Looking to the Stars and Back, the Pain of Charleston

Dedicated to the loving people who lost their lives in the Emanuel African Methodist Church, and those who endure tragedy with a humbling spirit of unity and compassion.

For me, the past week has been wrought with an unsettling mix of wonder, tragedy, paradox, and pain. In particular, these sentiments were borne out of a few developments that captivated my attention and the world’s more broadly.

On Wednesday, I first learned that an international crew of astronomers found traces of what they believe to be the earliest stars of our known universe. They claim that, after the Big Bang, these first-generation stars exploded and altered the make-up of heavy metals that ultimately gave rise to the elements of Planet Earth, and by consequence, our very lives. The astronomers say they found evidence of these stars in the distant galaxy CR7, which contains a bright blue cloud of hydrogen and lithium, and has been emanating light to Earth for 12.9 billion years.

I’m not a scientist, but it doesn’t take one to be humbled by this  increasing clarity into the origins of life on Earth. All the countless explosions, transformations, and regenerations of the cosmos over billions of years (not to mention the existence of anything, period)–culminating in the particular convergence of human lives–culminating in the microcosmic wonder of particular cells cohering to produce a human life. If you’re reading this, you’ve made it. I’ve made it. God, or Gods, Allah, Brahman, Buddha, Gaia, or Emptiness–whoever or whatever we may conceive to procreate, legitimate, or guide our realization of reality–how unbelievable it is to be here.

And the funny thing is, none of us chose to be. For all we know, we could have been born into some other realm or dimension with different laws of physics and biochemical realities–say, for kicks, the arms and legs of an amorphous wavy wacky inflatable tube (wo)man timelessly striding across a matterless abyss–the synesthetic color of “sound”–stepping on the backs of smiling clouds like a never-ending SuperMario video game. Sound crazy? For all we know, that could have been our default “normal”–try making up the reality we happen to be in (I should say, without assuming an empirical or rational first premise that has its origin in the particularities of the reality we live in–virtually impossible to even conceive.)

From time to time, I like to think about these existential questions of “what if.” It helps me rediscover and manifest the appreciation I ought to have for simple day-to-day life, to challenge and qualify conventions we hold in the world, to cultivate a creative and imaginative spirit, and to ground a guiding compass in a sort of cosmological reality that puts “problems” in perspective, humbles the “ego” in being the epicenter of everything, and helps me not to take myself or everything too seriously.

That said, here we are. This is our reality. This is our world. And we ought to take care of it, for it’s what we know, the source of where we came from, the destination to which we’ll all go someday. My heart pains that in this 21st century world–a world we often characterize as “developed” or “developing”–we continue to tear ourselves apart on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or other conventions that tell us we are somehow separate, that there is “self” and “other,” “superior” and “inferior,” “civilization” and “nature”–that even the smallest action of one creature doesn’t have an inextricable and indelible impact on the whole.

I think all of us carry some kind of pain body–a memory or experience or burdening thought in which we internalize a profound disconnect from the world. For most of us, I think it arises from a lack of love, a trigger that tells us we’re not an indispensable part of the cosmos–that we all don’t come from a bright blue cloud in the sky–or more tangibly, that we aren’t welcomed or affirmed in the communities and environments we call home.

The tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina this past week connected with an intense pain body of mine, triggering an experience of division, aversion, and a sense of the “other” that has characterized some of the lowest points of my life. That said, I cannot imagine the sense of pain felt most acutely among affected affected family members, friends, and members of the greater black community who contend with this experience of separateness and inferiority on a regular basis–who despite so many humbling displays of unity, compassion, and forgiveness, persist as what Maya Angelou called “…a black ocean, leaping and wide, welling and swelling [to] bear in the tide.”

We need to talk honestly and openly about the reality of race and racism. We need to have difficult conversations that address the roots of these prisms through which we filter reality, no matter how socially constructed or even delusional they may seem to be. Because on the level of form in which so many of us exist, these conceptualizations are reified and truly influence our lived experiences in the world. When they become so primary as to compel one man to walk into a place of worship and murder a group of others who welcome him because of his hate-filled conception of the “other,” we witness how the “ego” as defined against the “other,” taken to its extreme, bears the seed of tragedy.

But even to a much less extreme, to reinforce the idea of a “separate ego” apart from others as so many of us do, we endlessly search for ways to splice up the reality of “the other” into comprehensible boxes that allow us to delineate how our “ego” juxtaposes against these boundaries. Perhaps this is why historically “whiteness” has been protected within a particular “club” status, in which anyone with a trace of “non-whiteness” might explicitly or subtly lose their affiliation and the associated privilege. There are many things that can and have been said about Rachel Dolezal these last few weeks, but if all the attention to her story reflects anything about our condition, it’s that we are profoundly uncomfortable when someone or something does not neatly situate into the categories through which we filter our experience of reality, and when someone strikes a particularly sensitive nerve on the grounds of race, the reverberations are heard that much louder.  (And no, I am not defending Ms. Dolezal and her often deceitful manner of claiming sole license and inviolability in clinging to categories of her choosing without an empathetic understanding of the lived realities of others conditioned by those categories.)

The conversation needs to address these categorizations on an transparent, nuanced plane–in a way that understands the historical power dynamics at play, and that respects how meaningful identities and cultures have arisen over time along these boundaries to endure and find solace amid often oppressive realities. To act otherwise would be either complacent or to feign the “post-racial society” that some wishful thinkers attest was heralded by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or the election of Barack Obama in 2008, but continues to break down every time a black man is killed by the police, or a bible study in a historic black church is hatefully terrorized. Only then, after honest and painful and vulnerable conversation, prompting meaningful and collective and informed action, can we increasingly empathize with “the other”–can we awaken to see that the wonder of creation has arisen in unique and beautiful manifestations of color, but that these colors all, yes they all, have their origins in a bright blue cloud in a distant galaxy.