Hurricane Harvey shifted my attention from home projects again to the sky. After the eclipse and in between watching weather reports, I finished reading a new book by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist who explains the stars. He also says a few things about our situation on earth.
We do not ponder the universe on a daily basis. No patient I have visited talked about the physical heavens, although not a few spoke of the other kind, sometimes in more detail than I could bear. Mostly they talk about getting well and leaving the hospital. Tyson says, "The cosmic view comes with a hidden cost. … sometimes I lose sight of earth." Natural disasters caused by Harvey and eclipses do make us look up. Usually, though, we do not lose sight of earth, and we try not "to space out" as others talk about their problems here-- a good listen helps them.
"Sometimes," Tyson continues, " I forget that every day -- every 24-hour rotation of the earth -- people kill and get killed in the name of someone else's conception of God, and that some people who do not kill in the name of God, kill in the name of needs or wants of political dogma." As chaplains we're well aware of these earthly concerns, including the fact that suicide is also a killing.
He also forgets that "powerful people rarely do all they can to help those who cannot help themselves. As citizens we witness that indifference and, as chaplains, we intervene on behalf of the weak; all too often as both we fail to convince.
"However big the world is," he concludes, "-- in our hearts, our minds, and our outsized digital maps [including those of Harvey] -- the universe is even bigger. A depressing thought to some, but a liberating thought to me." And he liberates a problem I think is as difficult to solve as the math he so easily explains: "Children do not yet know that the world doesn't revolve around them. … Part the curtains of society's racial, ethnic, religious, national, and cultural conflicts, and you find the human ego turning the knobs and pulling the levers." As a first step toward its solution, I would suggest, as he does, to imagine a world in which this problem would shrink -- or never arise -- so that "we could celebrate our earthly differences while shunning the behavior of our predecessors … ."
Because I love celebrations, I hope that we will soon get to work on planning that one.
Dominic Fuccillo is a retired Clinical Chaplain who lives in Littleton, Colorado.
Dr. Tyson's book is Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. Norton, NY, 2017. He writes about the matter discussed here on pages 194-197.