arisen which expresses expectations of redemption. The form it has taken, however, is comparable to nothing in the past, but is atypical child of the “age of technology.” This is the worldwide distribution of the UFO phenomenon.”
Essentially, he believed that the human psyche is always seeking wholeness - always attempting to make the unconscious conscious - and that the symbol which represents such wholeness historically appears as a circle, or in traditional cultures, the symbol known as the mandala.
“This takes the form of circular symbols of unity which represent a synthesis of the opposites within the psyche[...]The mandala is an archetypal image whose occurrence is attested throughout the ages. It signifies the wholeness of the self. This circular image represents the wholeness of the psychic ground or, to put it in mythic terms, the divinity incarnate in man[...]I refer to the worldwide rumors of Unidentified Flying Objects.”
Whatever I saw that night up in the mountains, it played the life-altering role that Jung attributes to symbols of transformation. It set my stagnant life on a new course and opened up vistas of inspiration that continue to define me. It made me uncertain, and woke me up to a larger context for reality. Ultimately, it urged me toward growth and helped me begin to open my closed mind. I also find it significant that the UFO showed up at a gathering dedicated to freedom, exploration, and openness at a time when the world is in desperate need of a new vision.
It’s still strange to talk about, and I’ve felt a little crazy writing this article. But I know that UFOs aren’t the only unexplainable mystery in this life, and that each encounter with the numinous offers an opportunity to grow toward greater wholeness. And part of that growth is diving into the unknown and facing the fear of telling stories that most won’t believe. So whether you believe in UFOs or not, I hope you stay open to the transformative possibilities that, in some form or another, visit us all.