I Have Seen the Tops of Clouds [Adapted]

I gave this speech in 2016 at the Bay Winter Solstice, as one of the speeches of darkness. The original is by Quinn Norton; this was revised to be shorter, to sound less like I had personally delivered all the revelations and experienced the anecdotes, and to focus less on concerns Ms. Norton has which I do not share. I was and remain proud of this edited version, and decided to make it publicly readable. If you intend to read as a speech to an audience, I suggest using my adaptation. For any other purpose, use hers. I believe only Ms. Norton herself has the right to use the work or any derivative for any commercial purpose, so do not do so or ask me for permission to do so.

I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes. I peer around my room scared and stressed, like all the things I can contain during the day break loose in dreams I can’t remember, the echoes of all these forgotten nightmares roaming around my body. Sometimes I want to cry, or curl up, or scream. I stare into the corners of my room. I try to fall back to sleep, even though I don’t want to go back to whatever sent me here.

It’s not a coincidence that I’m told I’m depressing. I think about depressing things.
I try to face the worst things about humanity and our situation. It started with how the oceans are dying, but since then moved on to genocide, imprisonment, the history of labor exploitation, computer security and mass surveillance, racism, and technological apocalypse.
I’m fun at parties.

It may be that our ticket was punched before we ever got started. While we’re cutting our time on earth shorter, it might be that our species was never going to make it past the end of the womb of our ice-age birth.
I explained this to a friend, about how fragile an organism we are, and how the ice ages cycle. She laughed. She was used to this strange form of hope.

“You have to choose hope, or just jump out a window,” someone said, a person who’d been accused of techno-utopianism. They were walking along the California coast at sunset, talking about all the ways our technological lives could go wrong, and the many ways they are going wrong.
They weren’t utopian, it turned out. They’d thought of the worst long before their detractors had. They’d decided to try to head it off, instead of jumping out a window.

We are diseased and angry and we kill each other and ourselves and all the world. I try to look at this, and my own part in it. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. I feel so powerless trying to comprehend all the terrible things we face, much less get past them into the future with our humanity and our inconceivably beautiful little blue-green planet preserved.

Looking at the ways we break the world, think of Tolstoy’s admonition that if we cannot give up the ills of our lives, then we should declare them, face them, put them on our flags. We can tell the world about the edge of our strength, ability, and virtue. We can share the failure honestly. This is good, and this helps, but it doesn’t bring back the vanished creatures and dying earth, and it doesn’t stop the relentless human cruelty.

There are nights full of invective and hate and days I can only see the flaws in our world, and feel my own flaws and my own fear from within.
And there is so much fear.
The land will drown. The seas could turn acid and burn us from above while starving us from within. At any moment we could still be consumed by nuclear fire, an accidental holdover from the Cold War we’ve failed to wrap up, like a binge drinker or a gambling addict who gets sober, but can’t face the past, and lets it fester.

All these grown-up monsters for my grown-up mind, they are there in the nights I wake up terrified and taunted by death. When I feel so small and broken, when despair and terror take me, I have a secret tool, a talisman against the night. I don’t use it too often so that it doesn’t lose its power. I learned it on airplanes, which are strange and thrilling and full of fear and boredom and discomfort. When I am very frightened, I look out the window and say, very quietly:

I have seen the tops of clouds

And I have.

In all the history of humanity, I am one of the few that has seen the tops of clouds. Many would have died to do so, and some did.
I have seen them many times.
I have seen the Earth from space, and spun it around like a god to see what’s on the other side. We are the only consciousness we’ve ever found that has looked deep into the infinite dark, and instead of dark, we saw galaxies. Suns and worlds without number. We have looked into our world and found atoms, atomic forces, systems that dance to the glorious music of the universe.
We have seen actual wonders that verge on the ineffable. We have coined a word for the ineffable. We have coined thousands of words for the ineffable. In our pain we find a kind of magic, in our worst and meanest specimens we find the flesh of a common human story. We are red with it.

I know mysteries that great philosophers would have died for, just to have them whispered in their dying ears. I can look them up on my smartphone.
I live in the middle of miracles, conceptions and magics easily worth many lifetimes to learn, from which I can pick and choose. I have wisdom and knowledge poured around me like a river, more than I could learn in a thousand lifetimes, and I am still alive.

It is good that I am alive, it is good that we are alive. Even if we kill ourselves off with nuclear fire, or gray goo, or drown ourselves in stinking acid oceans, it is good that we have lived, that we did all of this, and that we grew into what we are, and learned to dream of what we could be.
Perhaps we will soon die, but we will die having gone so far above our primordial ponds and primate forests that we saw the tops of clouds.

It is good that in the body of this weak and tender African animal a piece of the universe has gazed upon itself, that this tiny appendage of existence looked on everything its eyes and tools could drink in and experienced the most pure of wonder, the most terrible of awe. It is worth it, all of it, to even for a moment be the universe gazing upon itself. We reached so far above our biological fate that we spoke love to life, all life, and to its dark universal womb.

That takes away the fear for me. Not all of it, but enough so that I can hug my partner and fall asleep, to dream dreams of what we’ll do next, of how we’ll live this hope.

I can get past the horrible things we face. I can acknowledge the boring and unpleasant truths along the way. I can take up Tolstoy’s charge, and dream of a healing world where my descendants and their descendants will see wonders that I cannot now conceive.

We have seen the tops of clouds.

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