I love seeing the red dot on those stationary public maps in an unfamiliar place: “You Are Here.” I love that the place where the map stands was there before I arrived and will remain after I’ve moved on. It’s not like your phone’s GPS showing you as the center of the universe—or the Uber map where that coveted role temporarily goes to your approaching driver. No, it’s the real world that Copernicus grabbed hold of to shatter Christian illusions that the sun and planets revolve around the Earth.
The red dot is humbling—a minor footnote to Carl Sagan’s pale blue one. The red dot says that you are the variable, whereas this place (museum, town square, whatever) is the constant with longitude and latitude. Many among the more privileged of us have spent a year and a half being paid for our non-physical presence. We didn’t have to get dressed for things, didn’t have to put money on our Metro Cards or gas in the tank. We had only to trudge as far as our phones and laptops. Our lives became impressionistic, the question of when we’d return to the workplace as fog-shrouded as Monet’s Houses of Parliament.
Right now, every earthling is in the precarious position of wanting to fast-forward to when COVID is over while also fearing inevitable and unalterable climate catastrophes. Moving away from one threat is moving toward another. Thomas Jefferson likened such a situation to having the wolf by the ears, disastrously struck in the moment. (Fittingly, he was referring to avoiding civil war.)
Being conscious of the moment is particularly hard for Americans because we primarily live in the past (MAGA zealots) or the future (cryptocurrency zealots). As a nation, we are the embodiment of Pascal’s Pensée 172: “For the present is generally painful to us. We conceal it from our sight, because it troubles us; and if it be delightful to us, we regret to see it pass away. We try to sustain it by the future, and think of arranging matters which are not in our power, for a time which we have no certainty of reaching.”
We lie about the vastness of our work accomplishments on LinkedIn; we lie about the greatness of our weekends on Instagram. On Twitter and Facebook, we lie about the extent that our hearts go out to the people of Haiti. But now, “You Are Here,” and if you lie about where you are to the Triple-A lady on the phone, she won’t be able to send you a tow truck. “You Are Here” and there are no longer any ballpark figures, grades on a curve, practice SATs. Why? Because there is exactly this much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere where you are right now. There’s no hedge against whatever it is you fear because you occupy this physical spot on Earth. You can’t pay someone to wait in line to eventually occupy this spot for you. There’s no yoga pose, no personal trainer you can hire to guarantee results in six months; nor is there anyone you can hire to cart it all away to a landfill in South Asia.
For some reason, whenever I face a “You Are Here” board, I think of that scene in Roman Holiday where the American reporter Gregory Peck takes the incognito European princess Audrey Hepburn to visit the Mouth of Truth, a large marble “mask” sculpture standing against a wall of a sixth-century Roman church, Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Medieval legend has it that the hand of any liar placed into the mask’s open mouth will be bitten off—same for that of anyone uttering a lie while holding her hand in there. In that scene, the “You Are Here” moment is literally one of truth—and naturally the American tricks the princess into thinking that his hand has been bitten off. Ha ha!
Roman Holiday was released on August 27, 1953, not even two weeks after the CIA’s “Operation Ajax,” which backed the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh—Iran’s democratically elected prime minister—by Iranian military forces supporting the monarchy of the Shah. It is enlightening to look at what America has done to the world between the release of Roman Holiday and the “You Are Here” of 2021—the incomprehensible crucible of fossil fuels burned and the rampant deforestation in the name of globalization, the tragedy and carnage of Vietnam, the disastrous puppeteering of regime change in Argentina, Chile, Cuba, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Venezuela, and elsewhere in Latin and Central America—and closer to memory, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan. “You Are Here” in Kabul—exactly where you were 20 years ago, only minus tens of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars and plus about two-thirds of a degree in the world’s temperature.
Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot” refers to an image of Earth taken by Voyager 1 in 1990 at a distance of four billion miles. He wrote in his book of the same name: “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
Here on the ground, our pale blue dot keeps getting smaller. And yet the exponential enticements of digital escape promise infinity—of never needing to face the ruinous conflagrations of our previous choices and previous neglect. This is Sagan’s “delusion” writ large—and yet right now, even the hand of America is being forced into the Mouth of Truth. We have no choice but to see the lonely speck of ourselves in relation to the vastness of what we need to fix. §