Most of the time, the world feels small. It’s the room you’re in. Familiar streets. Your neighborhood.
That’s the illusion though, right? Because we all know the world is … well, it’s really, really big.
You telescope out and it’s fucking big beyond all belief.
It’s a planet, a galaxy, a cosmos. You can’t even get it. Not really. The immensity of it is mostly abstract. Like when you look at a Hubble Space Telescope image that is mesmerizingly beautiful, but you don’t have any real understanding of what it is, not even after you read the description of it, which goes like this:
“The Crab Nebula, the result of a bright supernova explosion … is 6,500 light-years from Earth. At its center is a super-dense neutron star, rotating once every 33 milliseconds, shooting out rotating lighthouse-like beams of radio waves and light — a pulsar (the bright dot at image center). The nebula’s intricate shape is caused by a complex interplay of the pulsar, a fast-moving wind of particles coming from the pulsar, and material originally ejected by the supernova explosion and by the star itself before the explosion.” (https://hubblesite.org/image/4027/gallery/35-supernova-remnants)
I mean, if there’s a quiz you’re fucked. I am, anyway.
I’m a teensy-weensy living being with my teensy brain gazing at the indefinable, the unimaginable, the incomprehensible. Still, I reduce it all down to the Google pin I’ve plotted on the map where I am.
This is the truth to me. My spot on Earth. My field of vision.
Yet, I am the center of my world, as you are yours.
My life is a momentary flicker that will wink out and be utterly forgotten in a generation or two. I am destined to be a worn, faded photo in a dusty box someone will look at one day and say to themselves, “I don’t know who this is.” The photo, then, is a thing to be thrown away because it no longer fits a narrative anyone is living.
I am nothing. I am everything. This is the irony, the paradox of being mortal.
Seize it. Love it, every little bit of it, while you can.
Love yourself, your body and soul. Love your family, friends, and tribe. Love strangers if you can. They’re amazing, all of them. Just like you. A flicker in time, occupying a pinpoint in space.
Part of the whole.
Dropped onto the playground of life from the hands of God.
(The “God part” is something I believe, but I don’t mind if you believe that you and I are merely astonishing biological accidents and the universe is simply “one of those things that happens from time to time.” I respect that conclusion and raise a beer to the audacity of my belief and your non-belief.)
Your life. The best gift ever. Can we agree on that?
I grew up in a Christian church where there was a pretty significant emphasis on prayer. We prayed over everything: family meals, sick relatives, algebra tests, moral dilemmas … misplaced shoes. Seeking God’s blessing and help was an automatic response to the fraught drama of being human.
What did we think was going on in heaven? God was just lounging around, not sure what he ought to be paying attention to … then he heard us pray for Aunt Dorothy’s open-heart surgery to go well, so he sprang into action because we were so sincere? I mean, he was going to let her die, but since we prayed and all, God changed his mind and Dorothy came through with flying colors, going on to live another decade.
It would be pretty weird if God operated like that, arbitrarily intervening in human affairs: holding up airplanes through turbulence, guiding people home in blinding snowstorms, seeing to it that little Timmy survived brain cancer. Because the other side of that idea is that God is also allowing some planes to crash, letting some people freeze to death, and standing by while some children die of cancer.
Maybe I once believed something like that. I don’t anymore.
Yet I still pray. All the time, about all kinds of things.
My theology isn’t what it used to be. If you tried to pin me down about what I believe God is like, I’d struggle to sound coherent. Yet, I am a theist. And I don’t view God as an impersonal blob of energy.
I acknowledge that everything I believe may be wrong. It might just be the bullshit I tell myself so I can face life: this life that is full of wonder and terror, good and bad fortune, pleasure and pain, love and hate, joy and desperation and death. Maybe I’m not brave enough to handle all that without my “invisible friend.” I accept that possibility.
But my faith matters to me. God matters to me. Prayer matters to me.
So, when I pray for strength, for wisdom, for an extra dose of love and courage and faith to get me through something, or even for the welfare of others … what do I think God is doing in response?
I don’t know. It’s not my problem.
Everything is energy, right? We’re made of invisible spinning particles. We’re made of what the cosmos is made of. The universe made us. Our thoughts and emotions are energy. You can feel them move through you. When your heart breaks with love for someone who is suffering or in danger, that energy burns in you like an all-consuming fire. When you hope desperately on behalf of someone you love, that hope has weight and substance, it exists in the world as a measurable phenomenon.
My dear atheist friends, when you tell your loved one that you’ll be thinking of them while they’re having an operation … that’s your version of a prayer! When you wish someone “good luck” on their job interview or entrance exam … that’s you praying for them in your way. You are saying, “This is the intention of my heart for you. That you are well. That you are happy. That your life is good. That you find love and peace and purpose.” As an atheist, you see no divine agency moving in the background, still you are lobbing the energy of your positive intention into the universe, even if you believe at the end of the day that the universe is ultimately absolutely cold and indifferent to the desires of your heart.
Prayer is the energy of hope, lobbed into the universe.
Does prayer change how things turn out?
I don’t know. Maybe.
Prayer changes me. It alters my disposition. It softens me toward those I might perceive as enemies. Prayer reminds me that the sun is giving off light and warmth even when it is hidden behind clouds. It reminds me that I still feel the energy of love left behind by people who no longer walk among us. Prayer is the voice of human consciousness speaking to itself, connecting to a conscious universe that gave birth to mind and matter and love. Prayer (like faith) is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
Prayer is a weird thing. But, it’s a weird thing in a pretty damn weird and mysterious universe. Life, it seems to me, frequently calls for silly things like faith, hope, and love, to get us through the challenges of the human drama. That’s my story. And I’m sticking with it.
1979. Hard to believe it’s really been 40 years since we walked out of Elgin High School for the last time as students.
In that time, we’ve seen 7 presidencies. We’ve witnessed U.S. military involvement in Grenada, Libya, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq and other places. We endured the tragedy of 9-11 and its social/political aftermath. We made our way through The Great Recession.
The Walkman became the Discman which became the iPod which became your cell phone.
Lynyrd Skynyrd was reborn. Van Halen broke up—over and over. Lennon, Marley, Harrison, Stevie Ray, Prince and Petty died. (Somehow, Ozzy and Keith Richards are still alive!)
A whole lot of stuff happened in four decades. Good, bad, and in-between.
In the meantime, we lived our lives.
And here we are.
Sadly, some of our friends and classmates didn’t live to see this day.
We did. Lucky us.
40 years out seems like a good point at which to contemplate Our Lives So Far.
Maybe your life has been (and is) largely very good: good health, a strong marriage, happy and healthy kids, career success, personal happiness, and financial stability. Maybe, as Jack Nicholson once put it in one of his famous roles, your life has been mostly “boat rides and noodle soup.” I hope so. If that’s you, I’m genuinely happy for you. You have much to be grateful for, and much to feel a sense of personal pride about. Kudos and a serious high-five to you!
That describes some of us, certainly. But … probably not most of us.
Where do you and I fit on the “It’s A Wonderful Life” continuum?
Well, we’re closing in on our sixth decade of life. That’s enough time to have assured that most of us have gotten our asses kicked somewhere along the way. Probably more than once.
A divorce we hadn’t planned on. An illness that scared the hell out of us. A prodigal child (or two). Unexpected loss of security. Deaths of people we loved very much.
Some bad stuff happened because we made poor choices. Some bad stuff just plain happened, regardless of how sensible our choices may have been. Same with good stuff.
I don’t really have any interest in comparing houses or cars.
Maybe that’s because it’s a comparison I wouldn’t come out looking too spectacular in. I’m honest enough to admit that. I haven’t reached a point where I’ve transcended all ego-driven thinking. Not by a long shot. I’d kinda like showing up in a pearl-white Escalade with my supermodel girlfriend. But, I’d have to rent both of those!
Really, I don’t care about your car or your house. I mean, if they’re super awesome? That’s great. It really is. It doesn’t make me resent you. It’s totally cool. You should appreciate and celebrate those kinds of things, enjoy them for all their worth.
“Happiness is fleeting. Grab it like a firefly and never let it go.” I love this quote. It’s both beautiful and true.
40 years out of high school, we are everywhere on the Happy and Secure continuum: from “Thriving Ridiculously” to “Almost Not Making It.”
We are each of infinite value, we each hold infinite promise, regardless of where we are on that imaginary line.
Our lives are always in flux. Blessings and hardships come and go. And they will just keep doing that. Until we breathe our last breath.
This breath, the one you’re pulling into your lungs right now, that’s the one real, tangible thing you and I have. Learning to see each one as an incredibly profound, magnificent, and mysterious gift … that’s our primary duty to ourselves and those we love … whether we live in a mansion with our lovely family, or are temporarily crashing on our cousin’s couch wondering if anyone in our family of origin has thought of us today.
I’d love to make myself the hero of this story, but that would be dishonest.
I’m just like you. I got some stuff right. I got some stuff terribly wrong. I’m a mixed bag. I’m still figuring it out.
I am, however, incredibly grateful. I was given so much. I still have so much. I am super fortunate and blessed in a thousand ways and I won’t allow myself to forget it.
I want to be a better person tomorrow than I was today. I want to grow as a person, in every way I can. I want to be less selfish and more loving. I want to hoard less, and give more.
I look forward to seeing Elgin High School’s Class of 1979 this weekend. If we can be open, warm, and kind towards each other, wouldn’t that be a great 40th anniversary gift to both give and receive?
That’s all I got.
Oh yeah … if we’re very fortunate indeed, we’ll see each other in 2029!
The tyranny of the necessary has a way of gobbling up our one true (and most fleeting) possession: time.
For this reason, and others, I haven’t made travel a priority in my life.
I did, however, commit this year to get up and go adventuring, at least a few times, beyond the borders of Illinois (my home state).
Early in 2019, I flew with a friend to San Diego for a few days. We casually biked and strolled along the ocean shoreline, walked in an exotic garden, dined and drank a little, shared some laughs, and just hung out.
This summer, I drove to Minnesota to meet up with a group of church friends for some pretty serious cycling on gorgeous trails that had once been railroad tracks. We pedaled, coasted, chatted, laughed, shared, philosophized, and encountered some lovely pies.
Just yesterday, I returned home from a visit with a friend in Denver. We hit a bike trail in the mountains, went hiking at Red Rocks in Morrison, saw Bruce Hornsby at a beautiful outdoor music venue, and enjoyed deep conversation and warm companionship.
Each of these small adventures was a nice break from the well-defined rituals and necessary chores of my daily life. I got to see new places, have some fun, and enjoy the company of people I like and admire.
But there’s something else about these travels that make them unique among human experiences.
The movement itself, the traversing of distance … watching mile after mile of American topography pass by … brought some things into sharper focus for me.
I’m on a planet.
Duh, right? Of course, this is something we all know; but, when you’re mostly occupying such a very small and familiar patch of ground, it can start to feel like this is it. Like, my reality is this fifty-sqaure-mile zone. We make the mistake of sensing that the truth is what we can see.
Ah, but no. The truth is bigger. So much bigger.
Vast, stretching plains, forests and farmland, rolling hills, creeks, lakes, rivers, mountains … it’s all out there under the sun, visited by wind and rain, beautiful and alive, teeming with every variety of plant and animal life, humming and thriving. Whether we see it or not, it’s there.
Our home isn’t just the structure over our heads or the geography of our hometown.
We live in a state, in a country, on a continent, within a hemisphere, on a planet with a total surface area of about 197 million square miles.
You feel that just a little more when you actually see a stretch of 1,000 miles—one moving image at a time—in a single day. I’ve been reminded of my world’s glorious expanse, and that reality hums in my head now like a newly discovered favorite song.
Telescope out, and we see that we’re in a solar system that’s in a galaxy that’s in a universe … and we start to feel pretty small.
Yet, here we are. Living, conscious beings, uniquely equipped to take in and translate all this natural wonder through the astonishing gift of sensory perception. Lucky us.
Truth is big.
The other thing that came home to me as I zipped through all that territory, is the subtle reality of impermanence.
There I was, moving on a highway at 70-80 miles per hour, across a planet that is spinning (if you’re on the equator) at 1,000 mph, as it hurtles through space at 66,667 mph. So, every micro-second my position in the universe is … well, radically shifting. I’m virtually never in the same space for any kind of measurable time. Which is much like the present moment. It comes and goes at lightning speed, already fading away as soon as it arrives. This is the impermanence of time and space.
The gift we get is now. Right now. This very second is the only opportunity we have to live on this spinning sphere. It isn’t when the workday is over, or when the weekend gets here, or when our vacation arrives, or when we find love, or when we retire. It’s NOW. Always now. Always fleeting, and always a gift beyond comprehension. This breath. This heartbeat. This step. Seize it, squeeze it for all it’s worth, baby … ‘cause it’s whizzing by faster than the speed of light!
We can convince ourselves that this material world is solid, because that’s how we experience it. Your body, a table, the ground under your feet, mountains … you can touch them, push against them, and feel their substance. You forget they’re composed of invisible particles in constant motion. Every visible thing is made up of madly-spinning invisible things. Crazy.
Your body loses and gains atoms, all day, every day. Ninety-eight percent of the atoms in your body are replaced yearly. You are literally, materially, a new person, every year. It’s an invisible truth, but truth nonetheless.
This is impermanence.
I want it to remind me of the stunning miracle of being alive. The incomprehensible gift that belongs to me every time I draw a breath. I want to see that there are no mundane moments. They’re all amazing. I want to feel that there’s no such thing as a wasted breath. Each one is an unrepeatable and miraculous occurrence. It’s mine. And it’s yours.
So often we seem to be seeking comfort in what we think we can know about our world, looking for “facts” to shape our reality, as if this were where comfort and safety might be found.
As if what our intellects can grasp, were the truth.
Ah, but no. The truth is bigger. So much bigger. In the realm of human experience, accurate data are very useful; but meaning is what we crave, not some sort of list of ingredients of which material reality is composed.
What does impermanence tell us about what life means?
What matters? What’s critical and what’s trivia?
A question for us all to ponder as we make plans on a world that spins at 1,000 mph, as it hurls through space at 66,667 mph, no two micro-seconds alike.
NOTE: The following applies to most ordinary bullshit. HUGE bullshit, like a terminal disease, or a loved one who is suffering profoundly … these are struggles of a different magnitude. Our discussion here pertains to regular old human suffering, so much of which has to do with the ego and its endless needs.
And so …
1. TAKE INVENTORY OF ALL THE THINGS YOU SEE AS YOUR DEFICITS.
This includes all perceived body flaws, personality flaws, financial situation, living situation, relationship issues, perceived state of success/failure, moral/spiritual failures, past choices you see as regrettable.
Go ahead and make that list. The whole enchilada. Leave nothing out. Write it down, if you like. Or just make a mental list. I’ll wait.
2. NOW, IMAGINE YOU ENCOUNTER YOUR PERFECT PARTNER AND THEY ACCEPT AND LOVE YOU EVEN THOUGH THEY KNOW ALL THAT STUFF YOU JUST LISTED IN THE ABOVE INVENTORY.
Think of what that would do to you. What a colossal relief, right? You can stop pretending you have it all together. You can quit “putting on a happy face.” You’re done with all that bullshit. You can just be who you are, and you’re absolutely accepted and loved. Imagine how you’d carry yourself with this person: no fear, no worry, no self-consciousness. You’ve won the Inner Peace Lottery, right?
3. NOW, FORGET THAT PERSON. YOU CAN’T BE SURE YOU’LL FIND THEM. IF YOU ALREADY HAVE FOUND THEM, QUIT YOUR WHINING AND GO GIVE THEM A HUG. IF YOU HAVEN’T (ON SECOND THOUGHT, EVEN IF YOU HAVE), THERE IS SOMEONE ELSE YOU KNOW WHO CAN ACCEPT AND LOVE YOU JUST AS YOU ARE, DESPITE ALL YOUR PERCEIVED ISSUES/PROBLEMS. AND THEIR OPINION OF YOU IS FAR MORE IMPORTANT THAN THAT OF YOUR FANTASY LOVER/FRIEND/PARTNER.
That person, of course, is YOU.
Can you do it? Can you look at that list and say, “I accept and love myself just as I am in this moment?” If you can, then you’re off the hook you’ve placed yourself on! You’re free!
This doesn’t mean you don’t try to improve yourself. If you are bothered by some aspect (or aspects) of your life that you have the ability to affect? Go ahead and make plans for improvements. But don’t wait until you’ve accomplished your plans to approve of yourself. If you do, you’ve placed unnecessary emotional tension in your way. You are in conflict with what IS. That’s a surefire setup for unhappiness. ACCEPT what is, even as you engage in a plan to improve what you can.
Easier said than done? Yes, it is.
The truth, though, is that MOST people are holding a lot of things against themselves. Their lists look much like yours (and mine). Maybe the details vary, but the general idea is the same: “I am unacceptable and unlovable for these reasons.” And we carry this in the form of many thoughts that build up into one helluva destructive emotional snowball … we’ve given that fast-rolling sonofabitch SO MUCH power! The power to sabotage our happiness in the here and now, and on through the rest of our lives, right to our graves if we let it! LET’S NOT LET IT!
Unless and until you accept and love yourself unconditionally, radically … you will be stuck in a bad place, somewhere between mere discontent and full-on depression.
The power is yours, and yours alone. What will it take for you to LET GO of all that bullshit you’ve been holding against yourself? When will you get around to unlocking the chains you’ve put on your soul?
Examine each item on your list. Say each one OUT LOUD and say you accept it, as it is in this moment.
“I accept how my body looks and feels right now in this moment. I am letting go of the desire for my body to look and feel any different than it does right now in this moment.”
“I accept my job situation as it is right now in this moment. I am letting of the desire for it to be any different than it is right now in this moment.”
Remember, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look to drop a few pounds or get a new job. If you deem those things important, start mapping your strategy RIGHT NOW, even as you accept things as they are, right now, in this moment.
Do this with every item on that list.
And mean it. In your heart. This is not just an intellectual thing, not just an acknowledgement thing. Maybe it starts as that. But it MUST BECOME something you believe and feel to be true in your heart.
IF you can do this, then you are free from your bullshit, it no longer has to be an impediment to your present happiness or future growth.
Congratulations on the first day of the rest of your life.
Now. Full disclosure.
I believe everything I’ve just written. The ideas aren’t mine, they are very old ideas. I’ve laid them out in my own way, but they’re in a million self-help books, spiritual and non-spiritual.
I wrote them down this way FOR ME.
Because I hold so many things against myself. I’ve given these things COLOSSAL life-killing power over decades. And I still struggle with them. Every day.
I feel I’ve made important steps forward. I have begun with the acknowledgement of the truth that my holding on to these things has been, and clearly is still, sabotaging my happiness. I have spoken this struggle out loud to others I trust, even disclosed some of it to my entire church community in a video sermon. I am actively engaged in a process of radical self-acceptance, even as I recognize that I have far to go.
So, I’m still working on it.
I hope you are too. If so, tell me how.
And, if you’ve conquered it, if you’re surfing the waves of radical self-acceptance right now in your life? I bow to you and congratulate you! Tell me what has been the most helpful insight for you. Together, we can lift each other up.
I’m pretty sure that’s the highest thing we can do as humans.
What would you do if you spent an hour in an art gallery, found an exhibition of work that astounded you, moved you, made you laugh and cry and think so hard that you were exhausted and elated by the time you’d seen all the pieces … and a week later you found out that the artist was a chauvinist jerk, or a misogynist, or guilty of sexual harassment? Can you still admire the man’s work? Or has everything he’s done as an artist become so tainted that it’s no longer worthy of a spot in the gallery?
Can you still enjoy a Harvey Weinstein film? A Woody Allen film? The work of Dustin Hoffman? Kevin Spacey? Bill Cosby?
It’s weird, isn’t it? The curtain gets pulled back and people we may have thought highly of turn out to be assholes. Or worse. Maybe they’re assaulters. Rapists.
Still, there’s this body of work out there: movies we love, television shows we love, albums we love, books we love. Has it all become shit in light of the moral failures of these men (let’s face it, it’s mostly men doing the harassing)? Does it depend on how great the failure is? Is there a scale?
While I would never, never, never attempt to in ANY way excuse these moral failings/crimes, I think there are issues here worth exploring before we simply relegate all of these creative works to the entertainment trash bin of history.
It almost seems a given that men who are driven to seek fame have intense power issues. And once they achieve it, once the adulation starts to puff up their egos, rises them to “rock star” status, is it really a surprise that they abuse their celebrity? Especially if they start getting treated like little gods who can do no wrong. Power corrupts, as we know.
Even folks we might be tempted to valorize can fall mightily. Right, Bill Clinton? JFK? MLK? Here’s your power and … whoops, you abused it. Whaddaya know? It takes a strong man indeed to react with restraint, remain faithful to his wife, when he has scores of young, beautiful women falling at his feet. (In Weinstein’s case–and others’ who are guilty of assholery–they weren’t “falling at his feet,” but rather they were vulnerable in the shadow of his perceived power.) The onus of responsible, moral choice remains on the man, clearly, but I don’t think it’s a great shock that the area of sex and sexual attraction is an Achilles heel for most men. Kingdoms, literally, have fallen.
Was it a mistake for us to have supposed these beloved (by many) figures were particularly good, decent, moral men? It seems pretty safe to assume that a fair amount of the art we enjoy is being made by assholes of varying degrees … but, in many cases, we just don’t know it. No doubt, there are authors of great works of literature written long ago who we will never know were abusive jackoffs.
We now live in an age where it’s getting harder and harder to have secrets. Hell, ya can’t even run a stoplight at 3 a.m. without some damn camera taking your picture. Phones with cameras are everywhere. News spreads Twitter-fast. And, while men still have way too much institutional power, the voices of women are, more and more, being heard, respected, and believed. Men can’t just dismiss women as “hysterical” and get away with a wink and a nod. These are all good things (except the red-light cameras) for most of us, but not so good for men who believe they ought to be able to behave badly and never be held to account.
The #MeToo movement is a hopeful sign of our times.
We’re likely at a cultural turning point. More and more diversity (of race, gender, and sexual orientation) in our world means ever-more diversity in our businesses, politics, and art. Sexism, racism, homophobia, ageism … these ideas have been falling out of favor in the wider world for decades and this will probably only accelerate. The kinds of values and attitudes that helped “create” men who thought they could touch any woman or girl they wanted because of their status as an actor or director or artist or politician are ever-diminishing. This, too, is all to the good. As it should be.
But we still have the creative legacies of many fucked-up men; quite an archive of art made by assholes that’s unlikely to disappear in its entirety any time soon.
Films are not singular efforts. Weinstein may be an unforgivable monster, but if writers and actors and directors have made something memorable that happens to bear his name … do we refuse to watch it? Do we never watch “Rain Man,” or “Kramer vs Kramer,” or “The Graduate” again?
Tell me, where’s the line for you? How bad can a man behave and yet you are still able to admire the body of work he leaves behind? Is there a way in which you would feel comfortable separating the jerk from his work?
A Christian, a Buddhist, and an atheist walk into a church.
That may sound like the opening line to a joke, but it actually reflects the reality of what’s going on in my church on any given Sunday.
My church has no religious creed or doctrine, it holds up no deity or faith as “the one and only truth for all humanity.” Those who attend are welcome to bring along the deity of their choice, just as they are welcome to bring their atheism, agnosticism, etcetera.
My atheist friends and acquaintances are very sure about what they don’t believe. They absolutely do not believe in any kind of god or goddess or spirit creating things or watching over the affairs of humanity. They do not believe in an afterlife. None of that should be surprising, as that would be the very definition of an atheist, yes?
What may be surprising to some, though, is that these non-believing folks are not in the least bothered by the fact that many of their fellow congregants do believe in God, or a goddess, or any of a variety of spiritual notions. For these atheists, it doesn’t inspire scorn, anger, or mockery. They’re not just okay with the faith of their peers, they respect, appreciate, and celebrate it.
Weird, huh? But should it be?
Is there really any good reason that modern believers and non-believers should be adversaries? I would propose that what they have in common matters so much more than what they don’t.
Our desire to love and be loved, our mutual searches for survival, connection, purpose, well-being, happiness, security, and pleasure—put simply, our shared humanity—ought to unify us to an infinitely greater degree than our various philosophies, religious and non-religious, divide us.
First, let’s tell the truth.
We all know that a lot of horrifying shit has been done in the name of some God or other. Witch hunts, crusades, wars, jihad … lots of bloodshed in the name of someone’s God. So, let’s not deny that truth.
Let’s also acknowledge that horrifying shit has been done by folks who wanted to outlaw religion: Mussolini, Stalin, Mao. Now, it’s a stretch to say these men were seeking to “spread atheism,” but it is certain their intent was not forcing people to believe in any religion’s God.
When we boil it down, deep evil is usually done in the name of power and greed—religion or non-religion are simply window dressing. That’s the truth about that.
Here’s another truth: people can arrive at either benevolence or savagery through both religious thinking and atheistic thinking.
Here, for example, is a theology that leads to evil:
My God is the only truth and all other ways of seeing the world are not just wrong but an offense to my angry, jealous God.
Therefore, if you do not follow my God I will have to kill you to make the world a better place. It’s my sacred duty. If I can’t convert you, you must die.
And here is an atheistic philosophy leading to evil:
Humans are nothing more than smart apes. Love is an illusion brought on by chemical reactions. Morality is nothing more than a social construct. The survival of the most fit (or simply my personal gratification, regardless of the harm it may cause to others) should be the only appropriate guiding principle.
Therefore, if misusing or even exterminating a person or an entire group of people (Jews, Tutsis, the infirm, the mentally inferior), helps to ensure the survival (or gratification) of the superior person or group, it is not only permissible, but wise. Any other way is self-annihilating sentimentality.
Here is a theology that leads to love:
Life is from God, God is love, and all people are children of God.
Therefore, the highest thing I can do is love life and people.
And an atheism that leads to love:
We get just this one shot at life, which makes it a precious gift of immeasurable value.
Therefore, the highest thing I can do is love life and people.
I have to admit, when I read social media “pile ons” where atheists are bashing Christians for being ignorant, backward, hateful hypocrites … it makes me very sad. Not because there aren’t Christians who fit this description (there certainly are), but because it is such a narrow-minded, thoughtless approach that discounts the millions and millions of magnificent, loving, compassionate, intelligent, luminous beings that would call themselves Christians (or Catholics, or Muslims, or Buddhists, or Whatever Religious Persuasion).
It’s not religious people that suck. It’s people that suck, some religious and some not.
In the same way, there are people you’re very glad to have as friends, neighbors, and co-workers because they’re kind, thoughtful, smart, funny … some of them are religious, some are not.
Being a human being on planet Earth is hard. Even under the best of circumstances, this life is going to beat the shit out of you many times, make you physically ill, disappoint you, and break your heart. Inevitably, it will kill everyone you love and, unsurprisingly, it will kill you as well. If a large number of people need belief in God to get them through this life, are we really going to fault them for it? And what about the many millions on the planet who will only know poverty and suffering until the day the die. How inspiring do you imagine they find atheism?
When can we start being grown-ups? When will we learn to live and let live, to find respect for one another—regardless of philosophy—to be a core value?
It shouldn’t really be so hard, should it?
If you’re angered by intolerant religious people, are you helping your cause by being an intolerant atheist … or have you become the enemy through emulation?
Look, I have a kind of faith but I have no problem with those who don’t. In fact, I think they’re quite courageous. Because they are facing life and heartbreak and illness and death simply on their own inner strength! No “teddy bear” of faith to curl up with at night. I don’t envy them. I couldn’t do it. I have no wish to try. But I do admire them for living their convictions, truly. Not just saying that.
I would just like to see them not act like assholes. Of course, I’d also like to see religious people not act like assholes.
Can we just do that, people? Would that be so hard?
Peace and love to all (flavor to taste with the philosophy of your choice, brothers and sisters).
Last week, I heard a story on BBC News Hour that I wish I hadn’t. It was about a mass killing in a small village in Guatemala. The incident happened decades ago, though I don’t recall having heard about it before.
The newscaster—in his matter-of-fact tone, with his authoritative British accent—spoke of acts so brutal that I cried as I heard them described, moaned as if I’d been wounded. I had to choke away the visceral emotion because I was driving, but the story shook me up for some time afterward. The magnitude of the violence done to men, women, and children was/is just so incomprehensible. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could come to the place where they could do such unspeakable things.
I’ll give you the (abridged, edited) Wikipedia version. Warning: if you don’t know this story, prepare to be disturbed … don’t read it if you are hyper-sensitive to the suffering of others.
On the 6th of December 1982, during the de facto presidency of General Efraín Ríos Montt, around 250 people – including women, the elderly, and children – were killed in Dos Erres by commandos working as government forces as a part of the government’s “scorched earth” policy.
In the early afternoon, the Kaibiles separated out the children, and began killing them. They bashed the smallest children’s heads against walls and trees, and killed the older ones with sledgehammer blows to the head. Their bodies were dumped in a well. Next, the commandos interrogated the men and women one by one, then shot or bashed them with the hammer, and dumped them in the well. They raped women and girls, and ripped the fetuses out of pregnant women. The massacre continued throughout 7 December. On the morning of 8 December, as the Kaibiles were preparing to leave, another 15 persons, among them children, arrived in the hamlet. With the well already full, they took the newcomers to a location half an hour away, then shot all but two of them. They kept two teenage girls for the next few days, raping them repeatedly and finally strangling them.
This is such a heart-wrenching story. It’s crushingly sad. I could hear the weeping and the screaming and the pleading of the villagers (especially the children) as they witnessed these horrors and begged not to be killed. Yet the hammer blows were delivered, the bodies mauled, the corpses tossed in the well. One after another, as if they were no more than garbage. The “how could any human being do this to other human beings” question kept gnawing at me as I tried to get those heinous images and (imagined) sounds out of my mind.
Fear, I suppose is the only answer that makes any sense (truthfully, the reality of this incident makes no rational sense, but it happened so I suppose we are forced to analyze it, try to understand it). One assumes this General Montt was a man to be feared. One assumes it was made clear to the soldiers that if they didn’t exterminate everyone they would be killed, maybe their families too. Did they have to use sledgehammers? (As a matter of degree, shooting seems like it would have been a more “humane” style of execution, though still abominable.) Perhaps even the raping was part of the “scorched earth” policy. Or did the soldiers just do that because they could? No one could stop them. No one was going to survive to give testimony.
Of course, as appalling as this incident is, it pales in comparison (in terms of magnitude) to the Rwandan genocide, or the atrocities committed by Europeans against Native Americans, or the systematic extermination of Jews during the holocaust, or the American enslavement of Africans.
How can people do such things to other people?
One of the steps that leads to genocide is the reduction of “the other” to less-than-human status. Give them a name that robs them of humanity: cockroach (against the Tutsi), savage or redskin (against Native Americans), Untermensch or “subhuman” (against Jews), n-word (against enslaved Africans). In Mein Kampf, Hitler called jews “parasites,” he said, “The Jew is a planetary bacillus.”
It’s easier to mistreat or kill a cockroach than a person.
On being “named,” author Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “And I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do.”[i]
Mass killings happen for different reasons in different social and historical contexts but, at the bottom of them all—aside from simple, good-old-fashioned bigotry—is a drive to gain or preserve dominance over land and resources. In other words, it’s about power.
Are you a Hutu who doesn’t want to share political power or scarce resources and economic opportunity with your Tutsi neighbors? All you have to do is slaughter them (800,000 slain in 100 days), so you won’t have to.
Don’t want to share the land with the native population when your ships arrive at their shores? After they’re nearly wiped-out by the diseases you brought with you, you can see to it that the rest are eliminated or neutered as a threat through murder and dislocation. Then you can relegate them to a tiny spot of their own land and think of it is a kindness. Over the course of 500 years, you will have reduced their population from 10 million to 300,000.
Think that Jewish people are pretty much the reason for every bad thing happening in your country and the world? Set up an assembly line of mass murder. You can kill 11 million in a few years’ time if you really try.
Are you a European settler needing to get some back-breaking work done, but you don’t want to do it yourself? Go get yourself millions of black bodies from across the ocean. Beat them, rape and murder them into submission. Keep this going for 250 years, so you can build your so-called Democracy. The UN estimates 17 million of those black bodies died over that time period as a result of the slave trade.
We read these statistics and they boggle the mind. So many dead. So many murdered. In the end, it boils down to the seizing of power through dehumanization, subjugation, terrorizing, and murder of “the other.” Make them an object of fear, of disgust. Make them an obstacle to dominance. Pave your road to progress with their blood and bones.
With Dos Erres, Rwanda, the mass-elimination of Native Americans, the holocaust, and American slavery, we see varied combinations of violent bigotry according to skin tone: brown on brown, black on black, white on red, white on white, and white on black. This is human evil, the powerful oppressing the weak.
Examples of “man’s inhumanity to man” are far from limited to these. There are so many more. It’s hard to think about the harsh realities of all the violence in human history. Genghis Khan, Mao Tse Tung, Stalin, Idi Amin, the Khmer Rouge … all played their part. As did ordinary people who helped by carrying out orders or voluntarily aiding in the oppression and murder authorized by those in power.
Violence against, and oppression of, certain classifications of people is not limited to “long ago and far away.” Police brutality against African Americans is still happening. Institutionalized racism is still happening. Read the news. All across our country, and around the world, there are oppressed people groups. Nor is discrimination limited to the sphere of race. We discriminate against women, Muslims, albinos, the differently-gendered, homosexuals, those with disabilities … the list goes on and on.
How can we stop these injustices?
It seems like it ought to be so simple. The answers could be written on a message in a fortune cookie or on a postcard.
We’re all the same race: the human race. All of us have the same, intrinsic worth. All should be treated the same, given the same opportunity for education and economic success. Martin Luther King said it: judge people “not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.” Jesus said it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s not hard to articulate the answers, but it is hard to implement them. It’s hard to give up privilege and power.
It comes down to the human heart. Mine. Yours.
Can we see our own prejudices? Can we see how we contribute to racism by denying it, ignoring it, minimizing it?
I’m speaking to myself. I’m speaking to my white* friends, family, neighbors, and countrymen.
I have to wake up. We have to wake up, recognize the indelible and cruel injury we have done to our brothers and sisters of a darker hue. See that we have not sought to understand or empathize with those with different sexual orientation. Admit it. Out loud. Ask forgiveness. Extend a hand. Be part of a movement that insists we are all the same, a movement that seizes the mechanisms of established power and ultimately, permanently, bends the arc of our future moral universe toward justice. A justice that truly applies to all.
These are starting places. This is the easy stuff. But if you let the reading change how you think and feel, even just a little, then you can say the journey forward has begun.
I’m still in these first steps. And I was moved to write this. This is my beginning.
*There is no white race. There are light-skinned people of many ethnic backgrounds. Whitness is a construct we have used to empower a majority based on an artificial unity relating to shared skin tone. This seems so obvious, yet it took Ta-Nehisi Coates to make me see it clearly.
[i] Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me (Kindle Locations 1280-1282). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
(Please don’t judge my intent before you’ve read the whole essay. And know that I welcome “enlightened guidance,” correction, and exposure to knowledge I do not currently possess. Thanks.)
Imagine you are beaten senseless and robbed by someone of your own race. The perpetrator is a junkie in need of a fix, and you’ve just cashed your two-week paycheck. The thief empties your wallet of cash, leaving you bloody and unconscious, sprawled in a dirty alleyway.
Now imagine the same beating by someone of a different race. This person does not steal from you, but spews hateful, racially-charged language during the beating.
In the first case, the crimes committed are assault and robbery. In the second case, we are looking at an assault that would likely also be categorized as a hate crime.
Once apprehended and convicted, should the bad guy in the second scenario receive a harsher sentence because he hates you? Is the assault-plus-hatred somehow a worse crime than the assault with the intent to rob? Here’s another ethics questions for you: Which crime would you rather be a victim of, the one where you’re robbed but not hated or the one where you’re hated but not robbed (the beating is the same either way)?
To the point: should we punish criminals for what they do or for what motivates them to do what they do?
You see, Johnny Skinhead can sit in his moldy, darkly-lit basement his entire lifetime, surrounded by neo-Nazi posters, slogans, and literature—his grayish little white-supremacist heart beating with savage hatred for all Jews, gays and non-white people—but if he never harms anyone, never vandalizes someone’s property, never commits a crime … we can’t arrest him. The FBI acknowledges that hate itself isn’t a crime, but should it be a reason to escalate punishment when it is associated with the commission of a prosecutable offense? Is that logical, is it reasonable?
Please, please, do not get me wrong here. I’m not pro-hate. Hate sucks. It’s ugly and it does unforgivable, despicable things to (and in) the hearts and lives of people all over the world, every single day. If I could abolish hate with a nice, shiny piece of legislation, I’d do it in a heartbeat.
Hatred, however, is a slippery devil. It doesn’t care much for rules. More worrisome still, it doesn’t only belong to “those horrible people” we imagine when we think of those who commit hate crimes.
Nope. We all hate sometimes, don’t we? Even if only for a moment.
Surely, we’re tempted to hate “Jihadi John,” the masked ISIS operator who beheaded multiple non-combatants (many of his brutal executions were posted on the Internet). It wouldn’t be hard to hate 22 year-old Dylann Roof, who callously murdered nine African American churchgoers while pretending to join them in a Bible study. Wouldn’t we be justified in hating Omar Mateen for his ruthless massacre of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Florida?
Let’s admit it. We have sometimes been guilty of hating the haters.
We have maybe even hated our exes, our bosses, our neighbors, cops, priests, or politicians.
Should we turn ourselves in at the local police station, confess our hatred and await sentence? Luckily, we’ve already established that hate alone is not a crime. But, wait. Isn’t it a little contradictory to say hate isn’t a crime but it is a reason to increase the severity of the penalty for the commission of a crime?
I think I get the idea of hate crime legislation. Handing out harsher penalties to those whose crimes are an “offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity” might help discourage people from committing such crimes.
Okay. Maybe. I’d like to see the stats. Regardless, as a matter of principle, are we not, in fact, punishing hate? You know, that thing the FBI told us wasn’t a crime.
Let’s consider something else. Jihadi John, Dylann Roof, and Omar Mateen didn’t emerge from the womb consumed with hatred and a desire to do harm to infidels, black people, or gay people. These criminals were infected with the hateful biases of their families and/or peers. In a way, each of them is a victim of a mindset passed on from generation to generation.
People who commit hate crimes were taught to hate. This fact in no way excuses their behavior or means they shouldn’t face justice. But it does mean, in my opinion, that the helpful (ethical, empathetic, compassionate) reaction here probably isn’t to up their sentences.
Punish them according to what they’ve done. The three I have mentioned? They are serial murderers. Punish them accordingly. Life in prison or the death penalty works in each of these cases. Punish hating vandals for vandalism, hating assaulters for assault, and so on. Prosecute them to the full extent of the law … for what they’ve done.
In addition, necessitate their enrollment in some de-programming classes. Re-educate them. Expose them to loving, intelligent, kind, merciful people who are in the ethnic or religious groups they despise. Find the root of the hate. Expose the fallacies of the philosophies they’ve been fed their whole lives. Chip away at the hate with education and love. Mostly love.
 Jihadi John is believed to have been killed in a targeted drone strike. Dylann Roof has been sentenced to death. Omar Mateen was killed in a shootout with police on the day of his murderous rampage.
Nature is amazing. The stars. Animal life. Microscopic life. Forests. Oceans.
Science has done astonishing things with its ability to deconstruct nature, explain it to laymen (sometimes in terms we mostly understand).
Science is useful when its analyses lead to good medicine and a more thoughtful approach to the use of natural resources.
But science is forever USELESS when it comes to the things that we yearn to know. Most of what truly matters to people in life remains entirely outside the domain of its relevance: love, friendship, the “high” we experience in an encounter with literature or film or music or any kind of art that moves us, the transcendent sense of awe we feel before nature, the search for purpose.
Such pursuits are not the job of science, never have been. When we try to make science a God, we have made a horrifying error bound to result in things like sterilizing races we deem as inferior or using unwitting people in tests without any thought to the morality of doing so.
Yes, the USE of science can accomplish great moral good too. Feed more people. Teach us how to live sustainably. But scientific principles, when applied, are only as “good” as the souls of the people behind their application.
The same is true of religion. Its application is only as good as the hearts of its leaders and adherents. Religion can spread brotherly love or divisive rhetoric. It can elevate us or turn us into groveling idiots.
People can be beautiful and noble. Sadly, they can also be really fucking dangerous. Power in the hands of people is the most dangerous thing of all. In the guise of religion or atheistic totalitarianism or socialism or communism or democracy … humans having power over other humans is the great bugaboo of all suffering and tragedy.
And this boils down to intent. Do those in power want to minister to the people or manipulate them? Do they want to serve them or make them subservient?
These are moral questions, not scientific ones.
So, thank you science … for heart transplants and AIDS treatments and flat screen TVs.
Thank you religion … for prayer that brings connection to the sacred, for the dissemination of ideas that lead us to give to others, to love mercy and to seek justice and peace.
Just watch your hearts, atheists and theists and agnostics. This is where all future hope will come from. This is where our doom will come from.
Consider well what manner of thought and belief you deposit and nurture therein.