“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.' Matthew 25:37-40
On July 20,1969, Michael Collins bade farewell to his comrades Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as they floated away from him in the Lunar Module “Eagle” to go down to the lunar surface. Everyone knows what they did down there. But Collins stayed up in lunar orbit. After all, someone needed to keep watch over the command module, and who was better for the job than a St. Albans’s graduate? Yes indeed, while the other two went down, Collins stayed, content to let his friends have what was seen as the greater glory, content with his own relatively unassuming yet utterly vital role in the mission.
Now there’s a funny thing about lunar orbit that not many people realize. Everyone at this school knows that communications are lost even at the bottom of Marriott Hall. So it’s not hard to realize that when a spaceship goes behind the moon, it enters complete radio silence. Other missions had gone around the moon and into radio silence before Apollo 11, but Michael Collins was the first astronaut to do so alone. So when he entered the shadow of the moon, Michael Collins became the first human to feel what it is like to be in absolute physical isolation from the rest of humanity.
Alone. As Collins sat in the Command module by himself, he took out a pad of paper and wrote “I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what on this side.” It would be safe to say that Michael Collins was about as lonely at that moment as any human had ever been.
But I don’t think that means there never was or will be another human that lonely. Obviously there has never been one more physically isolated than Collins was, but if there’s anything I know, it’s that you don’t have to be alone to be lonely.
To get to what loneliness really is, we have to go look at a different spacecraft. Voyager 1 was launched in September 1977 to take advantage of a peculiar planetary alignment and perform close flybys of Jupiter and Saturn while its twin, Voyager 2, added in Uranus and Neptune. By 1989, they had both completed their initial missions, and NASA deemed them healthy enough to go ahead with their extended mission, the Voyager Interstellar Mission. Using the gravity of the outer planets, scientists were able to send both spacecraft hurtling out of the ecliptic plane of our solar system at about 3.6 Astronomical Units per year, equivalent to 10.6 miles per second. Voyager 1 is currently about 19.6 billion kilometers away from Earth, which is a 36-hour round trip… if you’re traveling the speed of light. In August 2013, Voyager 1 passed through the Termination Shock and the Heliopause of our sun and became the first spacecraft to enter interstellar space. It’s worth noting here that I think those two terms provide conclusive proof that scientists are much better at naming things than historians.
Aboard each of the Voyager spacecraft is a golden record meant to communicate mankind’s story to any extraterrestrial race that may pick up the spacecraft. It takes a lot of editing to try and condense the human experience onto a gold plate. The one who arranged it, Carl Sagan, decided to put in natural sounds such as the sound of the ocean surf, spoken greetings in 55 languages from Ancient Sumerian to Chinese, and a menagerie of musical works from various eras. The music was selected not only to demonstrate some of the most beautiful achievements of mankind, but also to emulate certain human emotions.
The song chosen to represent the sensation of loneliness is called “Dark was the Night, Wet was the Ground”. The man who wrote the song, Blind Willie Johnson, was born in Texas in 1897. His mother died soon after. He always wanted to grow up to be a preacher, and he taught himself to play on a guitar he made out of a cigar box when he was five. When he was seven, his father caught his stepmother going out with another man and beat her mercilessly. She then threw a can of lye in Willie’s face, blinding him for the rest of his life. Blind Willie remained poor his entire life, even though he did grow up to be a preacher and a blues man like he always wanted. He made a living spreading God’s word and playing the gospel blues from town to town until when records show he operated a House of Prayer in Beaumont, Texas. In 1945, his house burned to the ground, leaving him with nowhere to go for shelter. He lived in the burned-out ruins of his home for the next few months, with a pile of wet newspapers as a bed. It was there that he wrote “Dark was the Night, Wet was the Ground”. He lived there until he contracted malarial fever and died on September 18, 1945, a hot Texas night, after being refused at multiple hospitals because of the color of his skin. He was buried in an unmarked grave.
Blind Willie led a lonely life. He, more than anyone else, knew what loneliness felt like, and he poured out his loneliness into his song. That is why it was chosen to represent loneliness for all mankind. He experienced a kind of loneliness that can’t be brought about by only physical isolation. True loneliness comes when someone is right in the middle of all humanity and yet still there is radio silence. No communication. To feel true loneliness is to feel the isolation of Michael Collins while you are still here on Earth with everyone else. The loneliest people are found among the rest of us.
I am glad that for the last 8 years I have lived in a community that has ensured against this kind of loneliness. But it still serves as a valuable idea, especially for my fellow seniors and I who are about to embark on lives of our own. We should treat everyone as if they were one of these lonely ones, because we never know who is really lonely and who isn’t. And it really is the worst feeling, when you are certain that no one loves you and no one cares to know how you feel. But the best possible thing that someone can do when you feel that way is to talk with you, to connect with you, in that time of hardship. The Bible even tells us to do this. In the reading today, Jesus says that to help others is to do the work of God, to share his love. To talk to someone and to be nice to them is not a big commitment. But the effect it can have on someone who needs a friend is utterly astounding.