On December 14, 2014, I defended my doctoral dissertation in Leiden, Netherlands. That morning, before going to face the ‘opposition’ committee, I wrote out some reflections on the perspective I gained while soaring at 35,000 feet over the Sahara Desert. Flying over the Sahara has long held a very special place in my heart. The first time I did it was in 1987 when our family was moving to Tanzania to be missionaries. Being able to see so far at such a young age (seven years old) profoundly shaped my vision of the world. Nearly thirty years later, that God’s-eye point of view rekindled my spirit once more:
Soaring high above the Sahara makes me wonder how anyone, any one person, can ‘make a difference’ or ‘change the world’. Seen from this atmospheric perspective, we are each utterly small and insignificant. There are billions of us scratching around on top of the Earth’s crust like so many termites. We are minuscule. At any moment, down there in those dusty, sandy towns are thousands of people, each with their own ego-centric view of the world, each with hopes, dreams, fears, and desires.
How can we make this world a better place for all of us?
The amount of work to be done is overwhelming.
I had the amazing privilege of flying past the Karamoja Escarpment [where we lived with the Ik people] on its eastern side. I could see Mount Elgon, Kadam, Napak, Moroto, Morungole, and Lotukei in somber succession…
It is a vast and harsh landscape. Its sheer immensity dwarfs my bodily existence in Timu and the trivial ways I attempt to ‘save the world’ there.
But this is still an earthly point of view. From a cosmic point of view, our smallness goes from microbial to subatomic. The incomprehensible size of the cosmos telescopes our tininess, frailty, and contingency.
And yet, we who are so small fancy ourselves to be so great!
For good reason, apparently: despite our relative puniness, we are as yet the only thinking entities in the cosmos. We may only be temporary air-suckers in this world, but we have emerged from an unfathomably long and excruciating journey of evolution, and we are now evolution conscious of itself – to use Julian Huxley’s famous phrase. This makes the human being the most precious, most complex, most dreadful, most eternal, most divine, most-to-be-protected and stewarded entity in the whole universe.