Carl Sagan, YOLO, and the Art of Falling

I fell out of a plane the other day. I’m not going to lie—it was as terrifying as you could imagine (or know, if you’ve done it yourself). My anxiety was at an understandably elevated level from the moment I arrived at the skydiving check-in office until I was squeezed into a tiny plane with nine other people, strapped to a stranger. But slowly dropping off the edge of the plane from 14,000 feet in the air was the most intense moment I have ever experienced. For the first time, I was genuinely convinced I was about to die.

Of course, that feeling was fleeting, and I went on to enjoy the full range of human emotions during the breathtaking experience. And while there is so much to process after doing something like this, it really got me thinking about mortality. I’m an atheist so when I die, I believe that’s it, that there is nothing afterwards for me. That may sound somber to some, but to me it’s incredibly freeing.

It means I’m on a mission to make the most of this life because I believe it’s all I or any of us has.

I come from a Christian family. I was educated in Christian schools and went to church every Sunday (sometimes twice a day). With genuine belief and the very best of intentions, my folks raised me to believe in a god, a devil, and an afterlife. But the older I got, the more religion felt to me like a bunch of silly stories and ceremonies that mandated unjustified and restrictive rules. I just could not bring myself to believe in some grand plan for my life. It made me feel completely out of control. So I rejected theism in favor of humanism.

But what does that actually mean? Unlike organized religion, atheism has no doctrine, no common philosophies or practices, and no leaders. It is simply an absence of belief in god(s) and the supernatural; the word translates from Greek as “without god.” In my view the closest thing to a movement representing atheists is humanism, which encourages individuals to develop their own meaning, values, and ethics through the application of reason and science.

Atheists, agnostics, and humanists aren’t all angry, rude, and “intellectually righteous” (although I may be one or all of these things from time to time). In fact, there are many prominent nontheists, who focus on advocating the wonders of science rather than actively opposing religion. Carl Sagan famously believed that there was a clear connection between science and spirituality: “The cosmos is also within us; we’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

Sagan, who would have been eighty-two today, was the 1981 Humanist of the Year. Widely acknowledged as a visionary, he popularized his own field of astrophysics and science more broadly, and frequently advocated for humanist values. He identified as agnostic, maintaining that it was difficult to either prove or disprove the existence of any god. “Personally, I would be delighted if there were a life after death,” Sagan said. “Especially if it permitted me to continue to learn about this world and others, if it gave me a chance to discover how history turns out.”

Of course, there are less romantic but equally compelling versions of Sagan’s “star stuff” idea. The following was written by a man named Daniel Genser, who grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness but made the difficult decision to leave the church after questioning everything he was raised to believe as true.

I do not believe in a grand plan for the Universe. I do not believe in a cosmic power that is busy arranging events in an inevitable and poetic conclusion. We are not the center of the Universe—literally or spiritually. We are a speck in a suburb of an average galaxy, spiraling in the void of space among a vast sea of galaxies, swirling in a possible ocean of Universes. Whatever meaning we have, we create. And that is OK. It has to be, because it is.

While this philosophy has the potential to make us feel small and insignificant, it also forces us to focus on now. It’s not about living every day as if it’s your last. Rather, it’s about maximizing opportunities and not wasting time doing things that don’t enrich your life or give you meaning. That means embracing the totality of the human experience: the good, bad, and everything in between.

As Carl Sagan would say, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

You only live once. Make it awesome!