Today, I’ve spent my time writing largely about Carl Sagan and Kurt Vonnegut, thinking about the impact they had on me. In a way, I am a sort of walking curation of their ideas. I am a human collection of thoughts I did not create. The good news is that thoughts never really stay where we put them. If we’re lucky, thoughts do all sorts of dirty, infectious work, sneaking though the cracks of Us, breathing all over other completely unrelated thoughts, and introducing novel wickedness. They spawn, if we are fortunate, and give life to other amalgams, strange combinations, and chimeras of neural lighting. Nothing is concrete. Nothing is permanent. Nothing, no matter how preciously we guard it, is immutable. We are engines of change who only think we are eternal.
Life is Sad, Funny, and Filled with Pain
Mr. Vonnegut, whoever he was, looked up at me from the pages of a jealously guarded library book and whispered, “We must be careful what we pretend to be.” Of course, I’ve learned since I first read Mother Night that there were other books tied to this one. I was reading out of sequence. I was intruding on what the character believed to be his last confession as a prisoner in an Israeli jail, awaiting execution. I see now that sequence didn’t quite matter as much for Vonnegut’s work as it might for other authors.
It was strange that I should have discovered not Slaughterhouse Five first, but some title less often quoted in high school English classes. “So it goes” would not be a part of my repertoire for several more years. Perhaps because, while you’re living it, pain doesn’t make you wiser or kinder. Suffering only succeeds in creating a space where something better can grow later on. While it’s happening, it’s raw and bloody and you’re focused mainly on the fact that you’re broken open like an overripe melon. At first, you’re mean, because you know that if one more thing is taken from you, you will cease to be you. So you guard what little is left and you try to protect what hurts.
It’s later, once you’ve started to put yourself back in order, to pretend that there was never a wall there and that lamp was always slightly lopsided that you really understand what he’s getting at. I think there’s an established message an author intends, and then there’s what we draw from a text. The two messages are almost never the same, so you’ll pardon me if I don’t want to ascribe what follows as intentional on his part.
What I learned is how not to be scarred shut by life. There is an ultimate, dispassionate futility to the universe, which does not much care whether you live or die. But at the same time, we each have an unfathomable importance to each other. It’s the only thing that makes any of this worth bearing. The more you understand, the less things make sense. Perhaps because they aren’t really meant to–there’s no actual pattern for us to perceive. What we see is what we bring to the act of seeing, and we can make it as horrible or as beautiful as we are.
But, if at all possible, we have to try not to lie to ourselves about where we’re headed or how events play out. We have to subject ourselves to a continuous breaking open, allowing the hands of experience to scoop out everything inside of us. Life hurts. Impossibly, horrifically, senselessly. It kills us, after all, does it not? But there are things we will never see much less understand about ourselves and others if we don’t go through this process. We won’t be able to, unless we feel between our teeth the dark grit of every ignoble and senselessly atrocious aspect of the collective human psyche.
“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.” ~The Sirens of Titan
Wonder, by the Ton, Dr. Sagan
Reading Vonnegut untempered by any other influences or philosophies might have led me to be horribly bitter and warped. Not because I think that’s what he was driving at, but because when I was a teenager, that’s where I was. I was in the midst of enduring daily abuse, both physical and emotional, that would last for years. I’m pretty sure there are some people who would shine through all of that. I wasn’t one of them. I was actually a pretty awful person for a bit. If you doubt that pain breeds pain, I will attest that this is true. I have bled for that truth, literally and metaphorically. But I think I came out of that dark valley in life pretty okay on the whole.
“Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.” ~Carl Sagan
I’m not sure I would have if it hadn’t been for music and art and Carl Sagan. I’ll reserve my statements about composers and painters for another blog entry. But much of what I talked about above bears directly on my reading of Dr. Sagan’s work. He was always sort of around in my life. I am a child of PBS in the 80s–read that NOVA and Cosmos along with Masterpiece Theater and Sesame Street. His voice was familiar to me for as long as I can recall, talking about apple pies and the brain, Pythagoras and dimensions of reality.
But it was only as a young adult in high school that I truly came to value his perspectives. He passed away during Winter Break of my freshman year, five days before Christmas. I can never quite celebrate the winter holiday without thinking of him, now. If I think that the world needs him more than ever, I’m sure I’m not alone. But a part of what he offered everyone was the ability to think about life, the universe, and things in general (haha) without becoming overwhelmed by the conflicting tides of unreason that seem to rule our cultural lives.
He vehemently argued against the irrational climate created by excessive religious intrusion into secular life. He argued for the impartial practice of sciences, unswayed by religious or political agenda. But if he was an avowed atheist, he had plenty of time to talk about wonder, and to discuss the human need for amazement. He simply didn’t feel there was any reason to make up stories in order to satisfy that need. And there isn’t. Because of Carl Sagan, I began to explore the Universe with as much clarity of vision as I could muster. He showed me the deep value of questioning, of seeking answers that needed no crutches of religion or nationalism.
I’d never given much thought to NASA or Hubble or SETI and radiotelescopes in vast serial arrays. But because of him, I looked and I was astounded. Hubble is, to date, one of the most spectacularly successful astronomical endeavors. We know more about how very large (and how very full) the universe is. If Voyager showed us our insignificance and our utter backwardness, I think Hubble gave us the means to dream.
I have gazed upon sights that hurt me with their beauty, because Carl said, ‘Look out there at all of that. Isn’t it amazing?” And because of Dr. Sagan, I had the scientific repertoire to grasp what I was seeing. No magic. No hand of deity. But a cosmic legacy. The elements that went into my being had been born in the hearts of dying stars. And through a journey billions of years long and more complex than I will ever know, they came together to become me, a fragment of the cosmos seeking to know itself.
“The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.” ~Carl Sagan
*All images courtesy of the Hubble Space Telescope gallery. To discover more breathtaking photographs of space, visit http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/hubble/multimedia/index.html.