“The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home.”
—from Wendell Berry’s The Unforeseen Wilderness: Kentucky’s Red River Gorge
I read a blog post that reflects philosophically on human nature and space travel in the historical light of the recent Space X launch this weekend (as we transition from May to June in the year 2020); then came across the above quote from Berry the next day; and then, within moments of having had a virtual exchange with Mr. Fruhling asking for permission to link the blog in my response, I found the following in an email newsletter from my credit union:
“We feel that, as a society, we will emerge on the other side of this pandemic as stronger, more unified, more generous, and more empathetic to our fellow travelers here on space ship Earth.”
This was a happy convergence in perfect time of unrelated yet coherent little data bytes like strips of the story of life run backward through a paper shredder, reemerging as whole.
Essentially, I want to begin by bursting a bubble. Much in the way a toddler delights in bubbles blown: not to marvel at their beauty, at least, not for long, but to set about the glorious fun of destroying them, one by one, or as many at once as can be done. And all the while ceaselessly, even gleefully poised and expectant. More!
Thus I posit some reassurance in response to Fruhling’s consideration of the potential perils of humanity bringing its foibles, via our ability to develop technology that is presupposed often enough in Science Fiction to catapult us head over heels beyond the line of social evolution, into our relations with alien races: The greatest technology humans will ever know is that of their own bodies, their own spirit, their own essential being. I do believe that the next, greatest, breathtaking technological discovery, the next “iPod,” if you will, will be exactly that: the discovery of human, being.
There is no greater technology that humankind can invent than what we already is.
The pronoun “we” is awkward there, I know, but it’s intentional. Far more “universal” than the typical and grammatically correct universal “he” — also “they” estranges me, who is invariably part of the “we.” Besides, ’tis the post-historical season for awkward pronoun usage, ’tis it not?
And I flat out decline to explain the awkwardness of the accompanying verb. It will not do to explain every joke.
I’m a long-time fan of Star Trek: TNG. It was my second passion after Star Wars at the age of ten or so, and I was as devoted to Wesley Crusher, Captain Picard, and Deanna Troi as I’d ever been to Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia (perhaps more so). In my teenage years, I was hooked on Babylon 5 while my friends were hooked on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek (all right, I made room for Buffy and Pacey too). Babylon 5 really captivated me (which ST:DS9 was unable to do nearly as well, though they share the “port-of-call” motif in common) for many reasons, but the first most likely that it had essentially made a marvelous baby out of two of my longtime favorite thematic narratives: Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.
It also crystallized the romantic plight of the space station: unlike the deft starship which can zip-zap travel through space, or the planetary landscape that however alien, is narratively either or both sympathetic with/sublimely uninterested in (yet always also vastly impervious to) the relatively puny affairs of the activities of the people storying upon it, the space station stirs the emotional blood-and-veins of utter vulnerability: the proverbial sitting duck, “all alone in the night.” [footnote reference]
Story. of. my. life.
Story of the life of every human being in the midst of a pandemic.
Or is it?
We can always invent new narratives. We are, precisely, always on the cusp of invention, of creation, it’s only that most of us are like swirling pillars of salt in the perpetual making: eyes trained on where we’ve been even while time marches us ever onward, inward, upward–thus we get stuck generating the illusion of new, while ever conjuring, resurrecting, preserving old.
And there’s always time to turn around, turn our head, get a different view, or do a total about-face. We are always standing at—in—on ground zero. There is nowhere else, ever, to go, or to be. Star Trek: Voyager revealed that even in space, we have an intrinsic desire for home. The entire show named after the human propensity to go is structured from the outset to be going back again.
Which is why I think we escape with paradoxically stoic-and-squeamish abandon into the metaphors of space, whether we do so fictitiously, or literally.
Point blank? Human beings are not on our way to building spaceships that can close the gap between us and other intelligent life forms, though I do believe, with no shred of doubt, that other intelligent, sentient life forms in various stages of evolution and consciousness on other life-inhabitable planets exist. And if (since) they do, they are inevitably and persuasively drawn over infinite distance into a desire for interstellar communion as a matter of pure physics.
I don’t think human beings are on track to ever successfully (as in, with mind and body intact, alive) leave this solar system.
Because we don’t need to, for starters. Carl Sagan understood that. By the time we are capable of developing such technology, our consciousness will have evolved, matured, so as to no longer be driven by its exercise. And while we are still driven by it, it will elude us.
Then there’s the matter of this whole body-thingamajig we have, and the incredible mysteries of consciousness and projection we’ve hardly even begun to collectively understand.
In 2003 I took a class called Life in The Universe. Like most fans of science fiction, I’ve had a long-time fascination with life, all forms of life, all possibilities—the sheer, eternal magnitude of it that is sensible to any sensitive being, no matter how limited our own regional examples of life may relatively seem to be. The course was focused through the work of SETI, an organization I’d only ever seen on a movie screen while watching Contact as a young high schooler. Now I was meeting a real scientist who worked for SETI, who had known and worked with Carl Sagan.
Did you know we share 70% of our DNA with trees? How well do you relate to a tree? Can you communicate with one? Can you allow it to communicate with you?
Do you believe in the consciousness of its being?
Extra-solar life forms might share considerably less than 70% of our DNA.
Humans need to begin where they’re at. Ground zero.
We are always blowing more bubbles.
I think when humanity really discovers itself, it will lose some interest in physical contact with alien beings. We are alien enough, within ourselves, among ourselves. Enough for many many lifetimes. I say this, understanding that I am far more attached to my own happiness than to being “right,” so, go ahead and prove me wrong.
I think the imaginative exercise, the projection to escape, escape the planet, start over and try again with a different planet, different alien beings, never mind the alien beings we can’t seem to get along with so well already here…. Is a form of dissociation: fundamentally anxiety-driven. And so, it will not succeed.
It would be a little like trying to be reborn from a different mother, to anxiously attempt to rewrite the past, unable to reconcile that one has already been born, and only ever in this moment, and that, and the next, from the actual mother we have.
Or like trying to launch a rocket from within the atmosphere without first understanding the principles of mass, gravity, and escape velocity (one must understand mass and gravity before escape velocity can gelatinize as a form of thought, a graspable concept).
An earth-derived new virus sends most of the humans on the globe into a (quite sensible) home-ridden panic: we are indoctrinated by fear to stay away from each other. Also to wash and sanitize everything (nevermind all the healthy microbes all over the place, doing their part too). Stay home, stay apart, be afraid of your own body . . . and yet we do not give up the dream of reaching out and touching, getting up-close-and-personal with new life from regions even less familiar to our immune-systems’ defenses? Can we innoculate against the unknown? The forever-and-ever-novel-all? Or are we crossing our fingers and hoping we’ll get the recipe for the intergalactic malaria and dysentery vaccines before we leave our solar system?
Children’s programming gives up the charade: we go to the doctor and get a shot for everything and anything that hurts or scares us. It’s a painful but nevertheless effective placebo. Will this method fly in space? Maybe not (but it works on Star Trek, so, maybe?).
More likely it is one of many tricks humans will need to have outgrown first. Do you object, scientist? Astrophysicist? Very smart man? Very smart woman? Vaccines are backed up by science, after all (I do love science). And research (research funded by pharmaceutical companies and implemented by a not so infallible or even impartial government agency… sometimes I wonder if anyone actually watched the episode of Cosmos about leaded gasoline…or paid any attention in high school economics).
I do hear you. I also suggest it might be fun to research how the placebo effect was first “discovered.”
(saline solution in a syringe to replace morphine during surgery?!)
And the nurse knew to do it. Women (and likely men) have understood the psychological magic of medicine intuitively for millennia. Belief: that’s the real stuff of it. And it works.
I’m getting off track. Medicine and fear and totems against harm have had a strong monopoly on the attention economy during my writing of this piece. Don’t worry, I take all of this quite seriously and I too responsibly use my talismans: I wear a mask. I wash my hands. I stay home (mostly). I tend to my personal health and hygiene. I take care to protect others and myself. I use anti-virals, anti-inflammatories, and anti-bacterial herbs and foods in my cooking. I understand that my participation increases the power of the planet-wide placebo to innoculate against an illness that has caused more simultaneous fear and angst worldwide than any other phenomenon known to humankind. I’m happy to help.
Even if humans could one day manage interstellar space travel (hey, I’ve been binge-watching Star Trek: Discovery. I’m only part skeptic. And part hopelessly optimistic idealist)
Even if humans could one day manage interstellar space travel, perhaps humanity should still responsibly consider self-quarantine until it has already resolved those problems we fear we would inevitably carry with us into space. Maybe there’s a sort of ethical/spiritual threshold: a sort of escape velocity that must be collectively surpassed first.
I actually believe that self-quarantine is a built-in safety feature of low-density levels of consciousness. Mass and gravity. The masses addicted to emotional gravity.
“What if this is all the love [we] ever get?“
And what if we *are* all we ever get? What then? What would we do, here? How would we be with ourselves, and with those alien others all around us, whether they be human, bird, fish, plant, or virus? It’s all energy. It all matters. What if all these brilliant humans turned their attention, their hopes, their belief, their bright-eyed optimism, their dreams, their desire for connection and encounter and newness, and focused it here? On this planet? The only one we know, without a doubt, we be on?
Well. Maybe then we achieve “escape velocity.”