This is a speech a wrote for the 2019 Bay area secular solstice, at the request of Claire Wang. It’s an adaptation of this chapter of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. It uses most of the same words to extract the spirit from the chapter without needing the context of the story. We ended up not using it, because it didn’t fit into that particular solstice arc. But I’m quite pleased with it, so I’m sharing it here.
Since the beginning, humanity has looked up at the stars, burning terribly bright and unmoving in the silent night. We let the image fill us, knowing it was meaningful, but not knowing how or why. Thousands of years later, through our collective efforts, we added the missing ingredient to the image: the Earth, blazing blue and white with reflected sunlight as it hung in space, amid the black void and the brilliant points of light. It belonged there, within that image, because it was what gave everything else its meaning. The Earth was what made the stars significant, made them more than uncontrolled fusion reactions, because it was Earth that would someday colonize the galaxy, and fulfill the promise of the night sky.
Would they still be plagued by death, the children’s children’s children, the distant descendants of humankind as they strode from star to star? No. Of course not. Death is only a little nuisance, paling into nothingness in the light of that promise; not unkillable, not invincible, not even close. You had to put up with little nuisances, if you were one of the lucky and unlucky few to be born on Earth; on Ancient Earth, as it would be remembered someday. That too was part of what it meant to be alive, if you were one of the tiny handful of sentient beings born into the beginning of all things, before intelligent life had fully come into its power. That the much vaster future depended on what you did here, now, in the earliest days of dawn, when there was still so much darkness to be fought, and temporary nuisances like death.
So the stargazers thought of their friends and their family, the blue sky and brilliant Sun and all bright things, the Earth, the stars, the promise, everything humanity was and everything it would become…
They picked up their tools, and they got to work, letting these thoughts guide them.
Some of them, while they worked, looked straight at that which had been named death. The void, the emptiness, the hole in the universe, the absence of color and space, the open drain through which warmth poured out of the world. The fear it exuded stole away all happy thoughts, its closeness drained your power and strength, its kiss would destroy everything that you were.
But with their tools, they began to see underneath the cloak. They began to see what death was made of, how it worked, and why it was there. They saw past the fear, to the true nature of death.
And then they knew that someday, these tools in their hands would bring about a power greater than death. It was no longer magic. It was no longer unkillable.
And they knew that someday when the descendants of humanity had spread from star to star, they wouldn’t tell the children about the history of Ancient Earth until they were old enough to bear it; and when they learned they would weep to hear that such a thing as Death had ever once existed.
With this new knowledge, and with these new tools, each in their turn faced Death, and said to it;
You are not invincible, and someday the human species will end you.
I will end you if I can, by the power of mind and science.
I won’t cower in fear of Death, not while I have a chance of winning.
I won’t let Death touch me, I won’t let Death touch the ones I love.
And even if you do end me before I end you,
Another will take my place, and another,
Until the wound in the world is healed at last…
And people won’t have to say goodbye any more…