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What my parents Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan taught me about the power of daily rituals

In her first book, For Small Creatures Such as We, author Sasha Sagan explores the significance of ritual in an unpredictable universe.

What my parents Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan taught me about the power of daily rituals
[Photo: courtesy of Sasha Sagan]

My husband Jon and I have several small daily rituals. Every morning, he wakes up first, makes coffee, and brings me a cup in bed. Then I thank him and tell him how wonderful I think he is. This small act of romance sets the tone for our day and, in turn, our life together. Later, when he leaves his office, he texts me, “On the way!!!” This still gives me a little thrill. Like the feeling of knowing you’re going to see your crush. And this too is a little ritual. In a sense, everything we do a particular way that holds meaning for us is a ritual. Especially when there are other ways it could be done. He could just come home without sending a text, but by letting me know he’s coming I get to enjoy that giddy sense of anticipation.

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No matter how many rituals we have, we all also experience uncertainty every day… Maybe even every hour. What should I do? Is this true? What is going to happen? Impossible to predict, the future tortures us. Something absolutely shocking can happen at any moment. What a toll this takes on us. How many small tools have we created to combat this, to assert some control in the universe?

[Photo: courtesy of Sasha Sagan]
Our deepest fears power so much of what we do. I was a cerebral, sensitive child. I spent a lot of time wondering about the dioramas at the museum and the whereabouts of my late paternal grandparents. The realization that everyone I knew, myself included, would someday die sent me into a kind of existential crisis. I recovered, but I was obsessed by the idea of death, and I remain so. Especially the fact that it’s inevitable and often unpredictable.

It’s easy to forget that even the ending of a day is an astronomical event.”

This ambiguity haunted me, so while still small I devised a plan, a kind of personal superstition. Every evening while being tucked in I would say to my parents, “Don’t forget! Don’t die!” and every evening my mother would say, “I promise!” and my dad, accuracy zealot that he was, would say, “I’ll do my best!” I don’t know if it was because he was already in his fifties by then and had faced several serious health problems, or just that he wouldn’t want to break a promise by falling victim to something he could not control. But this was our nightly ritual, and for a time, it gave me the desired illusion of control, safety, and certainty.

It’s easy to forget that even the ending of a day is an astronomical event. Before we understood what made a day, it seemed like it was a function of the sun appearing, moving across the sky, and then disappearing into the darkness. We talk about sunrises and sunsets, despite it being the Earth, not the sun, that is moving. The misnomer aside, this pattern has a profound effect on us. A day is twenty-four hours because that’s the time it takes for the Earth to rotate on its axis once. Our biology, our circadian rhythms, link us to the way we move in space. For most of our history we had no clocks and no calendars, but we always had night and day. There is something profound about doing something, anything, to mark this rotation. And far and wide, we have.

On important days, there is a ceremonial chant among native Hawaiians called E-Ala-E. It is directed eastward before first light, asking the sun to rise. In India, Nepal, and beyond, a small, ancient ritual of throwing cow’s milk on a fire at dawn and dusk has been performed by the priesthood class for thousands of years.

The goal of so many daily religious rituals is to tap into our sense of gratitude for the great and powerful force to which we owe our lives. This is no less important if you think those forces are physics and biology.

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A quiet moment at the start or close of a day is a ritual with an infinite number of private permutations. For many religious people, prayer is a crucial, defining staple used to gain clarity, get in touch with what you believe, what you wish for and aspire toward, another way to face the uncertainties of life. I spent much of my early life with one such religious person.

When I was six weeks old, Maruja Farge came to live with us. She was my nanny and became a member of our family. She had a profound influence on my life. She was also a devout Catholic, a true believer.

For the eight years she lived with us and for the many subsequent summers she would spend visiting us, she was completely open and straightforward about her beliefs. I knew exactly what she believed and I knew that it was different from what my parents believed. My parents weren’t afraid that exposure to other belief systems would somehow harm me. The more I knew about what people thought, the better off I was.

Once, early in my fascination with death, I came to my parents with a question:

“Maruja says when you die you go to heaven and there are angels playing harps and you’re with God. And you guys say it’s like you’re asleep forever with no dreams. Who is right?”

My parents, without missing a beat, said in unison, “No body knows!”

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And they didn’t just say it. They announced it like good news, joyful, enthusiastic, beaming.

This exchange was revelatory for me. Not because it gave me any clarity on the mystery of death, but because it gave me a window into the nature of life. It taught me that there is no shame in not knowing. Uncertainty is real. It need not be glossed over or buried. We can embrace it, even while we try to understand what we can.

The pre-Socratic sophist philosopher Protagoras of Abdera wrote this: “Concerning the gods, I have no way of knowing either that they exist or that they do not exist, or what they are like in form. There are many things that impede that knowledge, both the obscurity (of the subject) and the brevity of human life.” That’s kind of my position, too. (Right after he wrote that, the Athenians outlawed teaching that kind of heresy. Presumably they felt threatened somehow by Protagoras’s ideas.)

In the 1950s, the philosopher Bertrand Russell made the argument that the burden of proof must be on the believer, not the skeptic. He did this by asserting that there is a teeny tiny teapot in space that cannot be perceived by even the most powerful telescope. He suggested that if this idea was supported by ancient books, it would be deemed more likely, even if the ancient books included no proof. We cannot be absolutely sure that there is no space teapot; it’s possible there is. But we don’t have any reason to believe in it.

This approach applies way beyond theology. My dad was frequently asked by interviewers and fans if he “believed” in the existence of extraterrestrials. “I don’t know,” he would say. “I don’t have enough evidence.” This would sometimes frustrate people, and there were a lot of follow-up questions about his gut or his instincts. My dad really wanted to know if there were aliens, and if there were, he wanted to know everything about them, but he refused to let his deepest wishes fog his judgment. He was a devout scientist.

In his book Pale Blue Dot, my dad wrote, “Science demands a tolerance for ambiguity. Where we are ignorant, we withhold belief. Whatever annoyance the uncertainty engenders serves a higher purpose. It drives us to accumulate better data.”

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When a new person discovers my good fortune of being my father’s daughter, they often ask, “Well, are you a scientist?”

[Photo: courtesy of Sasha Sagan]
I don’t know how many women go into their fathers’ businesses nowadays, but I did not. And yet some strange part of me wants to answer yes. Not because I hold a degree in anything more objective than dramatic literature, but because my parents instilled science in me not as a job but as a worldview, a philosophy, a lens through which to see. Just as not every Catholic is a priest, not every adherent to the scientific method is a scientist.

The discussions that fueled my parents’ workdays flowed over into dinnertime, and that enriched me enormously. They managed to explain even the most complicated concepts clearly and without ever talking down to me, with a kind of gentle intellectual respect, as though I was some kind of tiny professor trapped in a little girl’s body. I think it’s this same skill that made their work accessible to so many non-scientists around the world.

During those dinnertime discussions the greatest thing I could do, in the eyes of my parents, was to ask a question to which they did not know the answer. To them it was the sign of a curious intellect scanning the horizon for new mysteries, which might lead to new understanding. I never once got a “That’s just how it is,” or a “Because I said so.”

Instead, my father would, smiling, retrieve a volume of our brown and green Encyclopædia Britannica from above our sort of kitschy, 3-D, glass-and-neon painted model of the Milky Way galaxy. Together we would look up the answer and revel in a shared clarity.

Learning to draw connections thrilled me. It made the world less overwhelming. I felt more confident, braver.”

For many, reading passages from their holy text offers daily enlightenment and answers to the endless questions that run through our minds. For us, it was the encyclopedia, atlases, and dictionaries. And like finding a new verse in a sacred book, or reading an old one with fresh eyes, this enriched me emotionally, not just intellectually. Every day I gained a deeper sense of the workings of the world and the universe. Every day I got a little closer to a sense of understanding. Learning to draw connections thrilled me. It made the world less overwhelming. I felt more confident, braver. The more I learned about history, the more I understood about geography. The more I knew about etymology, the more Latin I could piece together. In those days, every encyclopedia entry I read felt like it was snapping in a new puzzle piece. I thought I might soon see the entire picture.

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But as I grew, I realized the puzzle had no edges, no borders. It went on forever in all directions. Every new piece just revealed how many more pieces were still missing. I came to understand that I could never get to the complete picture.

So the metaphor changed. Instead of a puzzle, being curious became more like being a collector of small, beautiful objects, of which there are a seemingly infinite number on Earth, like seashells or stamps. I’d never have them all, but each new kernel of understanding was like a new, gleaming gem. When I learned something, I imagined putting it in a special box with my other treasures, seeing how they went together, how they matched or clashed. Learning became addictive, an obsession. Soon the urge to try to answer any lingering question was overpowering, each answer in turn eliciting another question, some parochial, some cosmic.

The parochial ones are often maligned as “trivia,” but every piece of trivia is a small clue to something else, a glimpse at how we fit into the universe.

Everything became fodder for this ritual. I’d find myself somewhere new and start to wonder, What is the name of where I am at this moment? The street? The neighborhood? The city? The nation? These proper nouns could have been anything, but this place has its name for a specific reason. Was it named after a person? Another place, picked by some homesick explorer? Is it a ridiculous Anglicization of an indigenous word? A slow contraction of words over centuries? If New York is named for York, England, where is Zealand? Where did the word America come from?

Soon it became clear to me that there is a second layer to everything. Often there’s a third and a fourth and a fifth, subtext upon subtext, subtle reference within subtle reference. The best literature, movies, and art had the most layers, I thought. Finding these felt like being a detective.

My dad didn’t have an encyclopedia as a child. One of the defining moments of his life was the discovery that he could go beyond what his village elders knew. This was retold by him in Cosmos. He rarely ventured beyond his neighborhood of Bensonhurst in Brooklyn. It was his whole universe. When he started to wonder about what the stars might be, no one he knew had a satisfactory answer. His parents, Rachel and Sam, were poor and undereducated. They didn’t know. But they knew where he could find out. His mother took him to the public library. I picture my dad as a little boy, barely able to see over the librarian’s desk, asking for a book on stars. She came back with a book about Hollywood. Not what he was after. But he explained, she got him the right book, and suddenly he was on the path of curiosity that he would occupy for the rest of his life.

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My dad died in 1996. He never owned a cell phone. He never had an email address. I often daydream about showing him a smartphone. I imagine telling him that this little rectangular machine contains all twenty-some volumes of the Britannica, also the collected works of Shakespeare, and a world atlas. You can use it to listen to all the music and read all the books your heart desires. It gives you live weather reports, breaking news, and the power to communicate in Albanian or Urdu. You can use it to see the opinions and vacation photos of anyone willing to share them, anywhere on Earth, with just a few taps. He would have loved it.

For Such Small Creatures As We: Rituals For Finding Meaning In Our Unlikely World by Sasha Sagan

My dream is that, when my daughter is older, her exploration of the world—its history, its art, its creatures and their ways, its place in the universe—will not end when the traditional yellow bus brings her home each day. I hope that after school, on the weekends, on summer vacation, she will—as I did—see the looking up of things as a holy ritual performed by our family every day. And that somehow we can teach her to get comfortable with the idea that even with so many answers we still know so little. As with love, it’s our vulnerability that opens us up to something deeper. Our willingness to be wrong, to let go of our predictions and preconceptions, clears the way to more than we could have otherwise imagined.

There are some mysteries to which we will never get the answer. We might not live to learn what came before the big bang. We won’t know the eventual fate of our species. And there are answers that we will get. Now, both my father and Maruja have the answer to the question I posed all those years ago. And someday each and every one of us will, too. But until then, there is so much else to learn and celebrate between each sunrise and sunset.


This excerpt is adapted from For Small Creatures Such As We, by Sasha Sagan, and is reprinted here with permission.

Sasha Sagan is the daughter of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. She has worked as a television producer, filmmaker, editor, writer, and speaker in New York, Boston, and London. Inverse named her one of their Future 50, “a group of 50 people who will be forces of good in the 2020s.”

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