“Better to be the one who smiled than the one who didn’t smile back.”
I turn 56 today. The September of my years.Read More
Today, I woke up in a cozy bed. I drank a fresh cup of coffee. I took a hot shower. Then, I turned on the television set and devoured a hearty breakfast.
Right then and there, as the ghastly images of an unprecedented natural catastrophe in Houston flashed before my eyes, it occurred to me that several million people living in Texas and Louisiana weren’t able to enjoy the simplest of pleasures most of us take for granted.
Deep down, I do think most people are good people. I believe most people want to help others when they can. Despite our differences, I’m convinced that most people want to help their neighbors and fellow citizens in times of crisis — even those they do not know. And, I’m just as certain that most people don’t care about the color of someone else’s skin, or how he or she votes in an election, or what lifestyle is chosen — good people will usually do the right thing when acts of human compassion are needed the most.
The relief effort now underway in Houston shows the better side of all of us. Yes, we are petty. Yes, we are spiteful. Yes, we are flawed. Yes, we make mistakes. But we also care. We want to reach out and help people in their time of need. Many have already done so.
Yet, some people do go the extra mile. Some people make the added sacrifice. Some people risk their own lives to try and save others. These are the true heroes.
In the past few days, I’ve seen and read amazing stories of some remarkable people. They have opened up their homes to total strangers. They have driven hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles, towing ramshackle boats to rescue those who are stranded in their flooded homes, who are waiting for a hero to arrive. They have donated money, and food, and emergency supplies. They have taken in pets and moved them into foster homes. They have worked tirelessly around the clock — all while I slept, while I drank a fresh cup of coffee, while I took a hot shower, while I watched television, while I devoured a hearty breakfast.
A Houston police officer even gave his life. His name was Steve Perez. Wait a minute….his name *IS* Steve Perez. Say that name. Say it aloud. He deserves to be known and remembered, not as a “was” but an “is.” Steve Perez is a hero.
I’ve written before that I’m far more impressed by casual acts of kindness and random good deeds than the supposed marvels and talents of those who are rich and famous. We sure have a peculiar way of defining our “heroes,” all too often associating personal valor with the talent to throw a ball or look beautiful in a movie. Too frequently we misconstrue heroism with money, fame, and power. Willfully accepting these shiny objects of superfluous celebrity stands as the very antithesis of being heroic, since doing so calls attention to oneself instead of one’s character and deeds, and letting genuine acts of human compassion speak for themselves.
Alas, the true heroes among us are not famous. More often than not, true heroism is anonymous. Heroes work in nursing homes, often for appallingly low pay and for little recognition. They serve as caretakers, sometimes without the reciprocity of simple gratitude. They willingly volunteer to help the less fortunate. They fight to defend wildlife and protect the environment. They commit their lives to justice. They go out on nightly patrol, trying to keep our streets and neighborhoods safe. I will admit, these heroes are much stronger than me. They perform admirable deeds that in some cases I do not think I could do. I think that’s what makes them heroes.
Right now, Houston has a serious problem. It’s a problem of unfathomable size and scope. Dealing with these problems will not be easy. But solving the very worst of Houston’s immediate problems will be an absolute given, a certainty, all thanks to the many heroes out there working and volunteering as I type and you read, heroes with names we do not know.
You’re looking at the greatest photograph ever taken.
It’s an astonishing image, spellbinding even, especially given the unforeseen interlude of the snapshot and the tumultuous times unraveling back on earth at the instant that it was taken. The image is a blaze of contrasts, and for many — an inspiration and a call to action.
This photograph was snapped by William Anders in late 1968. Anders was one of three astronauts aboard the Apollo 8 space mission. Remarkably, Anders had no prior experience in photography, and yet his image has been called “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.” Not bad for an amateur. The photo was even something of an accident. It wasn’t planned.
Later named “Earthrise,” we see the earth in the distance which appears as an oasis of vibrant colors floating in the dark abyss of outer space. The foreground shows the moon’s surface up close for the very first time, directly beneath the Apollo 8 spacecraft. Contrast this image with grainy black and white television images transmitted back to earth from the lunar capsule, and the differences are striking. We take these images for granted now, but at the time they were taken and later splashed around the world in media, we were in awe.
This image was a first in so many ways. Earthrise was the first photograph to show the earth in its entirety. While some of earth is concealed by a shadow and we can’t see the other side of the planet, it’s still the first comprehensive photo of all of humanity and the place we call our home. Still, let that sink in. Before this instant, we never quite knew what the whole earth looked like. Previous manned space missions had beamed back many stunning images, but they were taken much closer to the earth’s surface. Until this mesmerizing moment, we’d never seen ourselves truly as one. In a sense, it’s the first “group shot” of everyone on earth.
This is us.
The timing of the photo also adds significantly to its power over us. From space, we see what seems to be a peaceful planet. But the historical backdrop to this photo was the terrible year that was 1968. The world was in chaos. This was the height of the Vietnam War. The two superpowers were locked in a death-stare of conflicting ideologies, both sides stanchioned by thousands of nuclear warheads. At the time, the U.S. didn’t even recognize the largest nation on earth, the People’s Republic of China. Apartheid was the law of the land in South Africa. Famine and starvation raged across parts of Asia and Africa. Tensions were brewing in the Middle East, which had just come off a war between Israel and the Arab States in the prior year. Central and South America were in the midst of their so-called “dirty wars,” as many countries were ruled by brutal military dictatorships. Revolutionaries were active almost everywhere and had even launched a new tactic particularly loathsome to humanity, called “terrorism.”
The United States was also in crisis. National Guard units patrolled the streets of many American cities. There were nightly curfews. Every major university had mass protests against the Vietnam War. Race relations exploded into riots and burned many American cities. There was a generational split on every cultural and political issue — the old didn’t like or trust the young, and the feeling was mutual. Yes, 1968 was a bad year — Dr. Martin Luther King was gunned down. A few months later, Robert F. Kennedy was murdered. Even one of the national political conventions erupted into near anarchy.
Yet, none of these man-made troubles are apparent in this stunningly beautiful groundbreaking image. This was the portrait of a seemingly very different world that was taken when Anders lifted a Hasselblad camera loaded with 70 mm film and aimed it at the earth. The audio recording of the conversation between the three astronauts inside the spacecraft reveals just how spontaneous this moment was:
William Anders: Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty.
Frank Borman: Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled. (joking)
William Anders: (laughs) You got a color film, Jim? Hand me that roll of color quick, would you…
Jim Lovell: Oh man, that’s great!
Here’s another thought: Given these historical firsts, the ironies of what the year 1968 was like, and the accidental occasion to take such an iconic photograph, also consider the actual date this image was taken.
December 24, 1968. Christmas Eve.
Some 240,000 miles away, a billion people were about to celebrate the holiest of holidays. Many of us would later sit down to dinner just hours later with our friends and loved ones (I was 6-years-old at the time). While many of us enjoyed our Christmas feast, three remarkably brave men were so very far away, locked inside a tiny compartment the size of a Volkswagon, circling the moon. The mission set the stage for the first moon landing, some seven months later.
Now, take another look at the photo.
I’m often asked why I believe the way I do. I’m asked what makes me champion the virtues of science and reason, and why I value cooperation over conflict, and why I’m an advocate for human and animal rights, and why I’m an environmentalist, and why I don’t believe in imaginary gods, and why I don’t think national boundaries or borders are a good thing when it comes to being a fully compassionate human, and why I’m convinced we’re all much more interconnected than the wedges of disagreement which divides us.
There is no mine. There is only ours.
Never has one photograph instilled within us such an important task — to save what we see.
Note 1: The Earthrise photo had been preceded by a previous image taken in 1966 by a robotic space probe. However, that image was in black-and-white and didn’t generate nearly the impact.
Note 2: Read more about the marvel of Earthrise here, from the official NASA website.