I understand we are only about thirty years away from CETI (Communication With Extraterrestrial Intelligence). Or it could be sooner -- we send frequent signals out into space in hopes of hearing back from someone, and we could score at any time. Maybe it'll be tomorrow.
Sweet Jesus, I hope not. If it were tomorrow it would be like your 8pm date showing up st 7, with you still in curlers and no makeup. We are just not presentable yet. The list of things about us I wouldn't want our intergalactic visitors to see is a long one -- our politics is ugly, our materialism ridiculous and sad, our racism chronic. We are violent and proud of it. We are stubbornly unwilling to see our own interconnectedness. No amount of lipstick would suffice to cover it all up.
The news about us is not all bad, of course -- we do have redeeming factors. There is kindness afoot in the world, rushing right to the places where our cruelty has burst into malignant flame, to comfort and heal the pain there. Sometimes one of us sacrifices life itself in service to the suffering of others, and there are many who, though not called upon to die for the sake of a high calling, do have the courage to live for it.
And there are the artists. The painters and the sculptors, the architects, the actors, the writers, the chefs and the weavers, the composers and musicians, whose life work lifts us up and makes us proud to share a phylum with them, makes it possible still to be glad we are human.
The news this week has been so grim, from so many quarters. I have also had the bug that's been going around, and have been slow in shaking it. But my radio station has put up a November-long all-Bach channel -- "Bachstock", it's called -- and it has been a lifesaver. I still listen to the news, because how could I be a person of prayer and not do so? But I don't let it repeat and repeat in my ear, because my despair would do nobody any good. So click on WQXR and let JSB help me carry the load. He's been dead for more than 250 years, but he's more than equal to the task.
Physician/essayist Lewis Thomas offered this suggestion in THE LIVES OF A CELL:
Perhaps the safest thing to do at the outset, if technology permits, is to send music.
This language may be the best we have for explaining what we are like to others in
space, with least ambiguity. I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into
space, over and over again. We would be bragging, of course, but it is surely
excusable for us to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an
acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later.