Captains Janeway and Picard are fond making statements like, "We're explorers--we're here to learn, not to cause problems."
In spite of good intentions, these captains' Curious George tendencies have repeatedly plopped them square in the middle of many a pickle. Early in Voyager's journey, Janeway took her ship into a nebula in search of fuel. Our feisty redhead missed her replicated coffee and was determined to remedy the situation. Little did she know that the nebula wasn't a nebula at all, it was a "creature." When Voyager wounded the creature, she took whatever measures necessary to repair the damage but in the process, Voyager expended more energy than she might have gained in the first place. Even the good-natured Neelix lamented this irrational human tendency to stop to smell the galactic daisies instead of pushing forward with the primary journey: getting back to Earth. Janeway informed Neelix that though finding a way home was her chief priority, Voyager's mission to learn and discover was equally important.
Humans are an oddly oxymoronic species. On one hand, we're vulnerable to the beguiling lures that call sailors, astronauts, mountain climbers, bungee jumpers and National Geographic photographers away from hearth and family. Some of our greatest literary sagas tell the tales of wanderers. And yet, when archetypal explorer Odysseus was out and about resisting sirens or succumbing to lotus land, where were his dreams? Back in Ithaca, with the wife. We're perpetually afflicted with the "grass is greener" syndrome. When we're home, we wish we were away; when we're away, we wish we were home. There's no question, however, that the hunger to explore--to contemplate possibilities beyond the bounds of our own experience--is a curse that afflicts many of us. I'm no exception.
When you consider that my first recorded ancestor left France with William the Conqueror to find adventure in Anglo-Saxon England, I suppose it was natural for me to embrace the quest for exploration that dominates the Star Trek mythos. "To boldly go" was an adage equally followed by my red-bearded sea captain ancestor. "Seeking out new worlds" came naturally to another great-grandfather who left his comfortable job as a textile mill bookkeeper in Industrial Revolution-era Manchester, England to follow a new religion to America. The branches of my family tree blossom with tales of runaways, a wild frontier sheriff, a town midwife, employment with William Randolph Hearst in 1930's San Francisco and a wagon train full of pioneers.
Lots of "going where no one has gone before."
Perhaps that explains why my favorite episode of the present Voyager season was the exquisitely crafted One Small Step.
Seven of Nine follows in Neelix's exasperated footsteps in questioning the captain's decision to explore a dangerous spatial anomaly. Why not destroy the sucker that sweeps like a galactic tornado through space-time? Apparently this anomaly was the first one encountered by humanity. During the mid-21st century Mars mission, a space capsule--containing an astronaut--vanished. The Voyager crew suspects that a close encounter with this entity might give them answers about the missing man. Chakotay pushes for the chance to meet history face to face. Naturally, Seven thinks this is wildly illogical. A romantic attachment to the past that endangers Voyager is more than illogical--it's irrational.
In spite of her misgivings, Seven joins the away team that takes the Delta Flyer into the anomaly where the module is discovered among the trash. Naturally, the Flyer is damaged. Tom, Chakotay and Seven board the Mars module to find a spare part required to repair the Flyer. Not only is the necessary part discovered, but the threesome find and listen to the astronaut's final recordings as he describes living in the anomaly before his inevitable death. The former Borg drone finds herself drawn to these centuries-old words and before they abandon the module, she downloads the records into the Flyer's computer and beams her fellow explorer's desiccated remains back to her ship.
The episode ends in an exquisitely simple scene where the Voyager crew assembles an honor guard and launches a Starfleet torpedo into space, giving the dedicated astronaut his long overdue burial.
So now Momma Heather gathers her readers onto her lap and asks her kiddies what Seven--and we--have learned from this tale. Not as pithy a moral as Aseop, not as obtuse as Camus, but relevant to us all: exploration is the bridge between what we were, are, and will become. Closing ourselves off to discovery increases the risk that we'll lose track of our place in the grand scheme of things.
Life perpetually presents us with detours from our life paths. Whether we take an off ramp and stumble into adventure or disaster is our choice to make. Staying put is a legitimate and often desirable option. Back on the highway, you typically avoid risk: pothole-riddled back roads, blown tires, getting lost--all potentially serious problems. Being safe isn't necessarily a bad decision. Emotionally and physically, the known, well-paved roadway is a secure place to be. Why would you knowingly choose risk over safety? This is Seven of Nine's contention at the beginning of "One Small Step."
Simple. Our species' survival depends on our ability to reach beyond what is pragmatic and quantifiable. We need to explore the untravelled worlds within us and beyond us in search of solutions to the perplexing problems we face--to become explorers.
The noun "explorer" is charged with romantic fervor: visions of multi-masted sailing ships slicing through uncharted seas towards vast, mysterious lands often come to mind. But limiting exploration to the macro world places unnecessary boundaries on our possibilities. The advent of quantum physics opened new vistas--imperceptible worlds understandable only through intuition. Instead of being limited by the Newtonian "what you measure is what is real" paradigm, quantum physics forces us to consider an invisible four-dimensional reality beyond anything our five senses can process. Such possibilities are at once exhilarating and terrifying. But isn't that what discovery is?
Exploration, to me, is the process of overcoming fear and seeking to understand the unknown. This process called exploration is the means by which we will save ourselves. Our willingness to look past the familiar world for solutions will provide us the key to our future.
We're reaching a critical juncture in human history. Complex questions face us daily. Poverty, violence, despair, and disease still afflict millions of our brothers and sisters. These problems seem virtually insurmountable. Most everyone has good intentions. Laws are passed, regulations put in place, knowledge acquired, awareness raised. At best, however, these are stopgap measures.
The present course charted by virtually every organization and governing body is to utilize known solutions. We're perpetually fighting the same battles and arguing the same causes that have plagued us for millennia. How shall we be governed? How do we alleviate pain and suffering? How do we balance the rights of the individual and the rights of the group? How do we keep from blowing ourselves up? Some aspects of the human condition are inevitable: we cannot force people to be good and just. What I find myself asking, then, is why do we insist on staying on the main highways when searching for solutions to our problems? Since we haven't found answers in well-mapped territory, we need to explore new vistas.
In the macrocosm, humanity's future lies in space exploration: colonizing new planets and developing a greater understanding of the cosmos and our place in it. I've read in editorial pieces that we ought to stop throwing money after Buck Rogers fantasies and instead use those funds to figure out how to make our planet livable.
I couldn't disagree more.
Keeping our eyes focused on the ground instead of on the skies will force us to limit our options. Yes, we must be better custodians of the planet we live on. Yes, we must search for solutions to poverty and disease. But we must push our vision past what lies directly in front of us and think off into a future that none of us may live to see. Take the common vision of Star Trek.
Trek fans have a distinct advantage over the average, "focus on the here and now" individual: we actually have a clue of what we might be able to accomplish if we keep pushing forward. The plausibility of Trek science or philosophy aside, Trek does provide a template for what we ought to strive for: the development technologies that improve the quality of life as well as demonstrate responsible stewardship for both our planet and her neighbors. Some of the goals we see laid out in Trek are renewable, yet efficient energy resources; the ability to provide adequate food, medical care and sanitation for all nations and the option of colonizing outside of Earth to provide a pressure valve for an expanding population. Cynics who believe such idealized hopes aren't realistic need to expand their perspective. After all, DaVinci's 17th century designs for helicopters and tanks ought to prove to us that today's fantasies are tomorrow's realities. Why can't utopian science fiction continue to help lead the way?
In the microcosm, humanity's future is in understanding the soul. Lots of "isms"—Darwinism, Existentialism, and Nihilism—preach that speaking of a soul is just a lot of hocus-pocus religious superstition. If you insist on limiting your world-view to the Newtonian approach (a.k.a. unless you can quantify it, it isn't real), you've dismissed one of the greatest exploratory opportunities open to our species. Even the measurable universe provides evidence of the unseen. Do sub-atomic particles exist? Or do they exist because we act on them or create them? When presented with two choices, how does a single photon determine which slot it will pass through? There are enough evidences of "faith" in the world that even the most jaded skeptic can find room for puzzlement.
One of the most important, but neglected, frontiers is spiritual exploration. We've become frenzied rodents perpetually racing on exercise wheels. The acquisition of property and the gratification of urges has become our primary motivation. Rarely have we stopped to ask who we are in the scheme of the universe and how we connect to those around us. Being so caught up in the concrete has limited our ability to explore our interior lives. If we accomplish nothing else during our tenure on this planet, it ought to be an understanding of who and what we really are.
Indeed, such deliberate analysis is potentially painful. It's easier to stay focused on the sensory: food, pleasure, comfort, and pain. Discovering interior worlds requires the same courage required of explorers of more concrete realms. Take two of my favorite explorers. Galileo's refusal to deny the evidence of a heliocentric planetary system required the same bravery that Mother Teresa washing the wounds of the dying did. Courage is courage no matter the setting.
I suppose these lessons have never been more real to me than they are now.
Between my own health battles and my daughter's various struggles, on more than one occasion, I've wished I could hibernate until next July. Turn on the autopilot and glide. I've had zippo desire to boldly go. Unfortunately, circumstances have continually yanked me into unexplored territory. I'm constantly confronting new situations that are simultaneously stimulating and scary. I don't have a lot of precedents from my own experience to provide any answers. Seven's "let's do the reasonable thing and avoid this problem" approach from "One Small Step" is making a lot of sense right now. What I've realized is that borrowing Janeway's strategy--exploring the past and searching for lessons there--is probably a better plan.
From early on in my life, my dad has been a hero of mine. But since my childhood, I've wondered why he insisted on taking a middle-of-the-road approach to virtually everything. Safe, well-organized and all contingencies planned for have always been his strategy. Because I've always had an insatiable appetite for new experiences, I could never relate to such a pedestrian methodology. Like most kids, I vowed I'd be different, to live a more thrilling life than my predecessors. Naturally, my youthful perceptions were inaccurate, something it's taken decades for me to realize.
I've discovered that my dad isn't that much different than I am. When he was young, he had his own dreams, his own worlds he wanted to explore. After high school, he set off, by himself, to study oceanography at a university far from his home. Like many young men of his era, the world's troubles interfered with his plans. The prospect of being drafted to serve in the Vietnam War combined with other personal complications forced him to abandon his hope of being a scientist. He chose a stable, respectable career as an attorney that allowed him to support a wife and children, even if it meant working daily at a job he hated.
During those years, I was oblivious to whatever interior life my father was leading. I pretty much wrote him off as an uptight, conservative control freak father like most stupid children do with their parents. Caught up in my world of books and a tenacious curiosity, it never even dawned on me to ask why I, at 14, could take the Metro to downtown Washington D.C. and spend hours wandering around the National Gallery of Art while pretending to be a Perrier-sipping Parisian bohemian. Or why, one night in Manhattan, my father handed me $20 and set my best friend and me loose on the streets of New York to hunt down the greatest deli sandwich ever known to man. He didn't even wince when I announced at the end of my freshman year of college that I wasn't returning but was instead applying for a study-abroad program in Jerusalem. The freedom to explore my possibilities was a blessing he granted with few limitations.
It is only now as I face the challenges of raising my own family that I'm beginning to appreciate exactly the gift that my parents gave me, my father in particular. He walked away from his chance to explore the world of his dreams, to pursue a strange and undiscovered place, to provide his children with the roots so that they could have the chance to discover what incredible possibilities the universe held for them. He was and is no less an explorer than I am; he's merely chosen a different route to the unknown territory that is his life's destiny to explore.
Several month back, my father was asked by our church if he would leave his law practice and take three years of his life to lead, train and teach a group of young and young women in church service. There were no guarantees of having a job when he returned. It meant uprooting my youngest sister as she was beginning high school and leaving his house in the care of my youngest brother and his wife. Most people wouldn't blame him if he were reluctant to make such a sacrifice.
But my dad?
Following in the footsteps of countless generations of ancestors, starting with a Norman knight at the Battle of Hastings and ending with my grandfather who decided to become a doctor instead of a pig farmer, my dad elected to embrace the unknown, "to boldly go." I'm not surprised. Once you've tasted the exhilarating joy of exploration it's almost impossible to walk away from the chance to gain a deeper understanding of the unknown. Though the world he's exploring isn't coral reefs and stingrays, the cartography of the soul is no less a challenge, no less an adventure.
Meantime, perhaps, I think it's my turn to be rooted for awhile. Learn more through exploring not only my past, but also that of my predecessors. Accept that sometimes, being an explorer means finding yourself in over your head, whether it's a creature disguised as a nebula or a subspace junkyard masquerading as a spatial anomaly that puts a speed bump in your day. I may be changing blown tires for a while longer. Let someone else take my place in the queue. Someone like my dad: he's waited long enough for his turn to seek out new worlds.
For today, I'll play parent and borrow another's words to bestow my blessing upon his quest:
Excerpt from "Little Gidding" by T.S. Eliot, last of the Four Quartets.
Heather Jarman writes for The Starfleet Journal and is a contributing editor and guest reviewer at DELTA BLUES. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.