Bezos, Branson, and Musk have their sights set on space. These are smart, successful people who have a great deal of determination and wealth to fuel their dreams. Why does a trip to space beckon them so? Perhaps it’s an ego trip. The companies they have created will likely fade in the decades to come but making history puts them in the books for the ages, much like Columbus, Magellan, and Vasco Da Gama. Some say it is about exploration and discovery and the need to escape our troubled planet. I have trouble with this latter rationale.
There are plenty of great challenges to take on here and many places to explore on earth. Escape suggests that we’ve given up hope. Yet, the problem is truly not with the planet but we the people. Chances are that even if we are able to make it over and colonize Mars — a foreboding planet that has far less to offer in sustaining life than our troubled earth — we’ll be transporting our human limitations there — our capacity for greed, competition, and conflict.
The greater and more valuable expedition is to conquer inner space. By breaking out of our present-day consciousness, we can change the world within. With this shift, we are more able to constructively engage the challenges that we have rather than try to flee as far away as possible. With greater consciousness and compassion, we will be more equipped to transform our beautiful and miraculous world — that truly offers everything we can humanly need — into heaven on earth. If we then someday reach for the stars, it will not be to escape our shortcomings but to extend our best selves. That’s a trip I’d sign up for.
Are people inherently good or bad? Are we wired for kindness and collaboration or selfishness and conflict? A book I am reading, named Humankind, makes a case for our goodness. It contrasts the fictitious and popular Lord of the Flies narrative about a group of English schoolboys stranded on an island who viciously turn on each other with a real-life but a lesser-known narrative of a group of Tongan schoolboys who were shipwrecked on an isolated island but found a way to survive in harmony for a year until they were found.
I believe that both of these tendencies –for conflict or collaboration — are within us as part of our nature. Humans have unleashed great violence and horror on others and have also demonstrated the kind of extraordinary collaboration. What accounts for the swing between these two poles? Is it just chance? I don’t believe so.
These two sides — our individual capability and collective social systems — are both elements that are not pre-ordained or random but can be deliberately cultivated. How we respond is dependent on awareness and self-management, which I have written about at length in earlier blog posts. The evidence is that we need to start to build this kind of social and emotional development at an early age and for all, as part of the fabric of education. This development matters every bit as much as anything else we might learn in school.
Creating social systems that engender fairness, equality, and collaboration is also possible and essential. That said, all societies haven’t opted for choosing the common good in equal measure. The stark contrast between Scandinavian countries that are high on social cohesion and wellbeing stands in contrast with other technologically advanced and affluent but unequal societies like the US. There is a choice made based on our values and consciousness that in turn hinge on our own personal development and socialization. If we are grounded and happy, we will want it for others as well. If we believe that conflict is unavoidable, we focus on building our capacity for war. It is good to remember that the peaceful Scandinavians and Mongolians of today were once the vicious Vikings and Mongols who violently decimated other societies. These people are biologically the same. What changed is the social construct they operated with. Changing the social construct is a choice.
In the midst of the Vietnam War, John Lennon pleaded that “all we are saying is give peace a chance.” Yet, the societies that are peaceful don’t leave peace to chance. They make it a strategic priority that is supported by public policy and social practice. Goodness then is not a gift of birth or the result of random chance. Rather it is a choice that we can make, a choice for good.
I am not Black but like so many others, I have a sense of the immense injustice and struggle Black people in America have endured for so long. I recently finished watching The Underground Railroad mini-series based on the Pulitzer Prize book by Colson Whitehead. The film is both shocking and haunting. It is an unflinching look at the brutality of slavery yet presented in an almost poetic way. This mix of brutality and beauty is not accidental. I’ll come back to that.
The Underground Railroad, which was a secret escape route to the North from the South during the era of slavery. The path, which led through the woods and swamps, was marked by safe houses and supported by human conductors who opposed slavery. One of the first conductors — and a man called the president of the Underground Railroad — was a Quaker named Levi Coffin who came from Greensboro, the city where I live. Levi was moved by his faith which emphasized equality and his own experience seeing slavery up close in the South. He was an ally and helping slaves escape was an act of moral courage with great consequences. Yet, attempting to escape as a slave was an act of greater courage. Being caught meant a slow and torturous death that was intended to terrify the other slaves who may think of escaping.
The Underground Railroad series tells of a woman named Cora who flees a Georgia plantation and was relentlessly pursued by a slave hunter. She never gives up. Through the episodes, the series repeatedly offers hope for Cora and repeatedly descends into horror (won’t offer more spoilers) as the potential for a better life is bitterly crushed. This narrative of setbacks mirrors the Black experience in America — brutality, cause for hope, and repeated horror, and somehow hope again. The ability to rise and hope despite all the setbacks shines in Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise:”
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
I also saw this in the words of Langston Hughes from his poem “I, too, am America” that I read on the walls of the National Museum of African American History and Culture:
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
Bob Marley offers this refrain of transcending time and struggle in one of my favorite songs:
Old pirates, yes, they rob I
Sold I to the merchant ships
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit
But my hand was made strong
By the hand of the Almighty
We forward in this generation
What I walk away with from the Underground Railroad is an appreciation for the spirit of the people who have made this horrific journey — stolen from the shores of Africa, bound in chains in the dank holds of slave ships, passed on as property via generations and centuries of brutal plantation slavery, shackled through the era of segregation and overt discrimination, to today’s battles for fairness and equality. Through it all — the horror and hardship — hope prevails with a sense that triumph lies ahead. May that hope be finally and fully redeemed. Soon. And may more of us step forward as modern-day conductors to help those trapped in injustice.