The day that all of humanity was asked the question was in many ways like any other, the Earth turning under the gaze of the Sun, our sublunary motions going around as they had done for millennia beyond conscious count.
One fact was different. In the preceding months, astronomers announced and then updated daily the news about the discovery of an interstellar object passing through our solar system. This discovery struggled to emerge from the back pages and bottom halves of the hour broadcasts, the squabbles and daydreams of human activity grasping more attention than a rock that wasn’t going to hit us, no matter how alien it might be. Telescopes and radar dishes tracked it. We were told that it would come no closer than five million miles to Earth, and all the talk about where it might have come from and what it was made of became just so much science that too many couldn’t be bothered with.
Then closest approach came, and no day since has allowed the same empty gyre.
The sky on that day was a clear blue across the dome of the heavens — where I live, not everywhere, I must remind myself — and to my fanciful mind, the absence of concealing clouds feels right as I look back.
The Sun washes out other bodies in the universe, and without my own telescope, I couldn’t have seen the object in its transit through the solar system in any case, nor could I have learned any more than what the instruments and deductions of our astronomers told them about the physical nature of this visitor. My job is to teach how to read and write the English language well, to explain the stories that we tell in our struggle to understand ourselves and our world.
I circled the parking lot, having given up on a faculty space and hoping for anything close enough to walk. Too large a part of the student body used to show up when the semester started — some wanting good grades, others waiting till they’ve met the requirement for aid payments — and then disappear. Still, I managed to slip in a spot that wasn’t too far off. My bag was heavy with books, and the August heat had me sweating by the time I got inside.
Freshman comp. was one of the classes that everyone seeking a degree had to take, and the students who trickled into the classroom were a representative sample — a young lady with two lip rings that reminded me of a bulldog, her T-shirt advising me not to like her, the inevitable Brad with the ball cap who tried to disappear on the back row, the middle-aged tool and die maker who had decided that competing with robots wasn’t good for job security, the most part of the class whose faces combined hope and fear for what was to come.
I had just made my joke about how they shouldn’t worry, since at least three out of the twenty-five would pass when the world dissolved into a wash of white light, the sensations of dimensions and gravity vanishing.
Do you know the nightmare of standing in front of a crowd while naked, called to give a speech that you’ve forgotten? That was my panicked vision the night before every semester started, and for a moment, I was sure that I would wake up in my bed in the dark, look over at the clock to see that it was only Oh My God It’s Still Too Early in the morning, and try to go back to sleep. But no, the comprehensive light remained, examining my every molecule.
Voices — angry, confused, afraid, and welcoming — buzzed through me, at first those of the people around me, then more and more as the circle of my perception widened.
“What’s going on?”
“I can’t see!”
“The day of judgment is at hand.”
One expression after another added to the cacophony until they merged into a white noise of reaction at having the mundane motions of life brought to a halt.
A single voice brought all the others to silence, the wave of sound receding into nothingness as that voice asked and repeated the question, first as the dominant note over a badly tuned orchestra and then as the focus of every attention.
“Why do you deserve to exist?”
I had been typically hardened in my life against the usual intrusions — requests that I would kindly recycle my cans, hand over my spare change, or cast my ballot in a particular way — but this question pulled me up short, arising as it did inside the privacy of my own head and yet carrying with it a sensation of being connected to billions of other minds, the consciousness of the whole world focused on one thought.
The silence fell apart as choruses of reactions emerged. Like trying to hear one person in a room full of conversations, I strained to pick out individual thoughts.
“Who’s asking?” one group of voices demanded.
Another set begged forgiveness from a hundred different gods.
The mathematicians spoke in unison, citing Euclid and Euler and Cantor and the relationship of the sides of a right triangle.
Not to be outdone — and that was the emotion that hovered along with the declarations — one scientist after another informed whoever was listening that we had discovered planets around other stars and the molecules that shape our lives and nifty ways to turn petroleum into portable drinking fountains.
That didn’t feel like such a good thing to raise in our defense, but I had the impression that we all, each one of us in the human species, were answering whatever came from the depths of who we were.
Thus the shouts of “because we wanna, that’s why” from my fellow Americans.
I’ve found that when I ask my students a tough question, I get a variety of quick answers that haven’t thought the matter through, and if I’m willing to say nothing for long enough to make them uncomfortable, interesting ideas emerge.
The existential question remained before us, and though the many voices around the globe fell one by one into stillness, there was no repetition — and no change in the enveloping brilliant light.
Who had asked? No, that didn’t matter. It was a question that needed answering, if only for our own justification. Gilgamesh wants to live forever. Beowulf wants a lasting name. Shakespeare’s lover tells his beloved that she will remain as long as his sonnets are spoken. But the universe wasn’t obliged to care.
Nor would the universe ask questions. Only minds do that.
“If you can speak to us,” voices answered, a chorus that I found myself singing in, “you must be like us in some way, a living being who developed through a long history of evolution.”
This elicited a collective gasp, cries of surprise that whoever our interrogators were, they not only would reply, but would express some commonality with us.
And that confirmed for me the answer. Others joined me. “But if that’s true, you must remember, must have some sense of what it was like to be what we are.”
The comprehensive light vanished, and my feeling of a direct connection to the rest of my species faded. I stood blinking until my vision cleared enough to see by the fluorescent bulbs of my classroom. My bemused students stared back at me as though each one was seeing the rest of us in the room for the first time.
“Where’d they go?” Brad asked.
I had no answer, and figuring that life must go on, I assigned my students an essay on what they’d experienced and sat down to attempt to collect my own thoughts on the subject.
For days afterward, astronomers tracked the object as it departed our solar system, accelerating on its way to we do not yet know where, perhaps another system with an intelligent social species whose technological development has brought them to the attention of our interlocutors.
I am speculating, of course. Would we have been wiped out if the aliens hadn’t liked our answer? Their ability to seize and interrogate the entire planet suggests that as a possibility, though they may only have wanted us to think about the question.
And why did they accept our answer?
The only conclusion that I and others have been able to draw is that the appeal to what we share, the recognition that we and they were not so alien after all, was enough to justify allowing my species another day to grow.
Though I’ve never been able to find the quotation in any of his writings, the Internet tells me that Aristotle once said that nothing is what rocks dream of. Humanity dreams of so much more, joys and terrors, growth and decay, achievements and surrenders. But it is pleasant to know that we’re not alone, that perhaps what we dream is more than whistling in the dark of an empty sky.