Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Carl Sagan's daughter on lessons about life and death

by Salman Hameed

In Carl Sagan's last book, Billions and Billions, he had an amazingly powerful article titled In the Valley of Shadows. He wrote the article when the doctors had told him that he had 3-months to live. And yet, the chapter is honest about his desire to have an afterlife and the reason why he might think otherwise. But ultimately, it is about the celebration of the life we have. Here is one of my favorite quotes from the piece:
I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.
Sagan already knew that the book's final editing will be done by his wife, Ann Druyan. This is what she had to say about his death in the Afterward of the book:
Contrary to the fantasies of the fundamentalists, there was no deathbed conversion, no last minute refuge taken in a comforting vision of a heaven or an afterlife. For Carl, what mattered most was what was true, not merely what would make us feel better. Even at this moment when anyone would be forgiven for turning away from the reality of our situation, Carl was unflinching. As we looked deeply into each other's eyes, it was with a shared conviction that our wondrous life together was ending forever.
Now their daughter, Sasha Sagan, has a wonderful article in the new issue of New York Magazine. Here she recounts of her father's explanation of death - a subject indeed difficult to address with children:
After days at elementary school, I came home to immersive tutorials on skeptical
thought and secular history lessons of the universe, one dinner table conversation at a time. My parents would patiently entertain an endless series of "why?" questions, never meeting a single one with a “because I said so” or “that’s just how it is.” Each query was met with a thoughtful, and honest, response — even the ones for which there are no answers.

One day when I was still very young, I asked my father about his parents. I knew my maternal grandparents intimately, but I wanted to know why I had never met his parents.
“Because they died,” he said wistfully.
“Will you ever see them again?” I asked.
He considered his answer carefully. Finally, he said that there was nothing he would like more in the world than to see his mother and father again, but that he had no reason — and no evidence — to support the idea of an afterlife, so he couldn’t give in to the temptation.
Then he told me, very tenderly, that it can be dangerous to believe things just because you want them to be true. You can get tricked if you don’t question yourself and others, especially people in a position of authority. He told me that anything that’s truly real can stand up to scrutiny.
And then again, there is a message of hope and celebration of life: 

As far as I can remember, this is the first time I began to understand the permanence of death. As I veered into a kind of mini existential crisis, my parents comforted me without deviating from their scientific worldview.
“You are alive right this second. That is an amazing thing,” they told me. When you consider the nearly infinite number of forks in the road that lead to any single person being born, they said, you must be grateful that you’re you at this very second. Think of the enormous number of potential alternate universes where, for example, your great-great-grandparents never meet and you never come to be. Moreover, you have the pleasure of living on a planet where you have evolved to breathe the air, drink the water, and love the warmth of the closest star. You’re connected to the generations through DNA — and, even farther back, to the universe, because every cell in your body was cooked in the hearts of stars. We are star stuff, my dad famously said, and he made me feel that way. 
My parents taught me that even though it’s not forever — because it’s not forever — being alive is a profoundly beautiful thing for which each of us should feel deeply grateful. If we lived forever it would not be so amazing.

All of this doesn't mean that there is no sense of loss or grief when one loses someone so close. This is a sentiment that is present all too clearly in the article itself. Nevertheless, it is wonderful to see a life through this cosmic perspective.

Read the full article here


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