This is one of two speeches I wrote for this year’s Secular Solstice in Seattle. “Wrote” might be a strong word – there were a bunch of notes and ideas and scribbles and then I went up with some index cards and talked for a bit, but I probably ended up saying something like this.
We humans are creatures of stories. They’re how we understand a world never meant to be understood. There are true stories, and fiction – and then there are the stories untold. Stories lived, but never heard, never written. Tonight, I want to try telling some of these stories – imperfectly, but as best I can. Because they deserve to be told.
This is the story of an fifth century farmer in the ruins of the Roman Empire, cold, sick, worked nearly to exhaustion, and powerless to any armed factions roaming the countryside. At night she gazes in uncomprehending awe at the stars, the Gods, and she when she has the energy, she desperately hopes for a better life for her children, or her children’s children. For a world where hunger is a distant memory and her children spend every night in a soft bed, where they are warm, even in the winter. For a world where her family is safe. But that is an impossible dream, beyond hope. How could there ever be a world like that?
This is the story of a girl in thirteenth-century India, sold into an arranged marriage at the age of twelve. At best, she will spend the rest of her life as property to a man she has never met. But – ff the dowry is not paid, she will be killed on the spot. And if she should survive her husband, she will be expected to commit suicide via self-immolation for him. Her voice, her will, her life is ripped away by a world that refuses to acknowledge her fundamental status as a human being. She has dreams that she dares not to speak, of a life that is hers to live, of a world where women know freedom and cruelty knows justice. And though she may never see that world, maybe her daughters, or their daughters, or – someday…
This is the story of a man in the 18th century, born in slavery, tormented and tortured until one day, through cunning and courage he bests his captors and escapes. His dream came true, in his time, and he could have kept it – but there was an opportunity. A chance to enlist, to risk his life and freedom, to fight for three million still enslaved. So he does, because he can’t bear to do anything else. At the Battle of Poison Spring he sees Confederates slaughter his brothers in arms rather than take them prisoner – because that would acknowledge them as human. He survives, but the nightmares never stop. When he wakes up in a cold sweat, he prays for a world where freedom was a right, rather than a distant dream guarded by bloodshed and evil.
There are three lessons to take from these stories:
First, that simply by being here tonight – together, safe, warm, well-fed and at-peace – a million desperate wishes, from every era and every continent of our collective history – are answered. I shouldn’t exist. My father was supposed to have an arranged marriage; and too recently my white mother would have been prohibited from marrying him; A century ago, the complications of my birth would have killed my mother and I both. Tonight, we are living an impossible dream, and to every ancestor who lived and struggled and sacrificed for that dream, I say: Thank you.
The second lesson: that our great-grandchildren, should we be so lucky, will tell their own stories, and as best we can we should make them good ones. We are not so different from the heroes or the villains of the stories I just told. To the litany of now-obvious historical mistakes, of slavery and cruelty and bigotry, we must discover our own, so that the next generation can do better. I want our descendants to tell stories of Old Earth, how their ancestors faced the horrors of malaria and war and cancer and animal slaughter, of a humanity whose survival rested on a single fragile planet, of a time when extinction was a very real possibility. I want them to tell the story of how the world was saved, and to turn to the stars in search of the next tale.
And the last lesson is this: Stories are how we comprehend a world not meant to be comprehended. But the universe is not a story, and it is not compelled by any narrative force or convention, even a tiny bit. There is no guarantee that there will be anyone to tell any stories a hundred years from now, and the final story may be that of the last survivor, desperately wondering what they could have done differently – if there is time enough even for that. The universe is not fair, and it does not owe us a happy ending. We have to build it – not because we’re heroes, or chosen, or destined for greatness. We are flawed, and confused, and very often weak. But we have to build the future anyway – because there isn’t anyone else.