An Astronomer Teaches Us About Belonging

On her podcast, On Being, journalist Krista Tippett interviewed astronomer, Dr. Jill Tarter about her work searching for life on other planets. Jill was the inspiration for the main character, Dr. Ellie Arroway, in the 1997 movie Contact staring Jody Foster. She has devoted her career to searching for signals sent from other technologically advanced cultures on other planets. Yes, it sounds crazy. You should listen to her explain it, and I bet she will convince you that it might be the best job on earth.

During the interview, I was struck by their conversation about thinking of ourselves as “earthlings.” While not the first title we think to apply to ourselves, Dr. Tarter suggests that understanding ourselves as earthlings might just save the world.

She says, “[This cosmic exploration] has the philosophical equivalence of holding up a mirror to every individual on this planet and saying, ‘See, all of you? You’re all the same, when compared to something out there that had evolved independently.’ And so I really like the potential of SETI (her organization) for changing people’s perspective and trivializing the differences among humans — differences that we’re so willing to shed blood over when, indeed, we are all human. We are all earthlings. We are all the same, compared to something else. And if you see yourself as an earthling before you see yourself as a Californian, then I think that sets the stage for tackling really difficult challenges on a global scale.”

I’ve written a great deal about perspective and the gift of seeing at scale. What I appreciate about Dr. Tarter’s imagery is that she invites us to broaden our vision of connection. She is asking us to see ourselves at the level of Earthling – the label we ALL have in common – to highlight that at that scale, we are more the same than different. Our divisions are useless at that scale. None of us can claim exceptionalism or exclusion. At the scale of the Cosmos, we are all Earthlings. We all belong to one another.

The global pandemic has also helped us see our interdependence even as it’s laid bare the barriers we create to give us the illusion of separation. But at the scale of the heavens, we are all part of one tribe. We all belong. We are all One.

Today, I invite us to hold the idea that 13.8 billion years ago, the cosmos birthed us all. We might tell the story this way: God said, “Let us create humans in our own image,” and from the stardust of a wild and wonderful cosmic collision, we were born. And God said, “Ah, yes, we shall call them earthlings, because they are ALL made of the stars and hold the beauty of all creation within them.” And God looked upon creation and smiled. It was good.

Peace out, Earthlings. I’ll touch base tomorrow.


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