For Small Creatures Such As We / Sasha Saigan
No matter how tempting a belief was, my father preferred to know what was true. Not true in his heart, not true to just him, not what rang true or felt true, but what was demonstrably, provably true.
My father was a scientist. He was the astronomer and educator Carl Sagan. Science wasn’t just his occupation, it was the source of his worldview, his philosophy, his guiding principles. He and my mom, writer and producer Ann Druyan, taught me that belief requires evidence. They taught me that science wasn’t just a set of facts to be compared and contrasted with other philosophies but a way of testing ideas to see which ones stand up to scrutiny. They taught me that what scientists think today might be disproven tomorrow, and that’s wonderful, because that’s the pathway to a better, deeper understanding.
For me the biggest drawback to being secular is the lack of a shared culture. I can live without an afterlife, I can live without a god. But not without celebrations, not without community, not without ritual. There are no hymns about the testing of theories or mapping of genomes. No festivals to commemorate great inventions or medical breakthroughs. Since I long for ways to honor the wonder of life, I’ve found myself making up new rituals. Sometimes I find I can repurpose the traditions of my ancestors to celebrate what I believe is sacred.
If you are devoutly religious, firstly, I’m delighted you’re reading this. Thank you. If you have total conviction about your faith, you have plenty to celebrate already. This book is not intended to dissuade you, only to increase what there is to be joyful about. If you are, like me, something else, maybe some combination of the words secular, non-believing, agnostic, atheist, or possibly pagan, my hope is that this book might help separate skepticism from pessimism. I don’t think that faith is a requirement to see a world full of provable miracles and profound meaning. I also don’t think lack of faith means you must give up your most beloved rituals. There is a way to honor your traditions and your ancestors without feeling you are just going through the motions.
Harry told his father he would no longer keep kosher, no longer pray, no longer spend Friday nights at shul. Because he just didn’t believe. Not in the teachings he was brought up with, not in the Torah, not even in God. He braced for his father’s reaction. I’ve often imagined the weight of this moment, too. The guilt of knowing what your parents sacrificed to escape oppression, how hard they worked to preserve their way of life, how carefully they taught their beliefs to their children. And knowing that across the ocean in their homelands, at that very moment, the political climate was turning, and your people were starting to disappear. But, safe in New York, my great-grandfather looked up and smiled at his son and said the immortal words: “The only sin would be to pretend.”
But this is not a singularly Jewish issue. Lots of people don’t, for instance, consider Jesus Christ their Lord and Savior but still take pleasure in Christmas. It doesn’t even have to be about religious identity. How many Americans of, let’s say, Italian ancestry identify as Italian but speak only a few words of the language here and there, have read no Dante, seen no Botticellis, never even stepped foot on that boot-shaped peninsula? To a Florentine this person is not their countryman, but back in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, he sees himself as Italian.
While our calendars have shifted, and our climates, politics, and superstitions vary, somewhere in the depths of whatever you celebrate there is very likely a kernel of some natural occurrence. We needn’t resort to myth to get that spine-chilling thrill of being part of something grander than ourselves. Our vast universe provides us with enough profound and beautiful truths to live a spiritually fulfilling life.
It’s easy to forget how amazing this is. Days and weeks go by and the regularity of existing eclipses the miraculousness of it. But there are certain moments when we manage to be viscerally aware of being alive. Sometimes those are very scary moments, like narrowly avoiding a car accident. Sometimes they are beautiful, like holding your newborn in your arms. And then there are the quiet moments in between, when all the joy and sorrow seem profound only to you.
I remember walking around the city, stunned that everyone I saw, the owner of every wise and wizened face, was once a baby. This seemed revelatory, despite its obviousness. I couldn’t help reflecting on how any of us got here in the first place.
To say “I don’t believe” in something doesn’t mean that I am certain it doesn’t exist. Just that I have seen no proof that it does, so I am withholding belief. That’s how I think about a lot of elements of religion, like God or an afterlife. And it’s the same way my dad thought about aliens. As he once said, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” We don’t have proof, so we don’t know.
If you have any European ancestry, someone in your lineage had to survive the black death in the fourteenth century, which killed more than half the people on the continent. If you have any Native American heritage, somehow your forebears managed to pass their genes on to you, despite the fact that only 10 or 20 percent survived the microbes and violence brought by European invaders. Whatever your ancestry, the list of wars, raids, plagues, famines, and droughts your genetic material had to overcome is stunning. All this in order to arrive at the moment where you, exactly you, are ready to depart your mother’s womb and come into the great wide world.
Let’s say there were three decisive moments in each of your biological parents’ lives that led to their meeting. This is a ridiculously conservative estimate; it’s probably millions of moments, but, for simplicity’s sake, let’s say three. Your mother chose to go to such-and-such university, she chose to strike up a friendship with so-and-so, and years later, she chose to accept so-and-so’s invitation to the party where she met your dad. Meanwhile, your dad chose X career, where he met X colleague, and eventually accepted the invitation to the party where he meets your mom. At the risk of stating the obvious, in order for your parents to meet, they each had to be born, which required both sets of their parents to meet. And before that, your grandparents had to be born, so your great-grandparents had to meet. And so on and so on, all the way back to the first humans in East Africa.
My mother’s parents met on the New York City subway. In a car of the E train during rush hour. It was 1938. My granddad Harry was reading William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and when he went to turn the page my grandmother Pearl put her hand on his and said she wasn’t finished reading. How many different cars were on that train? How many different trains came through that station? How many different train lines could they each have lived on? How many different cities could their parents have emigrated to? And so on and so on back for all of history.
There are, as with all things, loopholes even for the orthodox. For example, there are large buildings in places densely populated by observant Jews where the elevators are preprogrammed to stop at every floor during Shabbat. If you’re not pressing any buttons, you’re not breaking the rules, right? This is the subject of much debate.
After school on Fridays my mom would usually take me to buy a loaf of challah from the Clever Hans Bakery in Ithaca, in upstate New York, where I grew up. This was a kind of hat tip to the ways of our forebears. For me, the visit to the bakery was more about the brownie with mint icing that I called a “greenie,” and that I ate ferociously in my car seat on the way home. This was another kind of holy sacrament, my first appreciation of what it felt like to finish the week, to transition from work to rest (even if, for me, at that time, work largely consisted of coloring).
It didn’t really matter what shapes we cut out, it was more about the time we spent together. Sitting and talking, doing something a little educational and creative. It was about the ritual. And, I think, the weekly timing. Every day would be too much, not special enough, and too time-consuming. Once a month would be too infrequent; we’d lose the rhythm of it. There’s something about once a week that’s just right.
Jon and I have several small daily rituals. Every morning, he wakes up first, makes coffee, and brings me a cup in bed. Then I thank him and tell him how wonderful I think he is. This small act of romance sets the tone for our day and, in turn, our life together. Later, when he leaves his office, he texts me, “On the way!!!” This still gives me a little thrill. Like the feeling of knowing you’re going to see your crush. And this too is a little ritual. In a sense, everything we do a particular way that holds meaning for us is a ritual. Especially when there are other ways it could be done.
This ambiguity haunted me, so while still small I devised a plan, a kind of personal superstition. Every evening while being tucked in I would say to my parents, “Don’t forget! Don’t die!” and every evening my mother would say, “I promise!” and my dad, accuracy zealot that he was, would say, “I’ll do my best!” I don’t know if it was because he was already in his fifties by then and had faced several serious health problems, or just that he wouldn’t want to break a promise by falling victim to something he could not control. But this was our nightly ritual, and for a time, it gave me the desired illusion of control, safety, and certainty.
Maruja’s heart raced as she held the newborn in her arms. The Mother Superior took the child away. His or her fate is unclear. But the experience put a seed in Maruja’s mind. Suddenly, she felt a pull toward the outside world. But, devoted to the Church, she did not want to break the vows she’d sworn when she became a nun. Over the next few years she wrote letters to the Vatican requesting official permission to start a new life. Finally, she was given the papal blessing to come down from the mountains and out into the world.
Uncertainty is real. It need not be glossed over or buried. We can embrace it, even while we try to understand what we can.
In the 1950s, the philosopher Bertrand Russell made the argument that the burden of proof must be on the believer, not the skeptic. He did this by asserting that there is a teeny tiny teapot in space that cannot be perceived by even the most powerful telescope. He suggested that if this idea was supported by ancient books, it would be deemed more likely, even if the ancient books included no proof. We cannot be absolutely sure that there is no space teapot; it’s possible there is. But we don’t have any reason to believe in it.
But as I grew, I realized the puzzle had no edges, no borders. It went on forever in all directions. Every new piece just revealed how many more pieces were still missing. I came to understand that I could never get to the complete picture. So the metaphor changed. Instead of a puzzle, being curious became more like being a collector of small, beautiful objects, of which there are a seemingly infinite number on Earth, like seashells or stamps.
These proper nouns could have been anything, but this place has its name for a specific reason. Was it named after a person? Another place, picked by some homesick explorer? Is it a ridiculous Anglicization of an indigenous word? A slow contraction of words over centuries? If New York is named for York, England, where is Zealand? Where did the word America come from?
Soon it became clear to me that there is a second layer to everything. Often there’s a third and a fourth and a fifth, subtext upon subtext, subtle reference within subtle reference. The best literature, movies, and art had the most layers, I thought. Finding these felt like being a detective.
Because of my parents I always knew I wanted to get married. But after my father died my feelings changed. I still wanted to be married, but the getting married part seemed increasingly like it was going to be more painful than joyful.