The alien spacecraft swept low over the colorless moon of Earth, and settled into its trajectory to make soft landing on the planet itself. Inside the craft, the alien was not so much an individual, more one of millions of components of the exogenous brain, the interconnected intelligence of their civilization that travelled throughout the universe, constantly communicating, multitudes of nodes thinking as one with all the others in real time. An anthill of sentient being, and more knowing that we may ever know.
The aliens knew that most, but not all civilizations annihilated themselves for three reasons that fed on each other. Only a very few civilizations survived their own fumbling attempts to kill themselves. Firstly, when science on any planet managed to split the atom, they invariably developed nuclear weapons, and the aliens knew that nowhere in the universe had any weapon ever been developed that was not eventually used. The awesome power of nuclear mass destruction, coupled with the other two driving forces of planetary annihilation, were oftentimes irresistible. In one famous case, so many nuclear devices were detonated that an entire planet was thrown off its axis and crashed off into the outer darkness, leaving its atmosphere behind, and taking with it all of the dead protagonists. The aliens knew from radio broadcasts from Earth that the humans called their balance of nuclear power Mutually Assured Destruction, but without a trace of irony in the acronym, MAD.
The second cause of planetary self-immolation was exactly that. Once a civilization discovered fire, it was harnessed to serve three basic needs: light, heat and power. But once the beings got busy busy, they started wildly burning through the thin mantle of hydrocarbons on and just under the surface of the planet, the living beings of previous times that had taken millennia to accumulate: the remains of other animals, of plant life, and of their own ancestors. And through their carefree burning of fossil fuel, the species eventually raised global temperatures exponentially, melted their polar icecaps, raised sea levels and lost most of the land mass on which they lived. Oh, and compromised the planet’s atmosphere, on which their lives depended. Forced migration, a lack of potable water, great storms, forest fires, famine, pestilence and plague resulted in wars for survival. It seemed odd that there were hundreds of eminent scientists among them pointing all this out, but not enough paying attention to them, or perhaps the wrong ones: their leaders did little real leading, and hardly ever showed long term thinking amid the concerns of short term election cycles. 73,000 fires set in the Amazon rainforest for commercial gain this year. Way to go, President Bolsonaro. When was the last time you saw the sky from your palace? Truly it was most odd, and difficult to fathom if you were yourselves a rational species.
Both of these challenges were greatly worsened by the third syndrome that killed off most species of medium intelligence. The aliens had visited some 100,000 years earlier, during a time the humans would later call the Stone Age. Human life was run entirely on the basis of existential fear: fear of dying, fear of the dark, of hunger, cold, wild animals, and most of all, of any other human who did not live in your cave. They surely must be after your food, your women, your cave itself perhaps. And with brutal violence, you had better kill them before they killed you and yours. This was stirred to a high pitch by the cave leaders, who built their power by stoking the fear of outsiders: “They want what is yours. They want to kill you. Do what I say, and I will keep you safe.” Life was cold, dark, hungry and brutal. Average life expectancy in the Stone Age was 27 years.
Of course, it did not feel good to reveal that you were scared stiff most of the time. Better to dress up all the fear as hatred, which gave the leader and you a sense of agency, of being a bit more in control. And it was helpful in stoking the hatred to come up with easy visual identifiers so you could keep track of whom the enemy were supposed to be this year: skin, hair, facial shape, body sizes, as well as suspiciously different clothing, the way they sounded, the gods they worshipped, and whom they loved. You didn’t actually know or experience any of them, probably a good thing for your cave leader selling the hatred, because it was much easier to make you fear and hate others if you didn’t get to know them. If you got to know them, you might realize that they were as scared as you, and just trying, like you, to raise their kids, feed them, and not die. They also yearned to be left alone.
And back then of course, the prefrontal lobe of the human brain, the rational thinking part, had hardly begun to develop. Thinking about long term consequence was not possible when you ran your life from the amygdala, the reptilian back of the brain that was binary in the options it presented, fight, flight or freeze. And of course, in males younger than 25, the prefrontal lobe was not fully developed even in 2019. Which was handy for leaders sending the young men off to die in wars. Strange, the females got the front part working much earlier and saw the whole picture. But the men did not much listen to them.
The aliens thought all this was perverse, irrational and deeply fascinating. They knew from radio and television broadcasts that humans had analyzed their own DNA, the double helix of their ancestors that they carried throughout their own bodies. So the more educated of them knew full well that every single human being, all 7.7 billion living on Earth, descended from a single woman, their common ancestor who shared their DNA and who lived in East Africa around 120,000 years ago. The aliens wanted to know how humans could hate their cousins, other relatives, their own ancestors? Did they not realize that when the great migrations happened over tens of thousands of years, the humans who went north and south to parts of the planet with less sun lost some of the melanin in their skin... but still carried the same DNA? But they were their relatives. An enigma for sure, thought the alien mind. They had heard of Samuelson’s Law: “You can take the humans out of the caves, but you cannot easily take the caves out of the humans.” Our alien would have nodded, if they had a head.
Well might you ask why the aliens did not give up on humans, why did they not believe on massive evidence that they were well on the way to self-destruction? Well, because the radio and television broadcasts revealed that there were a precious few among them who spoke out heroically and attempted with different degrees of success to put the brakes on the runaway train of self-destruction. They were few, but impressive. The aliens wanted to know if other humans paid them any attention yet.
They had heard the German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemöller speaking out in 1946, right after he was liberated from a Nazi death camp:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak for me.
And the aliens had heard the great astronomer, the man I miss so much, Carl Sagan, in a speech he made at Cornell in 1994:
Look again at 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 no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. 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.
And yes, the aliens had heard of Chiune Sugihara, the man who looked over his gate and did not see Jews in the park, but fellow human beings who were starving, dying, children in rags, parents certain the Nazis would kill them. And he felt the emotion of empathy, felt their common humanity. They were him. He was them. And he acted. He stamped several thousand visas to Japan, and was handing them out of the window of the train as the military police dragged him back to Tokyo.
And then another hero stood up, when the Japanese High Command was appalled by these thousands of strange looking, bedraggled men, woman and children suddenly arriving, speaking a strange language, asking with their eyes to be fed. The Jews were told to elect a leader to submit for interrogation. And off to Tokyo went the Ashkenazi Rabbi of Vilnius, who was 4’ 11” tall. And the Japanese discovered that he spoke French, and they summoned an interpreter. Their first question was blunt: “
Pourquoi nos alliés, les Nazis, autant vous haïssent-t-ils, vous les Juifs?
Why do our allies, the Nazis, hate you Jews so much?
And looking them straight in the eye, the Rabbi quickly replied:
Eh, bien évidemment, parce que nous les Juifs, nous sommes asiatiques
Well, obviously, because we Jews are Asian.
Three hours later, the Japanese interrogators left the room to discuss what to do, and they spoke firmly when they returned:
We do not know why the Nazis hate you, but we do not. So long as this terrible war continues, you will be our guests. You will not be imprisoned, but please behave yourselves.
And the Jews lived in Kyoto and were protected until the end of the war. Then some went to Israel, some to Europe and America. But there is a large Jewish community in Kyoto, and every one of them is alive because Chiune Sugihara saved their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents from killers inspired to kill them by a despot who directed their fear into a hatred of scapegoats. As the great philosopher Santayana wrote, and as is inscribed on the rock at the entrance of the Dachau concentration camp where the Nazis sent Jews, Gypsies, Gays, Transgender people, Communists, priests and anyone else who did not salute their evil, to shoot them against a wall, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”
The Lord bless you and keep you
The Lord lift up his face
To shine upon you and be gracious unto you
The Lord lift up his face unto you and give you peace.
God of our fathers and mothers, help us to preserve the sense of empathy, the wonderment, the instinctive sense of inclusion of children in kindergarten.
May we nurture compassion and tolerance for others, revel in difference and break bread with others wherever we find them
God and God of our fathers and mothers, help us to be brave, to speak truth to power and each other, to support knowledge and science and apply critical thinking. Help us to push back strongly against those who stoke fear and hatred by creating moral equivalence between truth and lies. Help us find the one truth by our best, diligent enquiry, and say it out loud.
God and God of our fathers and mothers, help us to seek out and honor the Heroes Amongst Us, and the heroes of past times, to understand their messages of wisdom, empathy and inclusion. May the bravery of Chiune Sugihara inspire many to find their inner bravery and speak their own brave truths. To make a positive difference. To speak from the heart and mind. To think long-term and act right now.
God and God of our fathers and mothers may we lift up our children towards the light of empathy, and in saving humanity, may they and we touch the face of God.