Petty-Coat Junction: Deepening our Survival Focus, Dr. Robert Zuber

21 Jul


Mankind accepts good fortune as his due, but when bad occurs, he thinks it was aimed at him, done to him, a hex, a curse, a punishment by his deity for some transgression, as though his god were a petty storekeeper, counting up the day’s receipts. Sheri Tepper

We dislike feeling inferior to an ideal. So away with ideals, with essences. The only ideals allowed are healthy ones — those everyone may aspire to, or comfortably imagine oneself possessing. Susan Sontag

But like infection is the petty thought: it creeps and hides, and wants to be nowhere–until the whole body is decayed and withered by the petty infection. Friedrich Nietzsche

More than jealousy or possessiveness pettiness kills love.  Marty Rubin

In a week characterized by considerable ugliness on the political front in the US and elsewhere as well as new threats of armed confrontation in the Strait of Hormuz, there was another story that penetrated our news cycle, a story that once upon a time united old and young in a gaze of genuine if temporary wonder, towards a story of courage, ingenuity and attentiveness that managed to put humans on the surface of the moon and (perhaps more miraculously) return them safely to the mother planet.

The genuinely glorious story being shared at that time wasn’t entirely as it was told.   We know now that US President Nixon was preparing a speech in the event that the astronauts ended up marooned on the lunar surface or failed to connect back with their orbiting ship.  We also know that, amidst a sea of men in shirts and narrow ties sitting in front of what for us would be oldest-school computer screens, there were remarkable (unknown) women performing essential calculations and making other contributions that kept the mission on track.

There are always so many more involved in our great human endeavors than make the headlines, people who can pay close attention to detail while keeping their gaze focused on the grand achievements we have chosen — or been forced — to pursue. We need more of these people. Too many of us allow ourselves to drown in minutiae, fussing about many things that have little connection to a narrative any larger than our own comfort and convenience. Too many others of us have somehow been convinced that “caring for the world” absolves us of the responsibility to contribute to the practical success and well-being of our neighbors and communities.

We must recognize that, despite a stunning array of human accomplishments since those days 50 years ago — in engineering and medicine, in agriculture and communications — few could only approximate the consummate wonder of that “one small step,” a step that signaled a mingling of technical competence, human determination, a grand and compelling vision, fidelity to detail, community-care and a bit of good fortune that might serve as a template for the next iterations of our sometimes great and sometimes greatly-flawed human adventure.

Leaving the conspiracy theorists aside (as we should always do), some people I know actually did feel as though space travel had robbed the moon of some of its romance, that having astronauts in thick suits leaving their footprints on lunar soil took a bit of the mystery out of a ball that in its full splendor has helped inspire and navigate harvests, explorations and innumerable human relationships.

But astronauts on lunar soil was not, as I recall it, the most powerful image from this quest.  That honor was bestowed on the image at the head of this piece, an “earthrise” that had first captured our imagination in an earlier Apollo mission, but which communicated a paradox that still haunts and inspires me – a remarkable human endeavor emanating from what appears to be a fragile blue ball, a ball that for most of our history (and from our narrow vantage points) has seemed endless, impervious to destruction; a ball that we believe could absorb our seemingly-boundless greed and overly-narrow ambitions, and continue to deliver enough bounty to sustain the needs of at least most of us, and some quite a bit beyond that.

This ball that we have so taken for granted for so long looks modest even from the standpoint of our nearest terrestrial neighbor, so vulnerable and isolated rotating in the dark void of space, appearing as though it could literally break apart through acts of violence or willful neglect.  The predictability on which our lives depend belies a blue globe seemingly now in perpetual motion, shaking and storming with a force for which we are only rarely prepared.   This “third rock from the sun” on which we have built our ambitions – both epic and petty – is less a rock in the end than an organism under great stress, one needing more care than we have yet demonstrated our capacity to provide.

Even as a youth I had  large expectations for that first “earth rise,” expectations that we could collectively temper and even cast aside our excess consumptive habits and personalized ambitions, our petty grievances and social hierarchies,  and allow it sink in just how close we are now to a “junction” where our cleverness is simply insufficient to get us past our current extinctive threats.  There is a resolute narrow-mindedness that permeates so many of our cultures now, some of which leads to overt defensiveness and hostility, other of which speaks of indifference or even of a willful disregard of both the carrying capacity of our planet and of our own creative and practical generosity.

Thus, the expectations of my youth have remained largely expectant. At the UN we just completed the Ministerial Segment of the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development.  As mentioned last week, the HLPF serves as a significant forum for the review of progress on several sustainable development goals, including those goals related to climate, to inequalities, to partnership, to our children.  But as the HLPF wound to a close, some of us were left with the impression that we still share too many powerpoint graphs and too few stories of human imagination.  We still place too much emphasis on what our political and economic leaders are doing (and sometimes only claiming to be doing) and not enough on the extraordinary local initiatives, nurtured and sustained by diverse communities, that are ripe for replication in these discouraging times.  There was a bit too much bureaucracy-speak, even among NGOs, and not enough on humanizing our threat responses in ways that could motivate us all to move beyond our too-small comfort zones and embrace a grander vision of a planet at peace.

Regardless of levels of inspiration towards a more sustainable world, regardless of the magnitude of our current, compelling human quest, we can of course still choose to turn our backs, cover our ears and simply walk away.  But let’s be clear:  much like with the side-view mirrors on our automobiles, the disturbing images we seek to leave behind are quite a bit closer than they might otherwise appear.


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