There are moments in life and the world that change everything. For my grandparents’ generation it was Pearl Harbor; my parents’, the moon landing; for my generation and younger, 9/11; and in Star Trek’s future, a pair of First Contact Days. How we respond to these moments, how we let them affect us, is what defines them and us. They can cause near global unity and bring out the best in humanity. They, of course, can also bring out the worst in us. One thing is certain, however: we never forget them and are never the same after them.
Following Pearl Harbor, the lunar landing, and 9/11, many of us watched unity form on the macro level. Partisanship was set aside, and patriotic unity was not only an ideal but actually felt across the United States. That also may have been the case for many, but ask your Muslim neighbor how they felt and were treated following 9/11. Listen to George Takei discuss the horrors his family faced following Pearl Harbor, a recurrence of which he has spent a lifetime striving to prevent. Check in on your Asian-American neighbors now, as America faces down the Coronavirus.
As with so many things, the morality plays presented in Star Trek are guiding lights. The original First Contact Day, April 5, 2063, featured such a moment as the human race knowingly encountered a species from another world, the Vulcans. In the aftermath of World War III, this initial encounter with a new civilization changed the course of the world. It bred positive global unity and humanity took its first real steps forward toward its destined utopia.
Zephram Cochrane, the inventor of a warp drive that caught the attention of the Vulcans and drew them to Earth, allowed this unforgettable moment to affect him personally, too. Though we met him as a greedier, more selfish version of a man, experiencing first contact caused a complete change in who he was and would become: someone far more noble and great in the eyes of history.
(At least his Prime-Universe version. His Mirror Universe counterpart had the opposite reaction. Mirror-Cochrane didn’t let first contact with the Vulcans change him, and instead murdered them on sight.)
Fast forward 322 years to another First Contact Day. This one was quite different. An army of synthetic lifeforms attacked Mars, killing thousands and shutting down Starfleet’s Utopia Planitia Shipyard. Unlike that first First Contact Day three centuries earlier, humanity took steps backward, not forward, shutting down all synthetic life and related research and suddenly ending its humanitarian rescue mission of the Romulan Empire. There was unity, sure, but it was the wrong kind.
It affected Jean-Luc Picard on the individual level. Devastated, Picard withdrew. He was no longer the heroic Captain the galaxy had known. Until, of course, he encountered Dahj.
These moments of first contact that change us are not only mass global events. There are millions of such moments happening in the individual lives of people every day. Though not widely known, for them they are just as world-changing, just as life-altering. When my father passed away in his sleep due to an undiagnosed heart issue in 2015, I had one of those moments.
In the initial days that followed, my world was turned upside down. I felt great anxiety and uncertainty that compounded my grief. My world had seemingly collapsed in an instant. Those next steps we’d hoped to plan disappeared in front of us. I had no idea what would come next. However, in the midst of this, my siblings and I found unity. We grew closer. Each of us grieved in our own way, but on the mini-macro level of our family, in this moment of first contact, we were united.
Personally, my dad’s death changed me in ways I’m still trying to fully internalize. My dad’s mantra was always “Life is good.” Despite the many challenges of his life, he remained optimistic. I’ve often landed on the more cynical side of things. But over the last five years, I’ve allowed my dad’s “Life is good” outlook to adjust my perspective. And my dad was always there to help a neighborn— fixing cars, repairing roofs, and even driving a friend across the country to bury his son. I’ve tried to emulate that too, albeit far from perfectly, reaching out to friends and neighbors in times of trial and crisis. These are small things, to be sure. To me, however, they are world changing.
We are currently in the middle of a universal First Contact Day moment as the entire world fights COVID-19. No one knows what societal changes this global pandemic will bring. In the middle of the event, it can be hard to see the unity and positive outcomes on the macro-level. We know the world won’t be the same once we’ve “flattened the curve.” Meanwhile, millions of individual First Contact Day moments continue unabated, with similar uncertainty, some related to the pandemic, others not.
But, while we wait, we can each endeavor to allow these times to affect us positively. It takes honest self-reflection. It takes the rejection of prejudices like racism. It takes humility to self-isolate to protect the vulnerable. It takes discipline to buy only the groceries you need. It takes courage to stand on the frontlines in the medical and service industries. It takes love to reach out—perhaps not physically right now, but emotionally, mentally, and even financially where possible—to friends and neighbors who are struggling with the chaos of this world and in their own lives. Change is hard. But we can do it. We can be better because of this. We can help each other. We must.
The pandemic may not be humanity’s first contact with Vulcans, but neither is it the attack on Mars. However, for millions of individuals, it is a personal and devastatingly cataclysmic event. As individuals united as a human family, we can grow together, lift each other, save each other, and take a few collective steps closer toward achieving Star Trek’s promised future.
"The much-maligned common man and common woman has an enormous hunger for brotherhood. They are ready for the twenty-third century now, and they are light-years ahead of their petty governments and their visionless leaders." – Gene Roddenberry
Jake Black (he/him) is a writer whose credits include Star Trek: Starfleet Logbook, Star Trek Magazine, and works for DC Comics, Marvel, WWE, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Supergirl, and many more. A ten-year cancer survivor, he lives in a quiet Connecticut town with his wife, son, and twin daughters. Found online @jakeboyslim.