Reflections on a pale, blue dot

This summer marks the tenth anniversary of this blog. I don’t get many page views, but then I don’t post as often as I used to. The world seems to have moved to Twitter and I have less time to write deeply about things than I used to.

That said, I gave a sermon at the Unitarian church I attend back in April and have been meaning to post it for some time. I think it is perhaps appropriate given the current state of the world and the ongoing presidential campaign here in the US. So here it is:

On September 5, 1977 NASA launched the Voyager 1 probe on a mission to study the outer Solar System, a mission that continues to this day, more than 38 years later. Initially, the probe was only expected to work through its encounter with Saturn. When it passed the planet in 1980, astronomer Carl Sagan proposed to NASA the idea of having the spacecraft turn around and take one last picture of earth. He knew that such a picture would have little scientific value given how small the earth would appear in the image, but felt that it could have a meaningful impact on our perspective regarding our place in the universe. It took Sagan nearly a decade — a decade! — to convince NASA to take the picture, which they finally did on February 14, 1990. It inspired Sagan to write the following words:

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

…There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Of course, even this image may not be sufficiently humbling to some. After all, the exploration of our Solar System might seem a bit routine these days. Supposedly even going to the moon became a bit normalized by the completion of the Apollo program, 13 months prior to my birth. And we haven’t been back since. So let me try to put some of this into perspective for you. If the age of the universe was condensed into a single year, the first multi-cellular life wouldn’t appear until the beginning of the final month and the entirety of human history would comprise the last 13 minutes of that year. If the diameter of the solar system was the width of a human hair, the universe would be (very approximately) 6000 miles wide. There are approximately 300 billion stars in our galaxy and approximately 100 billion galaxies in our universe. Simply put, we are but a tiny, almost imperceptible, mote of dust in a random corner of a vast cosmos.

Sometimes I naively think to myself, if I could just show Donald Trump or an ISIS commander the view from Height of Land just south of Rangeley, overlooking Mooselookmeguntic Lake and the mountains, I think maybe they’d glimpse something more than themselves. But then I realize that this would not likely change their worldview. And not necessarily for the reason you might think.

Let me state, right off the bat that I am not a complete relativist. There are absolute truths in the world. There are some things that are objectively wrong and some that are objectively right. Nevertheless, the world is emphatically NOT black and white. There are vast areas of nuance and grayness in between the right and the wrong. We’ve gotten used to looking at our world in a bimodal way. It’s a popular (and annoying) rhetorical trick to turn a nuanced comment into an all-or-nothing statement as a ploy to make someone look bad or to score points. Because, after all, a bimodal view of the world is a world of winners and losers and winning is everything in such a world.

But that vast grayness in the middle is where most of us live even if we tend to see it as black and white. Because what even the best of us (and I’m not even remotely close to the best) too often misses are the true roots of that nuance. We mistake sympathy for empathy and empathy for approval. While awe and wonderment may cause us to turn inwardly reflective — which is not a bad thing! — or outwardly reflective — also not a bad thing — it rarely causes us to turn objectively reflective.

So what do I mean by “objectively” reflective? Truthfully I had a hard time coming up with a word or phrase to describe the idea I was trying to get across. This was not the first thing I wrote down. But the idea is this. Human beings like narrative. We like to fill in the blanks and we like to read between the lines. In fact I have recently come to the conclusion that this is the single biggest failing of our criminal justice system, but that’s for another talk. We like stories. We don’t like fragments. And when we are presented with fragments — which is almost always! — we fill in the gaps of the narrative. And quite naturally, that narrative is colored and shaped by our own experiences. Sometimes that narrative turns out to be mostly right, but more often than not, it ends up reflecting our own emotions and experiences. To once again quote Carl Sagan, “Human beings have a demonstrated talent for self-deception when their emotions are stirred.” Being objectively reflective requires that we, at the very least, recognize that we are filling in a narrative that may or may not be true (more often than not, the truth is muddled anyway). Preferably, being objectively reflective asks us to free ourselves from any one, particular narrative. It asks us to clear our minds of pre-conceptions.

But how do we do that? It’s certainly not easy and I wish I could give you a simple, straightforward answer that you could file away in the back of your mind to pull out at appropriate times. But the truth is that I can’t. It’s a constant struggle. But I can at least share with you what has guided and continues to guide my thinking. It all begins with that pale blue dot. It begins with the question “why?” but never, ever ends with the answer to that question because final answers are rare — they do exist, but they are amazingly rare. Clearing our minds of pre-conceptions means never being fully satisfied with the answers. There should always be something more to learn, more to understand — and this is true even if the answers are “final” in a certain sense. This requires listening — deep listening — and a good deal of humility. The universe is a mysterious place that often defies common sense. Understanding it requires recognizing that the truth is often elusive and hard to pin down.

Of course, the danger in this is that we could fall into the trap of doubting everything. There are people who do not believe the moon landings were real and no amount of evidence will sway their opinion. A former acquaintance of mine stopped speaking to me last fall because he is absolutely convinced that anthropogenic global warming is a vast, worldwide conspiracy aimed at using taxpayer funds to support the “lavish” lifestyles of climate scientists and, since I foolishly attempted to explain the actual science to him, found myself included in the conspiracy. He uses doubt as a tool to enforce his narrative. We can’t fall into that trap any more than we can fall into the trap of surety. It’s a balance, one we won’t always get right. But it comes from recognizing both the bigger picture as well as how the pieces of the picture fit together. It comes from realizing that we truly are inconsequential in the grand scheme of the universe, but also realizing that we’re not inconsequential to one another. It means realizing that what my former acquaintance sees is real to him. It may be (in fact it is) a complete fantasy. But it’s not a fantasy to him and it is built up from legitimate concerns that shouldn’t be derisively dismissed. Getting at those legitimate concerns requires objectively reflecting on the origin of his anger and not automatically building a narrative in my own head about why he is the way he is. I may or may not ever speak to him again. That doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t try to objectively understand him.

I had this sermon written yesterday and loaded onto my iPad, ready to go. And then I went to see a show at Portland Stage. The show was a stage adaptation of Chaim Potok’s book My Name is Asher Lev. I’d never read the book, though I knew of it, so I had no idea what to expect. In it a hasidic Jew — Asher Lev — grows up to become a famous painter. The story deals with Asher’s struggle to reconcile two conflicting worlds (both of which he inhabits) and simultaneously deals with his father’s struggle to understand Asher. What struck me about it was how it dealt with nuance and metaphor, and how it dealt with our struggle, as humans, to find our place in this surprising and often unpredictable world. And I was struck by how it managed to show how a small piece fits in with a much larger puzzle.

Which brings me to one final quote from Carl Sagan who is vastly more lyrical than me.

As the ancient myth makers knew, we are children equally of the earth and the sky. In our tenure on this planet we’ve accumulated dangerous evolutionary baggage — propensities for aggression and ritual, submission to leaders, hostility to outsiders — all of which puts our survival in some doubt. But we’ve also acquired compassion for others, love for our children and desire to learn from history and experience, and a great soaring passionate intelligence — the clear tools for our continued survival and prosperity. Which aspects of our nature will prevail is uncertain, particularly when our visions and prospects are bound to one small part of the small planet Earth. But up there in the immensity of the Cosmos, an inescapable perspective awaits us. There are not yet any obvious signs of extraterrestrial intelligence and this makes us wonder whether civilizations like ours always rush implacably, headlong, toward self-destruction. National boundaries are not evident when we view the Earth from space. Fanatical ethnic or religious or national chauvinisms are a little difficult to maintain when we see our planet as a fragile blue crescent fading to become an inconspicuous point of light against the bastion and citadel of the stars. Travel is broadening.

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