If you’ve read Cosmos by Sasha’s father, and you’re wondering what the universe’s immensity and grandeur mean for humanity, then you will love this book. The title comes from a quote (from Carl’s novel Contact) written by Ann Druyan, Sasha’s mother and Carl’s wife. The quote says in its entirety, “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.” Cosmos explores the vastness. Sasha’s book explores the rest: how we, the small creatures, can use love to make it bearable. The subtitle, Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World, gives us a hint on how to do that.
At first, I wasn’t sure what she meant by “rituals” or how interesting it would be to explore the history behind different holidays. But Sagan perfectly blends her personal experiences of the various stages of life and the greater collective experiences of those same stages of different cultures throughout history. The transitions between the personal and the collective, by the way, are seamless. The most powerful transition comes at the end of the second-to-last chapter which is all about Christmas, Hanukkah, and the winter holidays we have celebrated throughout history:
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about how great the winter solstice is, how worthy it is of celebration. I’ve bored people at dinner parties about it. But there’s something I always omit. The winter solstice is also the anniversary of my father’s death. He died in the early hours of December 20, when the stars shone the longest.Sasha Sagan, For Small Creatures Such as We, p. 242
Seeing Carl through his daughter’s eyes
It almost felt like there was a strange conflict in reading about Carl Sagan from the perspective of his daughter. You know that it’s him, the popular science communicator who hosted Cosmos and advocated for skepticism in the 80s and 90s, but at the same time, you’re just reading about a girl’s memories of her late dad. Anyone who’s lost a parent can surely relate. It was both heartbreaking and fascinating, however, to be able to perceive Carl as both at once.
Sagan tells us of a time when she was in her third trimester of pregnancy and listening to Pale Blue Dot on audiobook while on an errand in Boston’s Chinatown. She had saved many of her parents’ books to read (or listen to) long after her father had passed so that she could hear his words, some of which in his own voice, after he was gone. She explains that she was listening to the part of the book about Carl’s grandfather Leib and his wife Chaiya (Carl’s namesake) making the journey from Sassow to New York:
It was part of the introduction to his book Pale Blue Dot, a meditation on our species as wanderers, migrating all across the planet and maybe someday beyond it. Its message is applicable to every human who has ever lived, but it felt like a secret meant just for me. What passersby must have thought when they saw me, doing errands, extremely pregnant, wearing headphones, hysterically crying.Sasha Sagan, For Small Creatures Such as We, p. 150
Many of us have read Pale Blue Dot. But while it was a moving story, none of us cried hysterically because we realized we could pass on Carl’s namesake to our child, who is his grandchild. What a unique perspective to gain about a man and his writing who already means so much to so many.
I once saw a tweet by Sasha Sagan in which she got hundreds of replies all about how everyone loves and misses her father. I wondered then if she is bothered by that being all anyone thinks about when they see her. I wondered if it bothered her that everyone tells her they miss him, when she has every right to say, “No. You do not miss him like I do. You lost an author and a TV show host. I lost my dad.”
But after reading this book (and seeing her kind responses to these comments), I don’t think it annoys her. I think she loves knowing that her father made a difference in this world, that so many people revere him, and that she can see him and hear his voice whenever she wants to. When describing her ritual of collecting pebbles when she visits his grave, she says:
At my father’s grave there are more than pebbles left to acknowledge his absence. People from all over the world leave notes, marbles, Lego, mini planets and other space-related objects. Seeing this makes me happy. My grief is soothed by knowing other people miss him, remember him, and still love him now.Sasha Sagan, For Small Creatures Such as We, p. 150
While she doesn’t have to, Sagan invites us into the private, quiet moments of her family. She shares how she faced difficulty in being able to fully celebrate her own wedding without her father, and how she was able to still do so only after weeping at her father’s grave in the early hours of the morning on the day of her vows. As great as it was to get a peek into her life, though, I knew that I was not a part of her family. Like in most books, the readers are not necessarily a part of the story.
Part of the story
Throughout the book, however, we were all a part of the story. Sagan emphasizes what all the cultures in the world have in common, reminding us that we are not all that different from one another. It’s kind of funny nowadays to see people fighting so hard to claim holidays like Christmas and Easter as their own, belonging to their religion, when we know that holidays have more ancient roots than this. Sagan answers a question I once posed in distress, “What are we celebrating?” throughout her book, and especially in regards to Thanksgiving, which didn’t feel joy-worthy as I really contemplated how the holiday got its start.
It is not a coincidence that Thanksgiving takes place in the fall, the season of harvest before winter, and that it is focused around food. One of the first things that disarmed me about this colonialist holiday is that its earliest ancestors are universal celebrations that are about food rather than genocide. Sagan describes the harvest festivals of cultures around the world, celebrating the crops that sustain their respective societies: corn, rice, sugarcane, yam, wheat, pine nuts, grapes, and more.
She does not neglect to mention that “Thanksgiving is built on lore that does not jibe with historical facts. . . . The only certainty is that it was a prelude to massacres of entire villages and the obliteration of whole societies.” She asks a similar question to mine:
So what do we do with this kind of ritual? How do we take the positive elements of harvest-time gratitude without glossing over the horrors of history? I am profoundly conflicted about it. But I do feel a very strong need to give thanks, and no qualms about finding a new way to do so.Sasha Sagan, For Small Creatures Such as We, p. 223
If we can untie it from the “horrors of history,” there is no reason why we shouldn’t celebrate the season of harvest; however, Sagan specifies that it shouldn’t be only once a year. This makes sense as food is now available year-round at the grocery store and not dependent on the crop yield of a single farm. Sagan expresses a frustration with the prayers at Christian dinner tables of thanking only God for your food. She muses,
When I’m at [the] dinner table I can’t help feeling that my gratitude lies elsewhere. . . . How many farmers, migrant workers, laborers, truckers, and supermarket employees made it possible for us to be eating this? If meat, poultry, fish, or dairy is being served, we’ve taken life or substance from an animal. . . . I find myself wanting to give thanks to a long list of life-forms and biological processes out loud. And I’m not alone. Online there are dozens of secular ways to pray.Sasha Sagan, For Small Creatures Such as We, p. 224
She then shares a prayer by Thich Nhat Hanh which says,
In this plate of food,
I see clearly
the presence of the entire universe,
supporting my existence.
She’s also taught her daughter a cute prayer to say at mealtime, which usually sounds like, “Thank you, farmers, thank you, fishies.”
While I thought this was a nice gesture, I couldn’t help feeling a little strange about the idea of having secular prayers. Some of the troubles with atheism I have had throughout the years deal with not being sure how to replace the things in life that you take for granted when you practice a religion. You have hymns, prayers, sins, holidays, an assurance of the afterlife, a church community, and a feeling of being significant within the Cosmos. I tried for a year or two to replace these things with my own atheist versions, but it ultimately didn’t fulfill me because it was primarily out of spite. I felt at times that my fellow atheists and I were parodying religion rather than contributing meaningful alternatives in their own right.
Sagan’s secular prayers, rituals, and holidays are different. She explains how many religious rituals originate from natural phenomena and how we can go back to our celebrations of those phenomena from before we added gods to them. A great example is springtime; even though Jesus almost certainly did not rise from the dead (and he was not necessarily crucified in the spring), we can appreciate the springtime resurrection of life, and the equinox’s return of longer days, that have inevitably become intertwined with the Gospels’ story.
In her own life, Sagan is very intentional about creating new traditions, especially now with her own young daughter, and honoring those of her Jewish ancestors. She is ethnically and culturally Jewish, and even as an atheist she has so much respect for the Jewish religion and its traditions. Never before have I seen a humanist who is so deeply moved by the religions of the world, without literally believing in them. I was also very impressed by her repeated emphasis on how she will allow her daughter to choose for herself which Jewish rituals she will or will not observe when she is older.
If you define humanism as “good without God,” then this is the quintessential humanist book. It goes far beyond being good without God, however; it restores a little bit of the hope that is inevitably lost when you cease to believe that God, or your late father, or a guardian angel, are watching over you. Of course, Sagan specifies that religious people are welcome to enjoy her book and will hopefully gain something from it:
If you are devoutly religious, firstly, I’m delighted you’re reading this. Thank you. If you have total conviction about your faith, you have plenty to celebrate already. This book is not intended to dissuade you, only to increase what there is to be joyful about.Sasha Sagan, For Small Creatures Such as We, p. 8
I can’t confirm whether For Small Creatures Such as We achieves this for religious readers. But for those who are searching for meaning in the vastness, and a reason to celebrate everything from waking up each day, to creating new life, to the tilt of the Earth, then in this book, you will find it.
I had the honor of interviewing Sasha Sagan about her book on the Friendly Atheist blog! Click here to read the interview.