By Paul Hibschman
There are (supposedly) 200 billion stars in a galaxy and 200 billion galaxies. That is an unfathomable number with a four followed by 18 zeros, or commonly written: 4 x 1018 . That does not count planets or any dark matter or other universes. All told, earth is not even a grain of sand in relation to the total cosmos. We can be told this and have it explained to us, but we revert in daily thought to the earth as the center of the universe just as we revert to seeing and saying the sun rises. In addition, most of us consider humans the dominant living creature on earth and probably the most valuable.
All of this seems to come about because we live in a self-made myth. Anything that does not easily relate to our understanding and to our desire to control is simply dismissed from our minds. In a similar way, we dismiss the knowledge that there are tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of mal-nourished children in our world who are not only hungry but have little chance of a future. We do not know how to deal with it, or, if there is knowledge, there is not the will to control events and resources to correct the problem.
Many years ago, there was an old story of a little girl who fell in a dry well. The situation was such that there was no way to pull her out. She had to be dug out. The radio news gave updates as often as possible. The newspapers put out extra editions and always with photographs and explanations by the experts. They decided against digging a hole near her but to dig a trench down to her. It was judged to be safer for her, even if it took longer. It seemed the whole world was holding its collective breath as the rescue unfolded, and then everyone sighed together in relief when the rescue was successful. No one mentioned the thousands of children starving in the same neighborhood. Humans tend to like problems they can easily understand and that they believe have reasonable chances of solving. This is especially true when there is identification with the victim.
I knew a woman who talked of moving frequently as a young child. Finally, she got a small room of her own. She loved it without knowing why. Later, she thought of it as “defensible space.” She understood its boundaries. She knew the corners and knew that no monsters lurked in them. Humans in general are like that in that they want defensible space that they can understand, manipulate, and own.
There are many theories that the development of language led to the possibility of abstract ideas, and that abstract and shared ideas led to the development of agreed upon myths to explain birth and death, sickness and famine and all the desired things. The myths grew more complex and explained what needed to be done to control these natural phenomenon. It seems that humans could not maintain groups larger then small tribes unless the greater group was held together by common myths. The myths grew into the rules of social conduct (morality) and into belief systems about these more powerful beings (theology). The adorations, supplications, and the rituals for the control of these external forces led to the development of codified religions. Religion is the base of every culture.
Religions have the common theme of keeping what is desirable, obtaining more of it if possible and avoiding the causes of displeasure and pain. Some or all of the three forms of sacrifice seem to be constantly used to control deities or the deity.
The first involves the self-sacrifice of the hero or the martyr who gives up life for the good of the people. Self-sacrifice may also involve self-inflicted pain or denial. The pain may be in any form of martyrdom short of death. Denial may involve avoiding any pleasure in eating or general activities, avoiding sexual activity, avoiding human touch, avoiding human contact as with the hermit.
The second form of sacrifice is about the giving up or the destruction of something of value that is not part of self. Typically it involves the destruction of part of the crops, the killing of livestock or other animals of value. Inflicting pain or death on a member of the group may take place. This may be in punishment for a transgression of social or religious norms, or just a part of the general nature of sacrifice. The killing of family member is an extreme form of this. The most extreme form seems to be the main deity killing another part of the same deity for the mollification of the main deity or for the good of the deity’s people. This is a cross-cultural myth, the roots of which I have never discovered.
The third form is complicated because much of it seems to be about war or gratuitous violence and not about sacrifice. However, war is often seen as a sacred necessity to defend one religious group against another people, or to obtain land promised by their deity. It is correct and maybe even necessary for the maintenance of purity to kill the heathen, the infidel, the uncircumcised, the unbaptized or the just the other. It is also complicated because it may involve group members who have been disowned and then tortured, driven out or killed. Often the group’s sense of purity demands the punishment or death of group members who have gone against the beliefs, or rituals, or activities as required by that group. The same justifications are used to require one group to punish or kill the members of another group because their very existence may defile the primary group. This is very pertinent at the present time. Religious freedom is taking on the meaning that a religion has the right to force others to follow its purity rules so there is no cross contamination.
All of this may be judged to be part of the need for defensible space, or conquest as a defense or reward. All of this is also part of a control system that states that if anyone does anything that might put the deity in debt, that debt is a form of control over that deity. All of this also relates to the girl in the well. Heroic activities or rescues generate strong emotions especially when there is a reasonable chance of success or at least the strong hope for success and the people have a strong individual identification with the problem. All of this also relates to manageable size.
The group may be in grand and dangerous negotiations with their all-powerful deity, but it is their deity as seen or defined by them. It is not about the ultimate vastness of the cosmos of all. The ultimate cosmos is greater than the unfathomable 200B x 200B. This ultimate cosmos may also contain alternative universes, different laws of nature, a disregard for a linear definition of time and space, that is, a complexity the average person does not even want to hear about.
Humanity in general does not want to deal with the problem of natural resources or human resources, or the fights for the rights of the many, if such rights might exist. The Atlas Who Shrugged, shrugged off the very concept that there is a right of the many to nave anything they have not earned.
Vastness has always been a major problem for all of humanity except for a very few. In the concept of the vast, the death of a star or a whole solar system may just be seen as the way vastness is. But the crash of an economy or the death of a child or the murder of a related group member is seen as intolerable in the extreme. But the lack of an economy or the death of a child or the murder of those in an unrelated group are of little consequence. All groups tend toward a group-centric mode of existence. Atlas does not even need have to shrug to ignore any unrelated peoples who lack basic needs rights of substance.
There are those few or relatively few who either like to study the vastness or like to consider it, or even recognize that they part of it. There are those who recognize that they are a part of the vastness and come to this awareness either through intuition or through direct experience. For them there are no groups, there is only unity. For them, there is no duality of matter and spirit, no duality of us and them, no duality of those who have been saved or will be saved and the unsaved. There is only unity which is sometimes called love.
Compassion is a very vogue word now. Few think of it as related to passion, which is related to suffering which is related to pity or the pitiful. Pity in the old and philosophical sense refers to ignorance. It is about the lack of understanding, and it is not about direct pain or loss. In the old way of thinking the pitiful were ignorant of the divine. A different way of thinking about the divine is to consider it a totally non-anthropomorphic representation of the vastness. The famous story of the Passion in the Garden of Gethsemane is taught as a coming to terms with the will of the divine. It could be taught as coming to terms with the vastness that has no will and just is. It is a major stretch of the mind to realize that if the girl in the well had died, it would be no more of an injustice than the death of a star.
Carl Sagan understood that all matter, including what is in you and I, came from the interior of exploding stars. He is famous for his saying, “We are all star dust.” This is another way of saying we are all part of the Vastness, whether we want to think about it or not.