Positive Cynicism – Marriage, mystery and Carl Sagan

Aaron Davis

Aaron R. Davis

As I spoke about in last week’s column, my best friend of 25 years was married over the weekend. I swallowed my anxiety and stood as his best man. Here’s the speech I gave at the reception dinner, which is in part based on a story the great scientist Ann Druyan told about her time on the Voyager program and when she fell in love with the late, great Carl Sagan in a fantastic NPR interview. (Since writing this, I’ve become aware of others online who have adapted the same story for wedding toasts. I’m glad to see so many fellow humanists out there.)

Forgive me for indulging myself with this; I’ll go back to something more pop-oriented and grumbly next week.

For those of you who may not know, Carl and I have been best friends for 25 years this year. I’ve only met Kate much more recently, but I already know how lucky he is to be married to her. And I’ve never made a toast at a wedding before, so forgive me if I ramble the slightest bit.

I’m not a religious person. I don’t know how to speak about “forevers” and “until the end of times.” I’m not comfortable with those kinds of superlatives. But I am deeply spiritual about the here and now, and the interconnectedness of life. “The mystery of life,” to quote Frank Herbert, “is not a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.” And an important part of that experience is taking moments — many moments — to appreciate where we are and what we have.

Today is such a moment for Kate and Carl. Today is a moment to not only appreciate, but celebrate their love for one another. The first moment in the series of moments we call marriage, itself a moment in a series of moments that make up that mystery of life.

In contemplating what I was going to say tonight, I’ve been thinking about what marriage means to me personally. Until I did, I never thought I would get married. I was cynical about it. Does that “little piece of paper” really mean anything? After all, my partner and I loved each other very much. Would a state-sanctioned, legally-recognized marriage contract really change the meaning and depth of that love?

After a few years of marriage, I realize that the contract — that “little piece of paper” — isn’t what changes a relationship. It’s the act of commitment itself. Commitment to the person you want to be a part of; the person who reminds you not of who you were, or even who you are, but who you want to be. Marriage is a way for us to know ourselves, if we’re lucky, at our best. It is a way of fearlessly experiencing that mystery of life with the person who completes us, who inspires us to be our best possible selves, and who makes each moment of that mystery worth experiencing.

It is an act of unfettered optimism. My earlier cynicism about marriage was easy. Cynicism is always easy. Optimism takes real courage.

To illustrate this, I’d like to tell a story.

It is the story of two scientists, and how they spread love throughout the stars.

June 1, 1977. Two colleagues, Ann Druyan and the late Carl Sagan, my personal hero, were looking for music and sounds that would reflect the human experience on the golden record that would hurtle through the vastness of the cosmos for a billion years aboard the Voyager space probes. Alongside the primary objectives of taking close-up pictures of the other worlds of our solar system existed the hope that these probes, and their golden records, might be found by an alien civilization, and to them convey the impression of life on Earth.

Druyan had phoned Sagan to express her excitement over discovering the perfect song to add to the record, and was forced to leave a message. In the return phone call that ensued, the two colleagues, who had never before so much as kissed, found themselves engaged to be married.

In the days following, filled with the excitement of her engagement, Druyan had another idea for the recording: she would convert the electronic impulses of her own brain and nervous system into sound waves. She would meditate on, among other things, “the wonder of love, of being in love.”

Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan were married in 1981, and remained married until Sagan’s untimely death in 1996. The Voyager probes are now well beyond the orbit of our solar system’s farthest planet. And it still carries that message of devotion and adoration to the farthest reaches of space.

Today, Kate and Carl’s commitment to one another is a message of devotion and adoration. And everyone here is a golden record. We’ll carry a piece of this experience out into our world, and a thousand million years from now, I think there may still be an echo of this commitment for someone to hear.

About that, we can be truly optimistic.

To the bride and groom, and the certainty of their love in the vast mystery of life.

Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at samuraifrog@yahoo.com.

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