A lesson from outer space: One species

Saturn, Nov. 26, 2012, Cassini-Huygens mission Imaging Science Subsystem image PIA14636. (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A new year. Ending the old year and welcoming in the new is surrounded by quite a ritual. We watch the bright silver ball drop in Times Square and we make New Year resolutions in hope of changing some of our behavior. We have a sense that the new year brings us another opportunity to try to be better.

As I pause to reflect on this "transition" from an evolutionary lens I see some similarities. The flow of time is continuous, so the choices we have made up to the last day of the year have shaped us and have us poised in a certain direction. We realize that how we move forward in the new year will evolve through our choices and so we take time to take stock and make resolutions to change where needed.

For me, I link the New Year to our celebration of the Incarnation. My resolution or promise of the new year is to become more "awake." More "awake" to the reality that God so loves the world and you and me that we have to see more clearly the reality that is ours. We need to be awake to pull back the cultural and religious biases that blind us and offer a different understanding of who we are. We need to be awake to see beneath our separateness that we are all really one.

This came home to me rather surprisingly as I read Saturn Run by John Sandford and Ctein. Liking mysteries and having read Sandford, I checked this book out from the library. It was a different story for Sanford, more science fiction taking place in 2066. Without spoiling the story, lest you want to read it, let me fill you in enough to understand what caught my attention. The United States is monitoring outer space and sees an anomaly. Something is hovering on one of the rings of Saturn. It becomes clear that it is a spacecraft and beyond what U.S. technology could achieve. The U.S. begins to prepare to get to Saturn. Meanwhile the Chinese are set to colonize Mars, but when they get wind of the anomaly they scuttle that mission and begin to prepare to fly to Saturn. The competition begins; the U.S. spaceship arrives first.

As the U.S. crew is preparing to dock and meet who or whatever is present, there is much discussion about whether this "thing" is friendly or hostile. Assumptions based on their experience, be it scientific or military, become the lens through which they try to figure out what might be happening. Finally, trusting the anthropologist who has studied alien cultures and indicated that "it" seems friendly, they dock and enter the portal which has opened for them. Inside they meet an artificial intelligence (AI) machine equipped to answer questions. They find out that where they have landed is a "depot" that is 21,682 Earth-years old and has been visited by many different species. They learn they can obtain critical technological and scientific information from it. The way to do this is simple: They barter. The AI assigns a value to what is offered, but the crew can only obtain eight points. While they are trying to figure out how to maximize their points, someone asks the AI whether everyone who arrives at the depot gets the eight-point trade or only each species. The AI responds: Only 8 trades per species. Species are species and humans are one species.

I've not been able to let that thought go. We all are the same species. It doesn't matter if we live in North America, Middle East, Africa, India, Central or South America, Australia, Europe or Asia. It doesn't matter if we are pagan, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu, any other religion, or no religion. It doesn't matter which nation-state we are citizens of or if we are trying to make a nation. It doesn't matter what political party we are. It doesn't matter what pigment our skin color is. It doesn't matter if we are rich, poor, young, old, sick or healthy. We are all the same species.

That thought — we are all the same species — within the context of multiple solar systems, other intelligent beings and 21,682 Earth-years startled me. It awakened me to feeling our interconnectedness in new ways. It wasn't a defensive stance like us, homo sapiens sapiens, against whomever. No, it was a much gentler and kinder sense that, if I can see beneath the beautiful and also scary differences which we have constructed in our known world, I know we belong to one another. It feels like a loving invitation to see differently through the lens of our cosmic and evolutionary story.

Since we are one species, the AI assumed we would share. The knowledge that the U.S. saw as something that would give it an advantage the AI understood to be knowledge that could enhance the species. Everyone would benefit. I began to remember my experience at the Parliament of World Religions. In that throng of 10,000 people, the human species was present in its great diversity and yet acted as one sharing vision, faith, ritual, meals, and political action. Think of the gathering at COP21 in Paris where a great many diverse representatives of our species came together to discuss how they must share the burden of stopping climate change and share the resources necessary — to help each other make the adjustments to their economy and to share their way of life. In both gatherings there was movement beyond the human species to respect and see the rights other species have as well.

In the novel, we are not told which species created this "depot" or this particular AI, but its generosity and willingness to treat each species equally and offer its scientific knowledge so simply was not part of how the U.S. crew thought about what might be waiting for them. They brought to this new situation all of their old ways of seeing and thinking.

Both the U.S. and Chinese crews operated in a similar way as they tried to figure out how to engage with each other as their travels coincided on the rings of Saturn. Suspicion, fear, greed and power were the lenses through which they operated. And acting out of those biases created choices that reinforced those exact sentiments.

The new year will evolve according to the choices we make. God continues through our evolutionary future in the choices we make. We need to be awake to our true self, the God-self calling us forward. It is taking a "long loving look at the real" which will transform who we are and how we are in the world. It is seeing with a new lens, with new eyes, as the AI offered the human space travelers, that will transform what we value and what we choose.

Let me end by quoting Beverly Lanzetta from her book, Path of the Heart:

We realize that contemplation is a lifelong journey, an organic unfolding of truth into the world. You are a multi-dimensioned spirit-body, birthed from the divine heart, living on Earth. Only you and God-in-you knows who you are. Pray for the passion to seek your true nature, to love unconditionally, and to be empty of self.

May your new year keep you "awake" and deepen your knowing of who you are and who we are as "one species."

[Nancy Sylvester, IHM, is founder and director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue. She served in leadership of her own religious community, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Michigan as well as in the Presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Prior to that she was National Coordinator of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby.]

To read Nancy Sylvester's entire series, click on her author name above or click here to see a list of her columns.

Check out the latest from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious 2018.