My colleague at work told me I had a “really honest moment” the other day. It occurred at the lunch table.
We were discussing Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s upcoming Cosmos program, the 13-part remake of and homage to Carl Sagan’s series of the same name. I expressed that I wasn’t sure how I felt about the whole Cosmos thing; why can’t we all just be in awe at the universe but not make such a big deal of it on television? I worried that it would feel hackneyed, forced, too cinematic—as though stars and galaxies were something to be staged and not taken for what they truly are. I didn’t want to see things that I found beautiful robbed of the grandeur that is their barest form. Please don’t draw attention to the way I think about this world, I privately asked of Tyson. Please don’t be emotional in the same way I am. Please don’t reveal me too much.
I said something to this effect at the lunch table. “Here’s what I think it is,” I said. “I’m uncomfortable with Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s intensity because I recognize it as my own.” By extension, I thought in my head: “And I am not capable of being as gregarious and forthcoming about the universe as he is.” I even flinch internally as I type the words “the universe.” Who am I to be so unabashedly poetic? I haven’t made a name for myself like he has. If I were to just walk up to a friend and exclaim delight over some magnificent aspect of life, or speak to near-strangers about the things I like in the same way that Tyson does… wouldn’t that be a disruption of some societal order? We typically see authority figures as the ones soldiering on, leading people to knowledge and truth—not young women in their 20s fresh out of liberal arts college. The field of astrophysics champions Tyson as its hero, and so must I.
But then he opens his mouth. And the words, the sentences, everything spilling forth from him is familiar to me. He knows the facts better than I do, but is there any reason to believe that he knows the rhyme or reason better, too? Is there any reason to believe that I, too, don’t already know everything he’s saying? When science presents new knowledge to me, I feel it rising from my gut, not from outside of me. I feel it echoing something I already know—something that has already been there and is now mine for the taking. The same goes for Tyson’s words. I grow indignant as he rollicks on, without a care in the world to my seething. “Why do you condescend?” I ask. “My vocabulary may not be top notch, but still, in this language I am fluent!”
I think this is part of Tyson’s genius. We are all afraid of people who show us for who we truly are. But when they arrive, you are automatically granted a kind of sacred permission. A permission that says: “Listen. We are all just a bunch of neurons and cells, firing in different connections and producing different patterns. Because there are so many of us, there’s bound to be some overlap. Embrace it. Take what you see in me and give me your own version, your own life. I am not ‘special’ or ‘talented’ for my ability to be real with you. You can do it, too.”
I didn’t like when Tyson expressed himself in a certain way because the sentiment reminded me too much of myself. In a very real way, Tyson—and basically everyone who has ever explained an idea or a feeling or a concept to someone—isn’t just a teacher. He’s an enabler. He allows people to see their own enthusiasm as warranted, valid, and deserving of attention. And through the power of similarity, he shows people that “saying it like you really mean it” doesn’t require a Ph. D.
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