National Geographic has produced an excellent series entitled “One Strange Rock,” hosted by actor Will Smith. The 10-episode series features eight astronauts who together spent a couple thousand days in space orbiting the planet in the International Space Station (ISS). I loved the show which uses excellent cinematography and some very good writing to usher the viewer into a captivating story of Planet Earth. As Smith repeats frequently, the experience of those astronauts “up there” profoundly transformed their perspective on “down here.”
Those astronauts on the ISS each mentioned the absence of borders as they viewed the planet from space. They never saw a border, not just over Western Europe, but over the steppes of central Asia, over Africa, the sub-continent, South America, or North America. There are no lines indicating the 50 United States or the six states and two territories of Australia, or the 22 republics of Russia. Every now and then, they could make out a river, lake, or coast line that a border follows, but as far as the Earth is concerned, it’s all one big place, one big ocean, with one big humanity.
Because of my work with Virginia Baptists back at the beginning of this century, I took frequent international trips by airline and I experienced in a small way part of what those astronauts experienced in a big way. I remember one flight particularly because of the rare occasion of clear skies over Western Europe. We’d left Washington Dulles for a direct jaunt to Vienna, Austria, a flight path that took us over the UK, across the English Channel, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and finally Austria, with the Czech Republic and Slovakia easily visible from my window seat. I had to remember the maps I had in my head, however, to know which of those various countries slipped by below – because there are no borders drawn across the land, no labels identifying the geography.
Under a VERY THIN layer of air.
In fact, as one astronaut put it, “you can walk to where it gets difficult to breathe.” It ain’t that far up! The atmosphere that we all depend upon to stay alive is so thin, you can represent it in scale by laying a sheet of typical notebook paper on the surface of a basketball sized globe. The ISS orbits about 250 miles above the surface of the planet under a pitch black sky where the temperatures in the sunlight climb to +250 degrees and in the shade plummet to -250, because there’s no atmosphere to distribute the heat and cold. Nothing can live in that. In fact, all the life we know of – EVERY SINGLE plant, animal, bacterium, or human – lives in that miniscule layer. There are some exceptions in the creatures and bacteria that live a few miles down in the deepest trenches of the ocean and the occasional bird or mountain goat that live above the tree line, but beyond the atmosphere, there’s nothing alive and no place that could sustain life as we know it. All life is HERE, dependent upon and connected by that tiny, fragile layer of atmosphere.
Indeed, the air knows no boundaries.
Which means that this one big humanity is profoundly connected as we all huddle, as it were, under this umbrella of thin atmosphere. Eventually, what I discharge, someone else is going to have to breathe – literally AND figuratively.
That’s a good message for us at the outset of a New Year. It’s good to be reminded of our interconnectedness. It’s good to remember that the sages of all the world’s religions over the centuries have recognized this truth and have issued an amazingly common message in response: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Or as Wendell Berry put it, “Do unto those downstream what you would have those upstream do unto you.” Or as those astronauts may have reminded us: “Make others breathe only what you want to breathe – because you will.”
Ah, if we all lived by the Cosmic perspective the Creator has, perceiving and celebrating a borderless world, we’d all breathe a little easier.