Thursday, February 23, 2012

American Generosity

Like many of you, I worry about our great country: about where it’s going, about what emotions are motivating our fellow countrymen as they prepare to take sides in the coming election, about what historians looking back will eventually be able to identify as the specific spirit that motivated our co-citizens to make whatever decisions eventually become the ones that define the opening decades of this century in America.

What I specifically see and don’t much like is a certain lack of generosity—and I mean specifically generosity of the spirit, not of the purse—that seems to me to characterize a lot of what I’ve been hearing said, published, and broadcast just lately. Like most people, I suppose, I live in a ghetto: a gilded one, to be sure, but nevertheless one in which most of the people with whom I have contact on a daily basis share my ethnicity, my faith, major elements of my personal story, and a certain basic orientation towards the world that I learned as a child in a different version of the same gilded ghetto, albeit one with lots more apartment houses and way fewer cats. But Joan and I were away for a few days earlier this week and the word on the street in paradise—and I am, if I may say so, a very good listener in this specific regard—was similar to what I’ve been hearing at home, only more shrill, more strident, and, if anything, less kind. I loved our time away, but in this specific regard came home troubled.

All my readers know I live peacefully in a world filled with ghosts. I speak and write often of my parents in that regard, but also of my grandparents, of the kedoshim who died during the war, of others who come not so much to haunt or to admonish but merely—and always gently—to whisper a word, to tarry for a moment. And among those specters always—or almost always—is Walt, the greatest of Long Island’s gifts to humanity, by any reasonable reckoning the first among America’s poets. (A few weeks ago I referred in one of these letters to the great William Cullen Bryant as Long Island’s second greatest poet. I got a lot of interesting feedback to that letter—it was the one, I believe, about the earth having about fifty million centuries left before the sun’s fiery tentacles reach out into space to swallow it up and spit it out as a lifeless space-cinder—but it pleased me that no one needed to ask me to identify the first greatest. As well they shouldn’t have!) And so, sitting on the shore at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, the most beautiful beach in Key West (which is saying a lot), I found myself re-reading some of Whitman. This being the twenty-first century, I have Leaves of Grass on my Kindle and also on my phone. (What if I go somewhere without my Kindle?) And what I found myself reading was one of the man’s finest works, his long, complicated poem about America’s poetic soul, “By Blue Ontario’s Shore.”

This is how Whitman characterizes the birth of our nation: “The haughty defiance of the Year One, war, peace, the formation of the Constitution, / The separate States, the simple elastic scheme, the immigrants, / The Union always swarming with blatherers and always sure and impregnable…” Those words suggest to me a certain confidence, a certain useful arrogance, a certain sense of destiny that seem to be lacking in the current version of our American world view. Perhaps Whitman was overstating things just a bit when he moved on from there to write about the way in which America is characterized by “the perfect equality of the female with the male,” but he was so right—or I hope he was—about the rest of it, about the “noble character of mechanics and farmers,” about America’s “freshness and candor,” about America’s “boundless, expectant soul.” The poem, one of the longer ones in the collection, goes hand in hand with Whitman’s shorter poem, “America,” in which he describes our nation as “Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich, / Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love, / A grand, sane, towering, seating Mother, / Chair’d in the adamant of Time.” (What an adamant is, I also had to look up: a legendary stone of impenetrable hardness. Also, if I may digress, there is something incredibly cool that I came across in preparing to write to you this week: a 36-second wax cylinder recording, possibly made by Thomas Edison himself, of Whitman himself reading the lines from “America” quoted just above. Go to and search for “America” and the recording will pop up. It could also not be him. [You can find the very interesting essay, “Walt Whitman Speaks?” by Allen Koenigsberg—not Woody Allen, just someone with a similar name—reproduced on the site as well.] But how indescribably cool would it be if it really is his voice on the recording? Go listen, you’ll see what I mean. And it apparently really could be him!)

The man heard America singing. And the song he heard was one of a people possessed of the confidence to be generous in the judgment of others, who had the courage of their convictions strongly enough in place to allow them to wish for others to join them, to be willing to self-invent for the sake of the future rather than relying on rules set in place by others in the past.

I’ve been allowing those thoughts to take me off in different directions. As our political leaders or would-be leaders appear to be vying with each other to see who can formulate the harshest position possible towards the eleven million illegal immigrants living in this country, I find myself wondering if the qualities most lacking from the discussion are not exactly the ones enumerated by Whitman a century and a half ago. Obviously, criminal behavior cannot and should not be condoned, let alone rewarded. As the husband of an immigrant to this country who waited on line for years and then duly jumped through a thousand different hoops on her way to becoming an American citizen, I find it outrageous that people who jump the queue should simply be rewarded for their efforts with citizenship. And yet I also remember that three of my grandparents and all eight of my great-grandparents came to this country when there were no immigration quotas, when the system was simply that you booked passage, arrived at Ellis Island (or somewhere similar), and demonstrated your good health and your ability to support yourself or to be supported by someone other than the government. I understand the point of limiting immigration. But I also can’t quite imagine that the solution to the problem is either mass deportation or else doing nothing at all, thus creating (or rather, continuing to create) a huge underclass of non-citizens who cannot seek medical attention when they are ill, who cannot complain to the police when they are assaulted, including violently or sexually, and who cannot pay taxes because they cannot self-identify to the IRS without risking deportation. I don’t have a specific plan in mind for coming to terms with the problem. But I wonder if what is required, and far more than harshness, vindictiveness, and punition, is the kind of generosity that could guide Americans forward to finding a way for illegals (like other lawbreakers) to pay their debt to society, to pay the back taxes they owe, to be safe in their homes and on the street, and finally to apply for residency permits without getting in the way of all those waiting their turn patiently and legally. I suppose the key to finding such a plan would rest with the willingness of our nation to think of our union as “sure and impregnable,” and then to bring to bear Whitman’s idea of an “elastic scheme” that can stretch theory to accommodate reality. The way the debate is framed these days seems to require people who wish there to be a reasonable solution also to embrace the concept of just ignoring illegal behavior. I can’t imagine that has to be the case and I present myself as an example: I have absolutely no interest in condoning criminal activity of any sort and I can find it in my heart to wish for a solution to the problem rooted in fairness, kindness, and generosity.

I find myself thinking about the mortgage crisis along similar lines. As you all know, the government has proposed a program designed to help homeowners who are in danger of losing their homes. It’s a huge program, one that will end up costing taxpayers billions of dollars. Whether it will work or not, I have no idea. But doing nothing at all to help can only be justified by arguing, not without cogency, why anyone should care if people lose their homes if they themselves are the ones who chose to buy homes they couldn’t afford and took out mortgages that presupposed an income level they didn’t have or could rationally have been expecting soon to attain? Shouldn’t there be consequences when people buy things they can’t afford? Or, to ask the question even more pointedly, why should citizens who do not live beyond their means, who don’t buy things they can’t pay for, who live in homes matched to their income level—why should those people bail out those of their co-citizens who made all the wrong choices? It all makes perfect sense: isn’t one of the underlying principles that guides our American culture precisely that people must clean up their own mess, that once people make errors in judgment it then should fall to those specific people to fix things as best they can? These principles are logical. They all sound reasonable and just. But there is a certain generosity of spirit that could be brought to bear to frame things differently by asking what would happen if people, instead of the smugness born of having made the right decisions personally, brought boundless compassion to the millions upon millions of people who are in danger of losing their homes. No one should be obliged to pay anyone else’s bills. Why should they? I wish someone would pay my bills! But I am also privileged in a thousand ways and I know that too. And I find that, despite my general disinclination to clean up other people’s messes, I don’t want to live in a country in which foolish people with too-big eyes and underdeveloped understandings of how mortgages work end up living in shelters or on the street.

Whitman wrote that “this America is only you and me, / Its power, weapons, testimony, are you and me, / Its crimes, lies, thefts, defections, are you and me, / Its Congress is you and me, the officers, capitols, armies, ships, / are you and me,” and that’s how I see it too. In the end, we’re in this together. We have every reason to expect our co-citizens to bear the consequences of their folly and to pay the price for their greed or their naiveté, just as we have the right to demand that people who behave illegally be brought to justice and obliged to pay out their debt to society in whatever way our legal system requires of them. But there is also the possibility of viewing our society’s problems, and the two discussed above foremost among them in this regard, from the vantage point of traditional American generosity of the spirit and endless kindness towards the downtrodden, towards the desperate, and, yes, towards the naïve and the foolish. Am I going out on a limb by suggesting that generosity be restored to its traditional primacy of place in our national hierarchy of values? I hope not! But America is not a thing, not an entity, not a concept, but only we ourselves. And that too wrote Whitman: “I match my spirit against yours you orbs, growths, mountains, brutes, / Copious as you are I absorb you all in myself, and become the master myself, / America isolated yet embodying all, what is it finally except myself? / These States, what are they except myself?”

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Military Option

There have been moments in my life when I’ve been overcome by the sense that the distinctions we insist on making between different cultures, nations, and ethnicities are petty and small, that we are all far more similar than we are different. I feel that way when I read the novels of Naguib Mafouz, for example, the late Nobel-Prize-winning Egyptian author whose books underscore—to me personally, at any rate—how easy it should be for Jews and Muslims to live in peace, how much cultural baggage (and how many obsessions and how much inexplicable peculiarity) we share, how comfortable I would be in the settings he describes in Cairo and Alexandria that ought to seem foreign and threatening to me, but which actually remind me more than anything of the New York of my own childhood and of Israel. (If you haven’t read Mafouz, you’re in for a huge treat. Start with the three novels collectively called the Cairo Trilogy and move on from there. And speaking of Egyptian novels, I just finished Alaa Al-Aswany’s book, The Yacoubian Building, which I recommend to all my readers. It’s funny, touching, intelligent…and it too reminded me how similar Egyptian culture and Israeli culture really are, how easy it would be for “brethren to dwell together in peace” if we only had the nerve to set politics aside and simply to look at each other clearly and directly.) That sense of the brotherhood of humankind comes to me often when I read novels in translation, actually. As you all know, I read a lot. But whether I’m reading my way into the Japan of Haruki Murakami or Kenzaburo Oe (and in some ways especially the latter), or into Orhan Pamuk’s Turkey or Manil Suri’s India or Aravind Adiga’s…the sense I have is always the same, always how amazing it is not how different we all are, but to what degree we are all so similar.

But then there are also moments when I realize that Jews, in addition to living in the same places as their neighbors, also view the world entirely differently than their co-citizens. (When a cockroach looks at a pineapple, does it really see the same thing I do? It’s hard to imagine that it does. Yet it’s the same piece of fruit!) This truth too has been visited upon me in many different contexts. For example, I remember once walking with a very good friend of mine, the Methodist minister who served the church down the road a piece from the synagogue in California in which I worked before I came to Shelter Rock. Somehow, the name of a member of my synagogue came up and I mentioned in passing that that person’s parents and grandparents were murdered at Auschwitz as were also all but one of his siblings, a younger sister who also survived. He mentioned that he hadn’t ever met anyone who had experienced the murder of a close relative, let alone more than one. That sounded reasonable to me in terms of his life, but when I told him I couldn’t even begin to count the people that I’ve known or met in my life who had experienced just that—the senseless, violent murder of one or many close relatives—I could almost feel the chasm growing between us, not one of hostility or of distrust or dislike, but of unshared experience: I couldn’t imagine seeing the world through his eyes and I don’t think he could imagine seeing it through mine. When I mentioned, as we walked further, that I didn’t believe a day has passed in my life since I was a teenager in which the Shoah hadn’t insinuated itself into my thinking in one way or another, I could almost hear the chasm widening even further. We were friends. We were good friends, friends who truly liked (and still do like) each other, who got along, who always spoke openly with each other. Yet, despite the fact that we were friends in the best, not the least, sense of the word, I was struck by the degree to which we were both looking at the same pineapple and seeing entirely different things. We live in the same world. We lived in the same town. But we also lived (and live) in different universes. I used to be afraid of the ghosts, but even that has changed as I’ve grown older. I’ve gotten used to living in my world. I accept things as they are and am at peace with my own obsessions. I might as well be!

And so these are the thoughts I bring to the topic I actually wish to write about today, the question of the ever-more-likely prospect of the world having to learn to live with a nuclear Iran.

Like many of you, I read Dennis Ross’s article in the Times Wednesday with the greatest interest. A man I admire and respect, Ross seemed cautiously optimistic that the sanctions are working, that even the most conservative members of the Iranian leadership are slowly coming around to accept the need to back down, to understand that the world will not tolerate their nation’s acquisition of nuclear weaponry. It is a very encouraging article, which (if you are reading this electronically) you can access by clicking here. But even if you didn’t read the piece, his opinion is worth taking into account and was at least provisionally encouraging. Even more encouraging was the follow-up piece by Scott Shane and Robert F. Worth (accessible by clicking here) in Thursday morning’s paper that suggested that the recent spate of artless and mostly unsuccessful Iranian-backed acts of terror in Thailand, India, Georgia, and Malaysia, are signs of desperation that should be taken as indications that the leadership in Iran is becoming frantic, their erratic behavior a sign not of their inveterate intransigence, but of their growing realization that they are not going to get away with bullying the world into backing down.

I myself am feeling less sanguine. But I’m also aware of the fact that I find myself unable to consider the issue other than in the context of the lead-up to the Shoah. Does that make me insightful or obsessed, wise or paranoid? It’s hard to say. At center stage, we have a world leader who commands a large army and controls enormous amounts of money, and who also regularly threatens to wipe Israel off the map. That this would include the murder of its civilian population goes without saying. The world’s leaders, almost to a man (or woman), insist that this is just rhetoric, just bluster. The less sympathetic refer to the man as a lunatic or worse. But everybody counsels us to assume that he can’t actually mean it, that it would be too devastating to too many people (including Muslims and including the Iranians themselves) for a nuclear war to begin in the Middle East. Yet that same world that insists that he can’t possibly mean it also never tires of heaping ridicule on Neville Chamberlain for imagining that he could buy Hitler off with a few acres of Czechoslovakia, that peace could be had for the rational asking. (You may remember that Stalin also imagined he could make peace with Hitler, as a result of which 25,000,000 Soviet citizens died. If the USSR had gone to war with Germany the day after Poland was invaded, would the civilians among those 25 million souls—including millions of Jews—have survived? They surely might have!)

So, looking through my eyes, the question isn’t whether Iran should or shouldn’t be free to develop whatever kind of weapons it wishes, but whether Ahmadinejad is Hitler, whether he is ultimately crazy enough to risk the annihilation of millions of his own countrymen for the sake of murdering another six million Jews. (In this regard, I have to say the Holocaust denial conference that the man sponsored a few years ago suddenly strikes me as more chilling than weird: is he secretly hoping that someone will someday start a movement to claim that he too didn’t actually murder millions?)

The world will clearly not respond in a fully unified manner because the world mostly can live with a nuclear Iran. The papers last week, for example, featured long stories about how India is champing at the bit to pick up all those Iranian goods that the West is busy embargoing and not buying for itself, including oil. The Russians and the Chinese are, at best, half-hearted opponents of a nuclear Iran. In the end, Iran will acquire nuclear weapons unless it is stopped by some combination of Western embargos, international pressure, and fear of the consequences of defying the world. So the problem is not having a crystal ball. After the Jews of Israel are annihilated, of course, all will politely agree that the world should have done whatever it would have taken to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. If Iran builds a string of nuclear reactors and then devotes itself solely to peaceful pursuits, we will all agree that going to war to prevent them from going nuclear in the first place would have been a huge error. But without the benefit of a crystal ball, all we can do is try to guess the best we can which path will lead us to the best place.

We can dither for a while, but the bottom line, at least for me, is this: if it had become clear in the mid-1930’s that the Germans were about successfully to develop nuclear weaponry, who could argue that no course of action, no matter how extreme, would not have been appropriate to prevent that from happening? It pleases me to hear President Obama say, as he has repeatedly, that no option is off the table, that no response, including a military one, has been ruled out. Senator Gillibrand said just the same thing the other week at Temple Sinai when she came to address her Jewish constituents on Long Island, and she said it unequivocally. Whether going that route would be an unimaginable disaster or the most prescient of pre-emptive strikes, who can say? Yet answering that question correctly is the great challenge facing our nation and its allies, most especially including Israel. May God grant our president and our allies’ leaders the wisdom to make the right choice.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Religion in the Public Square

Whatever else the world has to say about the Jewish people, they can’t say we’re not entertaining. Just this week, we had the spectacle of a formerly hasidic woman meeting with a New York Post reporter over crab cakes in some Manhattan eatery to discuss, among other things, the least savory aspects of her hasidic sex life with her hasidic former husband. And then we woke up a day or two later to find the New York Times breathlessly reporting that an Orthodox rabbi publicly ate a chicken nugget that had been produced under his own supervision even after the caterer whose operation he was being paid to certify as kosher had been denounced by two former employees as demonstrably non-kosher. Later that day, the news services followed up with a story about a hasidic youngster from New Square who thought a good way to express his disapproval of his neighbors’ choice of synagogue would be to firebomb their home. Really, “entertaining” is hardly the word!

All that notwithstanding, however, the real question for American Jews to consider this week has nothing to do per se with Jews or with Judaism itself, but with the place of religion—and specifically religious values—in American culture and society, and with the specific way religion should and should not be permitted to influence public policy. I am, of course, referring to the Obama administration’s decision of last month to require all health insurance providers, regardless of religious affiliation, to provide birth control to women free of charge. At first blush, it doesn’t sound like much of an issue. The right to plan out one’s family in accordance with one’s wishes is widely considered a basic right. The right to have whatever kind of sex life one wishes without necessarily ending up producing unwanted children in the process is, if anything, even more widely considered sacrosanct. Moreover, the fact that the endless debate about abortion that has riven American culture in the almost forty years since Roe vs. Wade would become a non-issue if no woman ever became pregnant unintentionally would, you would think, make it all the more obvious that the public weal would only be served, and served well, by providing adequate and accessible birth control to people who might otherwise be unable to afford it. (That it is unimaginable that we could ever get to the point where no woman ever became pregnant unintentionally is not really the point. Not all sex is consensual. And no form of birth control is 100% effective in every instance and under every circumstance. Nonetheless, it seems undeniable that more widely available birth control will lead to fewer unwanted pregnancies.)

Nonetheless, the fact that a large number of our healthcare providers, including hospitals, are run under Catholic auspices has made this decision into a huge bone of contention. I myself hadn’t realized to what extent our healthcare is provided by Catholic institutions, actually, but the numbers are beyond arresting. One out of every six hospital patients in the United States is hospitalized in an institution affiliated with the Catholic health care system. More to the point, those hospitals employ a staggering 765,000 people, not all of whom are Catholics but all of whom will be affected by the ultimate decision regarding what their employers must provide in terms of healthcare and what they may decline to provide. (That number, incidentally, represents almost 14% of all hospital employees in the United States.) The nation’s fifth-largest provider of health care, Dignity Health—formerly called Catholic Healthcare West— has 44.000 employees and had $11 billion in revenue last year.

The Catholic Church has made its response as clear as could be: they’re going to go to the mats to resist any law that requires them to provide medical services to anyone at all that contravenes their religious beliefs, most definitely including the provision of counseling or material assistance with respect to the conventional methods of birth control to any whom its institutions serve regardless of whether they themselves, the people being served, are or are not Catholics. Nor does it matter, apparently, that the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit organization (albeit one with its own publicly-stated agenda with respect to abortion rights and birth control), has published the results of a survey according to which an amazing 98% of sexually active American Catholic women report having used some form of birth control other than the rhythm method touted by the Catholic Church as the sole acceptable method of family planning, and that two-thirds of those women report regularly doing so. (If you are reading this on-line, you can find the Guttmacher report in its entirety here.)

The rhetoric has been, to say the very least, vituperative. The bishop of Pittsburgh, David A. Zubik, summarized the situation by stating, “The Obama administration has just told the Catholics of the United States, ‘To hell with you.’” Newt Gingrich, never one to mince words, referenced the administration’s decision as “war on the Catholic Church.” Other responses that I noted on-line were, if anything, even more shrill. Clearly, this issue is not going to go away. Whether the administration will cave in and abandon the policy is not clear. More likely, I suppose, is that some face-saving alternative will be put forth, one that would allow religious institutions formally not to provide services in contravention of their own policies and beliefs but which would also guarantee citizens’ access to basic healthcare services, including contraceptive services, regardless of the religious affiliation of their employers. How exactly that will work, who knows? The inclination of the Catholic hierarchy to resist compromise will possibly be affected by a poll released earlier this week, and much quoted by administration spokespeople, according to which a majority of Catholic Americans actually favor the policy and that it is really only their leadership that is implacably opposed. Or else it won’t be. I suppose we’ll all find out soon enough what happens. Nor is the fact that this is all unfolding during a presidential campaign an unimportant detail to take into account when imagining where this will all end. As I said, we’ll all find out soon enough.

Behind all the rhetoric, however, is a set of questions that are unrelated specifically to birth control or to the Catholic church. One of the most basic of all civil rights is the freedom to live within whatever faith one wishes. Freedom of religion is not just basic to our worldview, but is one of the foundation stones upon which American culture rests. And should rest! So the question at hand is not solely whether the administration’s policy with respect to the provision of birth control services is a good idea, but whether it is ever reasonable in a democratic state for the government to oblige citizens to act contrary to their own religious principles to serve a greater good, or whether the right to conduct oneself within the boundaries of one’s beliefs should be absolute. For Jewish Americans, this is not an issue to pass lightly by. We got a pass during Prohibition, but other groups (for instance, native Americans who use peyote as part of their rituals of worship) have fared less well. On the other hand, I wrote a few weeks ago about the so-called “ministerial exception” rule that the Supreme Court just unanimously upheld as constitutional, a rule according to which, among many other things, religious institutions are free to consider themselves exempt from anti-discrimination laws if those laws can be construed somehow—even tenuously in the extreme—to contravene some religious principle or another. (The case the Supremes considered had to do with a woman who was denied the right to sue the Lutheran Church in court because church policy conveniently dictates that all employer/employee disputes must be resolved within the church and not in the secular court system. I’m still outraged by that decision and still can’t quite believe I understand it correctly.)

Surely, we do not want the government obliging us to act contrary to the dictates of our faith. On the other hand, once an institution steps into the public square, accepts public money, and serves a public much, much wider than it would if it really was a church or a synagogue open only to members of the specific faith it exists to promulgate, then I think it is entirely fair to oblige such institutions to play by public rule and not to impose its own dogma on people who themselves are not even nominally affiliated with the religion that institution espouses as its foundational culture. In other words, if a university or a hospital is open to the public and employs people of all faiths, and if that institution accepts public money and so steps away from the cloister and into the public square, then I don’t think it is at all unreasonable to expect such institutions to play by the public rule book. Why not? There are, after all, Jewish hospitals as well. They too employ many, many non-Jewish employees and, of course, serve many non-Jewish patients. To the extent they accept public money and function under Jewish auspices but not specifically as Jewish institutions, they too should play by the rules. To describe an effort to require public employers of citizens of all faiths to obey the rules society puts into place specifically for the benefit of those citizens as an act of war against a specific faith seems to me to be an example unreasonably inflammatory rhetoric. If anything, institutions that self-define with respect to one or another of our nation’s great religious traditions should feel themselves more, not less, obliged to treat their employees fairly and with dignity….which precludes denying them services that that same institution if it were a real church would counsel those employees if they adhered to that faith not to accept. To my way of thinking, that’s two too many if’s to serve as a sound basis for public policy.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Taking the Long View

Perhaps some of you noticed a brief article in the paper the other day in which the reporter (this was in the Science Times section of the New York Times) noted, almost in passing, that in about five billion years the sun will turn into what scientists call a “red giant.” This will entail our star becoming seriously bigger and just a bit cooler, but the sun’s specific temperature won’t matter much because the larger concept involves the earth being totally engulfed and burnt up in the expanding radius of the sun as the latter blithely and unselfconsciously evolves into its next stage of being. This will not come as a surprise, however: about a million years prior to that dismal development, a similar fate will already at that point have overtaken Mercury and Venus. The other reason it will not come as a surprise is that there will not be anyone here to be surprised: the earth will at that point have long been far too hot to sustain human, or any sort of animal or vegetable, life. Thus, by then either we will have long since been toast (in both the literal and figurative senses) or else we shall long since have been gone off in our interstellar space-scows to wherever it is in the universe that we shall by then have successfully identified as our most likely place of intergalactic refuge. In either event, no one will be here to witness the cataclysm. Probably, that will be all for the best.

The good news, of course, is that five billion years is a long time from now. The solar system (including the sun itself) is, by way of comparison, estimated by scientists to have formed only about 4.5 billion years ago from a cloud of collapsing hydrogen gas. And, as always, the past is part of the future: when the hydrogen became dense enough and hot enough, and the fusion process began (in this context, fusion is the name of the process whereby hydrogen and helium somehow combined and continue to combine to produce heat and light), this process commenced that will end eventually when the hydrogen is spent. What else? You can’t burn fuel you’ve already burnt! Fortunately, as noted, this will not happen any time soon: the sun itself accounts for 99.8% of the mass of the entire solar system and that mass is a thousand times that of the largest of all the planets, Jupiter. That’s a lot of gas to burn!

It would, obviously, be easy to wave all this away as the very last thing any of us should be concerned about. A century ago, the world was a totally different place: no computers, no jet travel, no moon missions, no television, no cellular communication, etc. So to look not one, but fifty million, centuries into the future seems a little pointless: who can even imagine what the world will be like when our grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren are growing up thinking they invented sex in the twenty-third century. (Doesn’t every generation think that?) And, indeed, the article in the Times was indeed written in just that sort of jokey, light-hearted style: the author, C. Clairborne Ray, cited a study published by the Royal Astronomical Society in the U.K. in which it was noted that even if humanity does evolve some sort of scheme to preserve the earth by somehow artificially expanding the radius of our orbit around the sun, there is nevertheless, “no immediate hurry to implement the scheme.” Those Brits are so wry! (Left unnoted was who exactly will be around to implement the scheme even not in a hurry. Perhaps the bedrock assumption always is that there will always be an England.)

I’m not taking any of this personally. (Well, maybe a little bit I am: I paid a fortune for perpetual care for my parents’ graves and now it turns out the planet will be engulfed in flames long before what any reasonable consumer would consider to be a reasonable definition of perpetuity. They must really have seen me coming!) But not taking it personally doesn’t mean not pausing at all to consider the implications of all of this cosmological theorizing.

I suppose I must sound naïve. For most of us, the fact of human mortality—the realization, or rather the acceptance of the realization, that none of us lives forever—is one of the most basic building blocks of the worldview of all thoughtful, non-deluded people. We may act as though it weren’t true. We may even valorize the degree to which we are able successfully to ignore the implications of our mortality, but none of that means we don’t understand that our lifetimes are finite, that we cannot, in fact, rationally expect to live on forever. One of the most meaningful statements on that specific topic was written by the second-greatest of Long Island’s poets, William Cullen Bryant, one of my personal favorite authors. In his greatest poem, written (amazingly) at age seventeen, he finds comfort in numbers: “All that breathe / will share thy destiny…As the long train / Of ages glides away, the sons of men, / The youth in life’s green spring, and he who goes / In the full strength of years, matron and maid, / The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man— / Shall one by one be gathered to thy side / By those who in their turn shall follow them.” Yeah, yeah…that part of human mortality I can almost accept. But that the earth itself—the context for all that mortal coming and going—that the planet itself is mortal—that it was born and will one day exist no more—that seems to me somehow exponentially more unsettling. I can face (barely) the thought of lying in the bosom of the earth beneath a granite stone bearing my name, but the thought that the earth and its bosom are in their own way as mortal as myself—that is the idea with which I somehow can’t quite come to terms.

I’m not alone. I noticed the other week, also in the Times, that NASA went to the trouble of removing a reference to the mortality of the sun from a gripping essay—I say that not at all sarcastically, by the way—about the discovery of some sort of cosmic dust encircling a distant star of the variety called “white dwarfs.” A white dwarf is a star that has already passed through its “red giant” phase. The white dwarf in question is about the size of the earth and is all that is left of a star that was once, apparently, the size of our sun: the reporter referred to it, laconically but shockingly, as “a cinder” with no further qualification. A spokesman for the Goddard Space Flight Center, a NASA lab near Washington, D.C., commented that observing this white dwarf was like “seeing the ghost of star that was once a lot like our sun.” And then the spokesman, one Marc Kuchner, went on to say that he cringed when he saw the data “because it probably reflects the grim but very distant future of our own planets and solar system.” That latter part, the part about the grim future of our planet and our solar system, was the part that appeared briefly on a NASA news release only to be edited out before the release was finally actually released to the public. When questioned about the omission, a spokesperson for NASA explained, apparently without irony, that the deletion was intentional and was undertaken specifically because, and I quote, “NASA is not in the habit of frightening the public with doom and gloom scenarios.”

You have to love it. The sun is going to turn into a lifeless, cold cinder. The planet we know as our home will be engulfed in flames and swallowed up into the sun before old Sol finally closes down for good. Whatever humanity will have created in its ten-billion-year run that we don’t somehow figure out how to shlep off to some other planet somewhere will end up as so much space dust. But NASA doesn’t want to frighten the public with glum “scenarios” or with depressing forecasts. Go, NASA! But what if contemplating this particular aspect of things didn’t fill us with dread or with ill ease, but with a sense of purpose, of mission, of pressing urgency in seeking to create a better society? What if knowing that nothing is permanent, that even the earth itself cannot and will not last forever, were to inspire us to strive to create a just world, a world at peace, a world of shared purpose and common, shared endeavor that could feature a version of humanity not riven into countless, mutually antagonistic sub-groups, but united by a sense of shared humanity in the great task of learning how to escape the pull of gravity successfully enough to begin anew in some other place? What if we approached the thought that our time here is finite somewhat in the way that we approach the fact that our own lives are finite not by living lives suffused with self-referential fantasy about our own presumed (but wholly made-up) immortality, but by laboring with all we have in us to leave something better to our children than our parents were able to leave behind for us? What, in short, if the “doom and gloom scenario” from which NASA is so eager to protect us were to be viewed as the greatest single reason for us to abandon our territorialism, our ethnic chauvinism, our petty disputes over issues that in the long-run will be so unimportant almost to be laughably so…and to embrace the kind of universal humanism of which the prophets spoke when they imagined a world united in prayer in a Temple in Jerusalem that would truly serve as a house of prayer for all people?

Maybe I’m asking for a lot. In fact, I am asking for a lot. But I found that short piece in the Times the other day far more inspiring than depressing. I suppose in fifty million centuries things will be seriously different than they are today. But some things don’t change so quickly…and others not at all. Humankind will not, I do not believe, naturally evolve into a finer version of itself. But perhaps the contemplation of the larger picture—and pictures don’t get much larger than the one mentioned en passant in the Times last week—perhaps the contemplation of the ultimate way things are and will end on our planet, perhaps that image (if only people were to take it seriously enough) could inspire us to set aside our differences and see ourselves for what we are: a planet of men and women created in God’s image and blessed with the infinite (if generally untapped) capacity to do good in the world.