Sasha Sagan Shows The Meaning Of Life Is Everywhere We Look

KJ: Hi there. I’m Audible editor Kat Johnson, and today I have the pleasure of talking to Sasha Sagan, who is the author of the new memoir, For Small Creatures Such as We: Rituals for Finding Meaning in our Unlikely World. The audiobook serves as a guide for creating meaningful rituals beyond the framework of religious tradition. And reflects on Sasha’s own life as the daughter of the late astronomer Carl Sagan and the writer and producer Ann Druyan. Welcome, Sasha. 

SS: Thank you so much.

KJ: Your memoir is such a unique combination of memoir and world history and science and guidebook. How did the idea come about and how did it evolve along the way?

SS: I think part of it was this idea that deep down beneath all of our celebrations and all of our rituals and traditions around the world, there was this kernel of a natural phenomenon. The more I started reading about holidays and rituals around the world, the more I realized that the changing of the seasons, birth, coming of age, death — these are natural events, scientific things that we can study that we are all really honoring in our own ways across time and throughout history. And I think growing up in a household where science was such a source of not just information, but wonder and beauty and joy, those two things sort of came together really naturally.

And then I don’t know, with the memoir stuff,  I don’t feel like I sat down to be like, “Hmm, what can I share? What can I think of that goes with this?” It just sort of flowed naturally together. And I think what was really useful once these three components were sort of decided. I decided and, working with my editor on these three components, what was really helpful was then it was like, “okay, for each chapter, each example, we’re going to try to include all the elements.”

KJ: Got it. And I really love the title. I think it’s great. Can you tell us a little about where it came from? If Contact fans don’t already recognize?

It’s so scary to be tiny beings that live for the blink of an eye on an out-of-the-way planet, but we have each other and that makes it all okay.

SS: Yeah, absolutely. So, it’s called For Small Creatures Such as We and the rest of the quote is “for small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.” And that’s a line from Contact, which was the only work of fiction that my dad ever published, later turned into a movie that came out just months after he passed away. And as I write in the book, my parents collaborated on everything, and that line, that sentence is actually something that my mom wrote. They wrote together a lot and they created a lot of different things together. Television, books, essays, and I always saw them working together and this sentence, the single sort of idea, so perfectly crystallized for me the family ethos and the idea that we don’t know what’s out there in the whole wide universe. We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. There’s so much we can’t predict. It’s so scary to be tiny beings that live for the blink of an eye on an out-of-the-way planet, but we have each other and that makes it all okay.

KJ: I love that. And I love that you call it a family ethos because it seems like you share so much of your approach and your worldview with your parents, Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan.

SS: Yeah.

KJ: And so, what do you think have, I mean in briefly, I guess, what do you think their most important influences have been on you and is there anywhere that you do diverge?

SS: It’s such a good question. I don’t think philosophically I diverged at all. I mean, of course, I have had conflicts with my parents and disagreements and all those normal things. But in terms of the philosophy, I feel so lucky and I talk in the book about how I’ve never had occasion to rebel because they always welcomed any and all questioning. Of course, growing up you question what your parents teach you. But I’ve really come to just feel like what I can do is just honor what they taught me in so much of it is that science is an error-correcting mechanism. It’s not a set of facts to be memorized. It’s a way to understand the world and the universe more deeply.

And what we believe today may be disproved tomorrow and that’s okay. It’s great, actually, because it means we’re moving forward. Facts get maligned as cold and hard and we have this idea that things that are provable are not stirringly beautiful and don’t give us that joy and that thrill. And my parents really found a way to get the things that so often get associated with spirituality in the provable information that we have evidence for. And that for me is one of the most special things that I got from them.

KJ: That’s amazing. And I want to follow up on that, but before we get too deep into the content of your memoir, I want to talk to you about the audio elements because this is Audible and it’s so much a part of the experience for us. What was it like to narrate your own work? How did that go? Did you have any trepidation about it? Did you always know that you wanted to do it and tell us about the process?

SS: Well, I have, first of all, I should say that I am a huge, huge Audible consumer and I love, love, love listening to audiobooks. In the book I write about how a bunch of my parents’ work was released on audiobook around the time that I was pregnant with my daughter and I consumed all of these books of theirs that I had sort of been leaving in my future. You know,  I lost my dad when I was 14 and I had this idea that if I didn’t read all his work I could still look forward to a part of him. And there’s still a number of books of his and my parents’ books that I hadn’t read, but I had this really, really meaningful creative time where I was listening to their books and some of them, there are a few chapters that my dad had recorded in, must’ve been in the 1990s, that were used in these audiobooks.

So, I really feel a deep connection with the idea of listening to work. And so, when it first came up I was still writing the book at the time and was like, “Oh, the audiobook.” I [thought], “Well, I’m not an actress. Whoever they decide should narrate it is great. Far be it for me to insist.” And then as I was finishing the book and I [thought], “Hmm, there’s a lot in here about falling in love with my husband, giving birth to my daughter, and losing my dad” and would I feel weird if someone else was reading this? And as I was finishing the book, I was like, I would really like to read it myself. I was very grateful that I got that opportunity.

Of course, I was nervous because the way my own voice sounds in my head is so different than when you hear yourself on the answering machine. And I was like, “Oh dear. Which one is how it’s going to sound to everyone else?” But the experience of recording it was so much more emotional than I expected because, and not even at the parts that were really personal, but there were all these historical events that I refer to that I, in the moment of reading them out loud, I felt this element of emotion attached to them that I don’t know if I had even felt when I was writing it. So, it was a very powerful experience for me and I’m just really grateful to the director and the technician for being patient with me while I took breaks to just quickly wipe away a couple of tears, but it was so much more emotional than I would’ve guessed.

KJ: Wow. That’s incredible. And so interesting that because your book is very emotional and there’s certainly lots of sad and beautiful memories that you have of your father and other people that you’ve lost. And it’s, it’s kind of interesting that you had emotion talking about these like historical and different examples of things that happen in other cultures. That’s really interesting. So, you felt like it sort of changed your perspective with your work a little bit it sounds like.

…I’m secular, but the grandeur of the universe and our place in it is a source of a lot of the things that people have traditionally gotten from religion.

SS: Yeah. And just like, you know, these events, it’s so easy when we talk about history to sort of not see the people involved as human beings and it’s just like these battles or invasions that sort of happened in the abstract and there was something about reading it out loud that made me think. Just the way that I talk about my dad and as you mentioned, other people I’ve lost in the book, made me realize that these were people who, someone else thought and felt the same way about. And I don’t know, for some reason that really struck me in my little recording booth.

KJ: Yeah. Wow, that’s really cool. So, getting back to sort of the content of the book, I’m curious. How do you describe yourself spiritually? I know there’s a lot of different ways.

SS: Yes.

KJ: I don’t know if that’s important for you to label, but I’m curious what you typically would say.

SS: Well, I would say I’m secular because agnostic has this sort of connotation that you don’t care. And I really care. I spend all my time thinking about this and writing about this and reading about this question of where we are. But atheism has a connotation of militants. And for me, my perspective is for me to say I don’t believe in something is not to say I know for sure that it doesn’t exist, but rather that I withhold belief without evidence and so I would say I’m secular, but that the grandeur of the universe and our place in it is a source of a lot of the things that people have traditionally gotten from religion.

KJ: Right. And I noticed in the book you use words like “sacred” and “holy” to describe the sort of like natural phenomena. Why do you think that this sort of sense of awe is missing from most people’s understanding of the natural world and science?

SS: It’s such a good question. Yes, those words that come from religion or spirituality like “holiness” and something being “sacred” or even “magical” comes from the magi. All these religious connotations, but I think they apply here. Sometimes I think it’s a matter of delivery. Sometimes I think that the way we teach science in school, the way that children sort of get discouraged from the endless why, why, why questions that are the scientific exploration that sort of tends to take some of the beauty and joy out of it. And I just think one of the things that my parents gave the world beautifully was this idea that those things are as, if not more, worthy of awe.

And as you know, any other mythology or lore or traditions that we have around the world and they… Reality really is so astonishing when we sort of take a step back from it and it’s like when you know something all your life, like I don’t know that like the day and night are a product of the earth’s movement around the sun, you know, it’s so ordinary. But when you see a sunset and it’s so breathtaking and you think this is a product of an astronomical event it’s sort of a way to connect back to the power of it and how special it is.

KJ: Absolutely. And you talk a lot about rituals as well and part of this is kind of a guidebook to creating our own rituals. Why do you think this sort of ancient framework is so important for humans and especially when it comes to raising children? And how did you kind of come up with these rituals?

SS: Well, I think it’s like when you peel back the specifics and you realize that so often we’re celebrating the same things at the same time of year. You know, so many holidays fall around the winter solstice, around the spring equinox, and they’re so thematically connected even if there is a specific story that is explaining it in each culture. The idea of, for example in springtime, rebirth, renewal, coming back to life of everything. It comes so naturally to us. And I really believe that before any of us had any cultural or religious identity, the earliest people, we were all doing the same thing. We were all looking up at the night sky. We were all trying to understand and mark the changing the changes on earth because that was central to our survival.

And from there all sorts of rituals have grown and all sorts of holidays and celebrations and not just the cyclical changes on earth, but the changes over the course of a life: birth, coming of age, death. These are biological events and we all have ways of honoring them and marking them and I think there’s such a vast array of versions of this, but we’re all sort of doing the same thing. And if you’re devoutly religious than you have a way to process these changes and I don’t think my role is to convince anyone otherwise, but if you’re sort of secular or you don’t believe or part of it sort of works for you and part of it doesn’t, we still need to have weddings and funerals. And we still need to do something to cheer us up when the nights are really long and cold. Belief is not a requirement to mark time and to feel close with people you love.

KJ: Absolutely. Did you have any special family rituals that you shared growing up?

SS: Yes. Well, I mean I talk about in the book a little bit about blossom day and like so, in the spring, talking about springtime rituals, where I grew up in a secular Jewish home and we still have some of the Jewish traditions even though we sort of re-purpose to reflect more of our worldview. But we had a secular Passover Seder and even though we weren’t Christian my mother and I would decorate Easter eggs and it was just cause it’s about so much of a reflection of the natural world and it didn’t seem really theistic at all, especially to me as a child.

­­­­ And egg dyeing is actually, astonishingly, a widespread tradition around the world, but the other thing that we have that my mother created for me was this holiday called blossom day, which was when the dogwood tree that we could see from our dining room would bloom. We would have a tea party and it was like, you know, it removed any lore or mythology from the event, but it was so special. And it was just the idea that like spring is here, the days are getting longer, it’s going to get warm soon, the light is returning, and that in and of itself things are blossoming. That in and of itself was worthy of celebration. It didn’t necessarily require anything else.

KJ: I love that. I love blossom day. That’s amazing. I want to try something like that with my kids. What do you make of how the younger generation is fascinated by astrology and there’s always a lot of what other people would say [is] “pseudoscience” around. Do you think people are looking for other outlets for spirituality? Do you think that there are areas where people are looking outside religion?

SS: Yes. Yes, for sure. And it’s funny because it’s astrology, in particular. Yes, I definitely think it’s something that you find in the younger generation, but even in the 1980s when…I mean, there’s of episode of Cosmos, my parents’ show, where they talk about how every magazine has a column on astrology, but so few have anything about astronomy. But I think that a lot of that stuff like astrology, in particular, is really deep. Let me say, I don’t think that it’s scientific and I do not think that the month that you’re born dictates who you are as a person, but I think the reason people like it and the reason it is so popular is because people want to feel connected to the universe. They want to feel a sense of our place as an individual in the great wide vastness.

And sometimes people get that from religion and if they started to part ways with traditional religion this kind of stuff sort of fills that gap sometimes. And I just think there’s a third way. You know, millions of years of evolution made it possible for us to consume food and grow and when you make a little meal for your child and they eat it and they grow, this is a function of how life on earth is possible and all the different roads it could have gone a different way. But here we are, the creatures we are right now and I think there’s so much in that, that really can give you a sense of the beauty and importance of the universe in your life that doesn’t necessarily, you know, I’ll put it this way, that can be supported by evidence.

The idea that we live on a planet where we can breathe. We’ve evolved to this point and we breathe the air and we feel the sunlight from our nearest star and, you know, every day we are part of these huge ecosystems on earth and the astronomical system, the solar system that we live on, and it affects us and we feel can feel joy and pleasure from it. I don’t know. I think that there’s a lot in science that can give us that sense and maybe be a third way between religion on some of the stuff that’s sort of popular like astronomy. So, like astrology.

KJ: Yeah, I think that’s a good answer. So, your parents’ work is constantly finding new interpretations. Would you venture a guess as to what your dad might think about how the world has changed and where things are going?

SS: I think in terms of how the world has changed, I’ll put it this way, besides teaching astronomy and space sciences at Cornell, he also taught on undergraduate class on critical thinking. And I think so much of his message and what he loved about science and the pursuit of science was this idea that if something can’t stand up to scrutiny, if it can’t be questioned, then it cannot hold. And that only the things that can be supported by evidence and can withstand critical thinking and questioning are what’s really true. I think he was really worried that we were moving in a direction, specifically as a country, where our skills to discern reality from fiction were eroding.

And I don’t know. I think he would be very concerned about the state of the country right now as I think many, many people are. But paradoxically, I also think that maybe if he was here still, and we got to hear his perspective, maybe things would be a little bit better because he had so much to say. I read in the book about his and my mom together. They wrote an essay called Real Patriots Ask Questions and I would really encourage everyone to read that essay.

KJ: Great. In the memoir, you talk about how people are so bad at tolerating ambiguity and-

SS: Yes.

KJ: I think you refer to it there. It’s so interesting. But I also just wanted to ask, what do people ask you the most about your dad and what do you wish they asked instead?

SS: Oh, this is such an interesting question. Well, I’m really open to whatever people want to ask me. I don’t feel like it’s for me to say what they should ask instead. But one of the questions I get a lot is “Did he believe in aliens?” And talk about a tolerance for ambiguity. I mean my dad was really, really curious about extraterrestrials and if there’s life out there in the universe besides us, and again, it really touches back to sort of all this same philosophical thread that belief requires evidence. And he would say, I don’t know because I don’t have any evidence either way.

And people would say, “yeah, but what is your gut feeling?” And he would say, “well, I don’t”, I mean I’m paraphrasing, “but I don’t use my gut to make these decisions, to answer these questions. I use my brain.” And I think that there’s something, again, about tolerating ambiguity that he just didn’t know if there were extraterrestrials and we still don’t know and he didn’t get to find out, which I’m sure was really a huge, huge disappointment, but he would rather have real evidence to answer a question than go with what his hopes were. He’d rather really know than just believe for the sake of belief.

KJ: Right, right. And I love how in the book you compare babies to aliens.

SS: Yes. Yes. Which he had sort of compared fetuses to aliens and that is the connection that he had drawn at some point also. But I think that there’s just something about this idea that they arrive and everything’s different forever and we don’t know what they want and they’re tiny and they have big eyes and they don’t speak our language. And it’s like since we have never met any aliens, we’ve created this idea of what they’re like and I think it’s more about us and our relationship to our children than it’s about what’s actually out there in the universe.

KJ: That’s so interesting. Yeah. We don’t need them to come. We have these tiny little tyrants that change our whole world.

SS: Yes, exactly that lord over us.

KJ: Exactly.

SS: Yeah, exactly.

KJ: Oh, well Sasha, it’s such a lovely experience chatting with you and I think your memoir is going to find a lot of fans because there’s really nothing else like it out there and I think it’s just a great tribute to your dad and to your mom and we’re really excited about it.

SS: Thank you so much. I am so delighted I got to do this. I can’t tell you what a huge fan I am of your service. I use Audible every day. I really do.

KJ: That is great to hear. That’s awesome.

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