On January 19, 2006 NASA launched the New Horizons probe at a departure velocity of 36,000 mph (10 miles per second!). For the next decade it would travel three-quarters of a million miles each day toward an object over 5 billion miles away, which was moving 10,000 mph in an irregular elliptical orbit around the sun—the planet Pluto. The probe whizzed by in July of 2015 and began taking high-resolution photographs of the planet. It needed to slip through a window of space about the size of Delaware, and had only 100 seconds to do so. It did so. It then began broadcasting the images back to earth; a transmission requiring over 16 months of travel until their earthly reception. In October of 2016 the stunning images began arriving.
As it turns out, Pluto bears the marking of a magnificent heart.
In the intervening years, it came to light that Bernard Maddoff had hoodwinked investigators while defrauding investors in his Ponzi scheme to the tune of $18 billion. Fortunes were lost. Lives were lost. Investment banks and bankers gorged themselves on the cannibalistic wealth-structures of mortgage backed securities, before nearly collapsing the American economy during the sub-prime mortage crisis; leaving tax-payers and underwater mortgage-holders shouldering the crushing load. An earthquake struck the impoverished nation of Haiti, and, as a result of sub-standard construction and lack of services, killed nearly 200,000 people. Between 2010 and 2012, almost 300,000 people (10% of children under 5 years of age) died because of famine in Somalia. Both catastrophes, among innumerable others, would have been fractional in scope if not for an unimaginable inequality produced by an unconscionable hoarding of global resources. During this decade, the richest 1% went from holding 40% to over 50% of our world’s wealth.
This is the human paradox. That humans are a species apart, this is undeniable. Yet what is also undeniable is that something is terribly wrong. A race that is capable of almost anything, tends overwhelmingly to utilize their incalculable powers for brutality over beauty. Unlike Pluto, we do not bear the markings of a magnificent heart.
Iconoclastic Icelander Björk probed this morass in her dysphoric hit Human Behavior:
If you ever get close to a human
And human behavior
Be ready, be ready to get confused
There’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic
To human behavior
But yet so, yet so irresistible
And there is no map
And a compass wouldn’t help at all
So unnerving is this appalling gulf spanning human capacities, that we are tempted to avert our gaze from it. It is perplexing, “yet so irresistible.” We gripe, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” as though the question is largely abstracted from our common people-ness. It is not.
CS Lewis hinted at this in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when Mr Beaver answered whether the White Witch was “human”:
But in general, take my advice, when you meet anything that’s going to be Human and isn’t yet, or used to be Human once and isn’t now, or ought to be Human and isn’t, you keep your eyes on it and feel for your hatchet.
Those endowed with human capabilities yet no longer acting from human impulses inhabit a dark realm of power awry—great potency, fallen into the wrong potentialities.
And this paradox is what Scripture calls sin. The Apostle Paul put it thus:
…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
This is elucidating and critical, for we tend to think of sin in terms of human deprivation—limits on the human pursuit of vitality and gratification. That moralizing fastidiousness and insipid piety which reeks of moldering parchment, right? This is a conveniently evasive way of defining the human paradox of sin; emphasizing our own deprivation to the exclusion of reckoning with sobering questions of our collective role in the wellness of our species and our planet. What I’m saying is that brilliant magnanimity withheld is brutal malfeasance.
And so it is that we stare every day at this paradoxical human gulf; more immense by far than the span between our own earth and a dwarf planet perched on the very ledge of our solar system. Wide like that which cannot be seen for its engulfing! We behold it in the external world, but, surely more starkly, we behold it inside ourselves.
Thomas à Kempis noted,
Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be.
But maybe this is where our humanity might meet resuscitation; might receive a defibrillating jolt. Call it “integrity”; a truthfulness toward self and reality. Maybe meekness and humility would be allowed to flow through our arteries once more.
Jesus said the same,
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
For it is by marveling at this tragic gulf that our human spirits are reanimated: declaring our spiritual bankruptcy, discovering our instincts for grief, even accepting our frail finitude. These restore our inner receptors to those otherworldly transmissions—ethereal images which must inform our human place on this, our planet. These offer us better questions for which we might enlist our lives as answers—undoubtedly more painful questions, demanding more costly answers. An invigorating inquisition, which, of course, no one expects!
Still, we humans have come to prefer facile imaging of ourselves and of our race; so much so that I would argue it verges on absurdity. Subscribe to whatever explanation for how our species became as we are, still it would be naïve to deny our preternatural uniqueness among the natural world. This vehemently urges deep existential musings. It simply does! And yet the paradox is this: we would rather send a rocket to examine an object 6 billion miles away than undertake the honest examination of humanness or self. In fact, we’ll settle for far less.
Let’s be reminded of the etymology of amuse, viz., “not to muse”. The prescient late public intellectual, Neil Postman foresaw the dystopian slide of our civilization in his 1985 volume Amusing Ourselves to Death (go read it), and that it would resemble Huxley’s ridiculous Brave New World instead of Orwell’s suffocating 1984.
Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
There’s a contrived thought-experiment which asks, “If God is all powerful, can he make a rock that’s too big for himself to lift?” (Seemingly, both yes and no infer a limit to his power. Seemingly.)
But we are busy anthropomorphizing the conundrum: “If humankind are capable of of anything, can they make themselves capable of nothing?” The response is a qualified yes. Because our doings of nothing are, in fact, the undoings of our very humanness. Like our distant neighbor Pluto, our very classification hangs precariously in the balance. Objects do what they are.
Re-learning our common humanness is urgent in the utmost. Oughtn’t we wonder why, ipso facto, we are all reaching reflexively for our hatchets?