Live Long and Prosper
The late 1960s: a war in Vietnam, the red menace, the Berlin Wall, the brink of nuclear catastrophe. Into all this turbulence came Star Trek, an optimistic vision of the future - tomorrow will be better, kinder, meritocratic, in a way unimaginable in the segregated world of America’s 1960s. It showed a racial diversity which had never been seen on the screen before, and apparently they only got away with it because it did not depict the day, but the world of tomorrow, the 23rd Century. The characters were representative of our world working together in mutual collaboration. There were characters depicted from Japan, from Africa, from Russia, and of course the best character of all, Spock, half human and half Vulcan. Composed, logical, pointed ears. All these characters, but Spock in particular, were the outsiders. We all feel like outsiders to some degree, and in them we could identify with the inner struggles of identity, and yet a willingness to overcome, a desire to come together for a common cause.
What unfolded on the screen was love, war, nature, God, sex - all the things which make up the human condition, in effect moral plays critiquing very real and contemporary concerns in a fantasy world. Really this is what Sci-fi at its best is always doing, using the fantastical language of aliens, and the unknown, to talk about today’s very real concerns, those fundamental concerns of the human condition. And that is not unlike religion or theology. Again a fantastical language to help us comprehend, and explore what this life is.
At this moment, with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus’ circle of compassion expands. You can take it from the Gospels that Jesus’ initial messianic mission was solely for the people of Israel. But the message that the Kingdom of Heaven had come to earth, of an eternal life welling up in the present, that we might have life and have it to the full, in the course of Jesus’ ministry seems to broaden – to encompass more and more people. You can imagine this movement, the expanding conscience. Bless us, bless us, bless us, and them, bless them too… It’s very easy to get wrapped up in our own concerns, to operate with a default insular logic. To be presented with another way, another vision of the way things can be - not just the Jews, but the Gentiles too - can suddenly cast present concerns in a very different light.
I came across this second reading, ‘Desiderata’ by Max Ehrmann written in 1927, from Spock himself, who was portrayed by Leonard Nimoy. He spoke of the meaning it had for him. This poem reminded me of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ poem. Both are like parables of advice from the elder to the junior. They both relate to last week’s theme of Wisdom, cultivating right relationships with yourself and with those around you. Be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly. This sense of steadfast wisdom is what defines Spock. A wisdom not clouded by irrational beliefs, or uncontrolled emotions, but motivated by curiosity, and scientific discovery.
The funniest dimension of Star Trek was the relationship which developed between Spock and the doctor, Bones. They were both extremes of personality. Bones was led completely by his emotions, his emotional reaction was the bottom line, and Spock on the other hand was capable of detaching himself and being objective. Leonard Nimoy spoke at length in interviews about the character of Spock he portrayed, and the extent to which his own character was shaped by playing Spock. There is quite an interesting lesson in this. You’re probably all familiar with the saying ‘Fake it ‘till you make it’ – somehow this act of putting on a character, deciding to step out from our natural approach and come at things differently, in time actually gets under our skin and shapes us at a deep level. This saying, ‘Fake it ‘till you make it’, is often associated with groups like Alcoholic Anonymous. When faced with the enormous uphill battle of changing your habitual nature, you just kid yourself, and ultimately it sticks. From Spock’s debut in 1966, the character evolved and developed as the writers and Leonard Nimoy worked on him, his backstory, and his alien race, the Vulcans: their history, and their customs. A question which arose early on was how Vulcans should greet one another, and Leonard Nimoy chose the now famous greeting: Live Long and Prosper.
The origins of this gesture are quite interesting. Leonard grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. His parents were immigrants from Ukraine, and Orthodox Jews. He remembers when he was a boy attending the synagogue and watching the priest perform a rite of blessing. Holding up their hands like this… this created the Hebrew letter Shin, which looks similar to our letter ‘W’. Shin is the first letter of some important Hebrew words, like Shalom, the word for greeting and peace, and it’s the first letter for the word Shaddai, one of the names of God. This prayer of blessing over a congregation symbolized the light of the Lord shining in, through the hands, and upon the people of God. To the young Leonard that prayer seemed magical, and he never forgot it, practicing the hand gesture when he was a boy. And then all those years later, he suggested it as the greeting of the Vulcans: Live Long and Prosper.
Spock, being half-human and half-Vulcan, often struggled with his identity. He struggled to comprehend human concepts, most notably friendship. In one of the films Captain Jim Kirk risks a great deal to save Spock. ‘Why risk so much for friendship?’ Spock asks, ‘Why would you do this?’ Kirk responds, ‘because the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many’. Spock pauses, contemplating this idea. It is irrational, but human. Then he responds, ‘I have been, and ever shall be, your friend’.
I started this morning talking about identity, feeling like the outsider. Perhaps Leonard Nimoy could portray that so well in Spock because he felt it himself. Being of Ukrainian immigrant parents, like the outsider, he always felt a profound pressure to become a doctor or an engineer, to make the most of the ‘American dream’. His parents did not support frivolous pursuits like acting. So with that feeling of being unrooted somehow, a sense of being in the wrong place, so unrooted you are literally out in space, you together with your crew furrow a new way, a way that lay outside of the expectations. Together they would explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one had gone before.