A Reason to Remember Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot

Photo by The New York Public Library

It seems like everywhere I look it’s right versus left, blue versus black; there’s even a war on masks. This from the species that literally removed itself from the food chain, discovered gravity, launched Apollo 11, mapped the human genome and then gave us the Game of Thrones finale. Our fall from grace has never been so pronounced.

Everyone’s ostensibly moonlighting as a public health expert and Ivy League economist. Cynicism and pessimism rule the day thanks to click-bait and 24-hour news networks more interested in ad dollars than journalistic integrity. To believe the world is getting better, and indeed will continue to get better, is considered delusional rather than realistic or aspirational.

This refusal to acknowledge progress is occurring on a personal level, too. I’ve heard people earnestly say to me that this type of thinking is sanctimonious in and of itself. As if an optimistic outlook is merely greasing the wheels of oppression from a place of privilege.

Any amount of patience, positivity, or benefit of the doubt is withheld as a matter of principle. Life is a zero-sum game for them where someone else must lose if they are to win. These individuals are always looking for how something benefits them, and therefore assuming everyone else should be this singularly focused, too, otherwise they are a fool.

I get it. As primates, it still feels like we have a biological imperative to protect our own tribe. This makes living in a post-tribal society difficult. The problem with this “us vs. them” mentality is it’s impossible to know who “them” is referring to anymore. So we close off our circles and treat any idea that doesn’t fit within our worldview as the enemy. Our policy becomes, “If it’s not good for me, it’s not good for anyone.” Higher taxes, better education, more accessible healthcare, you name it. There’s always someone ready to tell you why something won’t work.

As November draws near and the drama of the U.S. election unfolds on the national stage, I thought it would be a good time to pass along a reminder. A reminder that even in the midst of a pandemic, a race war, and deep political unrest, there is solace to be found if we zoom out a bit.

The meaning behind Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” metaphor has never been so clear. On a cosmic scale, everything we hold important, even essential, is called into question.

If winning by a landslide is our goal, we’re all losers. There’s no “side” in enlightened human consciousness. We can either spend all our energy pointing fingers and placing blame, or taking steps forward. If a pandemic couldn’t bring us together, it’s clear it’s going to be up to us moving beyond our most basic instincts.

Some people believe there’s only so much of the pie to go around and it’s getting smaller every day because of greedy capitalists or nepotistic politicians. Only this is precisely the type of narrow thinking that Carl Sagan warns us against. We can and are growing the size of the pie. Certainly not fast enough to solve all of humanity’s problems next year, but definitely faster than by simply throwing our hands in the air and saying “everything sucks so why even bother”.

Who are we to pretend that we know so little of what causes happiness and prosperity that it’s folly to even try? The well-being of others isn’t a mystery, we just like to pretend it is because that makes it a lot easier to sleep at night. Coincidentally, it also makes it easier to vote straight-ticket and ridicule the ideas of others. Thinking that universal good will come from cancel culture is no better than digging in our heels and asserting that we need to make America great “again”.

Why not go back further and pretend feudal Europe had a better socioeconomic policy than capitalism and democracy have given us? Hell, let’s pretend owning land or being male is relevant to voicing a political opinion at all. It’s obvious to see that the further back we reach for our ideas, the pie actually does get smaller. Ignoring or silencing others based on their gender or race is precisely what got us stuck in this mess. How, then, could it also be the solution to get us out?

“Perfection is the enemy of progress.”

— Winston Churchill

Just because we haven’t found the perfect version of humanity yet doesn’t mean we give up the search and abandon all effort, nor does it mean we force the pendulum to the complete opposite side out of spite. Instead, we need to adjust our lens to filter out the noise at ground zero.

Which is why I am glad there are voices like this that live on even after they are gone. I’m grateful for this gentle yet inspirational reminder that viewing today with a microscope is tantamount to believing we are the center of the universe when we are really nothing more than a temporary speck of dust on a Pale Blue Dot:

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