Planets and Countries: How Jupiter is Different from New York

– “What’s the difference between planets and countries?” I’m dumbfounded. I sit up straight in my plastic chair and focus. This guy goes to college and is older than me, I hope I misunderstood him.

– “What do you mean?”

– “You know, there are countries like Canada and New York, but what are planets?” I’m dying inside. Don’t act so astonished or you’ll shatter our confianza. How the hell do you respond to that question though? If I really misunderstood him and I start trying to tell him what a planet is, he would have a right to be horrendously offended for underestimating his intelligence.

–“Well, planets are not part of Earth…” – Does he know what the Earth is? – “They’re separate worlds up in the sky with the moon, sun, and stars.”

– “Oh ok, we just don’t talk about these things here. Sometimes I’m ashamed of all the things I don’t know. The education here is so bad.” I feel sick. This is my friend. A real friend wouldn’t let another friend go on living in the dark for his whole life. We’re so far in the dark though that I don’t even know what light is anymore.

I draw a map of the solar system in the dirt with a stick, explain to him that some planets are frozen balls of ice and other deserts, that Jupiter is hundreds of times larger than earth, is mainly gas, and that he would weigh 500 pounds on it. I tell him there is a 300 year old storm raging on Jupiter bigger than our entire planet – that is to say, the vaina that includes China, the United States, and the Dominican Republic with all the oceans between – and that through a telescope you can see that the storm is a big red dot. That will get him for sure. He’ll be blown away. I want to amaze him, let him know how interesting and how big the universe is. Let him know that the Earth is the size of a grain of sand on the beach. Let him know that there are millions of stars and planets light-years away. Blank looks, sometimes he looks a little interested, but I wonder if he is pretending to be interested to amuse me because I’m trying shamelessly hard.

I eat my rice and beans in silence. He tries to change the subject, but it’s too difficult for me to part with it in good conscience. I might as well be on Jupiter weighing 500 pounds. I feel sick. I’m in the Peace Corps not the Dark Ages, right? The extent of his geographic experience is where his eyes have taken him. In the 9 months I have lived in his country, I have seen more cities than he has in his entire life. The extent of his history is his lifetime. The Roman Empire never happened. What’s World War II? The Holocaust? It killed how many million Jews? That’s more than the population of my country! What’s a Jew anyways?

I was dreaming of aliens on pluto in 2nd grade and I am reminded that everything that I have learned and achieved in my life I owe to the gift of good fortune that my friend deserved as much as me – as much as all of us. How proud I was for that certificate I got in 3rd grade for identifying 100 prominent craters and seas on the moon with my telescope (I was a nerd). With the framing of that certificate, I learned what it meant to be proud of something. It felt addictive. How proud I was when I was ranked the top seated clarinetist in Northern Virginia’s regional orchestra (a band nerd actually). My prominent solo in the piece, Capriccio Espagnol, is saved on my Itunes, a dusty trophy that I almost never listen to on account of a painful squeak that reminds me that maybe the judges made a mistake. Does anyone I live with know what a clarinet is? My achievement means very little here. How proud I was when my high school science fair project won me a plane ticket to Portland (no girlfriends in high school). How proud I was when I was accepted into the University of Virginia. It’s a little disturbing how quickly these achievements come to mind. It’s like I’ve tapped into my pride’s spring source, where all these accomplishments well up in me and give me confidence. They flow too easily into words on my screen. Damn my pride. Just by observing how quickly my friend learns English and the guitar, my Dominican friend could have exceeded all of my achievements and he would feel pride. Instead, he feels shame. Theoretical person? Distant, nameless face living in the third world? No, my friend. It hurts me.

Boo hoo! Poor him? Not at all. He walks confidently, smiles brightly, laughs heartily. He only feels shame when I make him aware of the educational gap between him and me. We don’t need to have all of the luxuries in the world to be happy, nor do we need to read a single textbook- that’s the beauty of life. But the more we talk, the more he realizes that he’s chained to the wall and that the shadows he sees are not truth. In his campo, he is is the king. If I were him I wouldn’t want to talk to me anymore about planets or holocausts anymore.

Something interesting happened when I got home. I felt vulnerable and unsatisfactory. As confidently as my friend walks through his campo’s dusty roads, I walked on my paved streets back home. Sure I’ve been better educated than him, but for every fact I’ve learned there are one hundred more that I will never know the answer to, even when I think I do. We will never even come close to understanding the truths of our world. What did I do? I opened my Water Resources engineering textbook from school and spent an hour reading about theories and complicated formulas trying to understand their derivations. I had absolutely no interest in those theorems. I don’t know why I did it. My best guess is that I wanted to remind myself that I, like my Dominican friend, am chained to the same wall looking at the same dancing shadows’ of puppets. The cruel puppet master who chained us here is our own pride.

I asked my five year old neighbor if he thought humans could walk on the Moon. He told me,“No, because it is small and they’d fall off.” Sadly, the 15 year old didn’t think it was possible either.

So the next time that you’re in a debate about politics or religion and the peace is being destroyed- remember that we all feel like kings in the realities we build for ourselves, just like my friend who recently discovered the difference between Jupiter and New York. We need to build these false realities because no one wants to feel ignorant and vulnerable all their life. It’s only human to be passionate about our beliefs, but let’s just keep things in perspective.

Assuming we are always evolving, humans 300 years from now will be smarter and sexier than us (ahem, well most of us). The history books of the future will look back on our current era and thank God that they have escaped these cultural and intellectual Dark Ages. Be passionate about your beliefs, but let’s not be ignorant and see truth through the lenses of our era and culture. By definition, everyone believes their beliefs to be correct, and unless you’re brainwashed more than a few of your beliefs will vary from those of your neighbors. With this in mind, if you look at the world with the eyes of an absolutist, statistically speaking only one of us is right, but more than likely we’re all probably wrong. If you look at the world as an optimistic relativist (this is the right way to look at the world), maybe we’re all a little bit right. Obama’s a baby killing communist and Bush was a war-mongering, hypocritical idiot. You must be Christian to go to heaven. God is an old man with a beard floating in the clouds who will get me that promotion if I pray for it. Chicken soup cures the common cold in the United States. In the Dominican Republic, if you open a refrigerator when you’re hot you’ll have a stroke. Let’s just stand back and look at all of the ridiculous claims we make, see how different everything is, and laugh.

I am the only house in the village that hasn’t had electricity for the past two days. My power line fell down you see… no surprise. Everything falls down after a long enough time, it just falls down quicker here. One night, I was looking furiously for my cell phone in the darkness. I was getting frustrated and angry. Damnit, I didn’t have electricity and I just wanted my cell phone so I could talk to Kati so I could feel better. Oddly enough, I realized that I had been searching for my cell phone with my cell phone’s built in flashlight in my hand. We search for truth and happiness like it’s out there somewhere, hiding. Maybe it’s closer to us than we think? Maybe we had it the whole time, and we just didn’t realize. Maybe the secret is humility and a broader perspective. Maybe we just need to lower our fists when we meet someone who doesn’t agree with us, humble ourselves, laugh at ourselves, and chase our tail like a dog who knows that life is short.

Just because we can’t succeed does not mean we should abandon the quest for truth. I want my entire campo to be excited about how interesting Jupiter is, and I will tell them. Hopefully, one day I will launch a rocket to the sky with a group of wide-eyed kids just like I did when I was a kid. We keep pursuing truth because the journey is mind bogglingly beautiful and makes us happy. But the day that we say we know truth is a sad day when we betray our intelligence and begin to make enemies with our neighbors.

Go search for truth. I hope you never find it. While you’re at it- chase your tail.

3 responses to “Planets and Countries: How Jupiter is Different from New York

  1. I feel awful. I want to bring along a book of planets in Spanish for the plane ride. My small gift. I have met people in Philly (a few of my pts. at hospital) who couldn’t read. It hurt my heart. The truth hurts. Not everyone can! Honestly, w/o books I would be broccoli.

    I realized why you were so good with planets and space, and the moon project when you were a child…it was so you could share what you learned with your friends there one day in the distant future. That time is now. Jupiter – what we know of it – is real and a truth begging to be shared. Go for it! Moon, too!

    Love,
    Mom

  2. I remember you and your telescope well, my dearheart Dan. What i believe is wonderful is the curiousity that spawned the question. And the trust he had in sharing it with you. I think you probably went a bit further than his frame of reference could take on the first round.

    Do wish I could send you a telescope! You’d really have fun teaching a little space science then… to those who are curious. And helping the youngest ones question too!

    xxoo to you. with you and miss you at the same time!

    Lois

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