Thursday, March 29, 2012

Something positive

Recently I've been challenged. I've been challenged to not just talk about what I'm against, or what I don't believe, or what I'm angry about, but to talk about and present things that I'm about, positive things. What do I value, in other words? So, ok, that sounds like something I can get behind doing. But before I do that, a little defense of talking about things we're against, and don't believe.

It is not always possible, or even a good idea, to avoid discussing what we're against, or don't believe. If I support universal health care as a secular humanist, then I have to respond to those who do not support it. I have to say why I don't believe that the free market will lead to everyone getting the health care they need, and why I'm against extreme libertarian viewpoints as they relate to health care. If I believe that we should follow the evidence in forming our beliefs, and I live in a world that overwhelmingly is filled with people who think it's ok to believe things, important things, without evidence to back it up (or even against evidence, in the worst cases), then I need to speak against the latter. It is not enough to simply speak for the former if I want to make the case, but rather I must say why the latter is wrong.

But anyway, moving on to the good stuff.

I'm a secular humanist. I seek to live in a society in which no one is coerced into following the creeds and practices of any religion, and in which no one's ability to follow their religion is suppressed. This protects everyone's rights: mine, yours, and that crazy guy on the corner with a megaphone.

I'm looking to be in a society that supports and encourages reason, critical thinking, logic, and the scientific method. The power of reason and science is impossible to deny. Just look around at the marvels that have been the result of men and women studying the world around us, and applying what they learn! Heart transplants, cancer treatments, the eradication of smallpox, deaf people gaining hearing, amputees walking again with artificial legs, and that's just the medicine! You're reading this on a technological marvel that is running multiple algorithms in the background in order to coordinate the colors, the layout, the music you might be playing at the same time, the antivirus software that you have running in the background, and so much more. With programs like Skype, we can communicate face to face with people who are on another continent. And if we ever wanted to get together in person, we can take a plane and cross oceans in less than 24 hours. As a species, we know more than we ever thought there was to know about the universe, about other stars and galaxies and worlds. We know so much as humanity, that no one person could ever hope to learn more than a small fraction of our accumulated knowledge. All because of reason, critical thinking, logic, and science.

I have hope. I know there are many reasons that I have to be cynical, untrusting, and angry. But I also see people who work hard to make a world in which those reasons will be minimized, and that gives me hope. When I write about the things that I'm against, and that I don't believe, it is because of my hope that I do so, and not because of my anger. I have hope that those writings, and the actions and writings of others, will move us toward a brighter world. Science continues to advance our knowledge, and as such I have hope that the children of the world will have longer, healthier, and better lives than my generation, and the generations that have come before me. I do not know or believe that any of these things will happen, I have no faith in the future, but I most assuredly have hope.

I have meaning in my life. That meaning comes from sharing my thoughts with others, with discussing and debating the things we agree and disagree on. It comes from the work I do with the disabled in my job. It comes from sharing and building a home with my wonderful wife. It comes from my friends, who are the family I choose. It comes from listening to Greydon Square rap about moving forward and Onward, despite any resistance offered. It comes from Tim Minchin singing about sipping White Wine in the Sun at Christmas with his family. It comes from staying up late to write posts like these, or comment on posts at other blogs.

I seek to be an ethical, moral person. I analyze, I judge, I put myself in other's shoes, all so that I can come to a better understanding of what it means to be ethical, of how to be moral. I care about humanity, and I care about us being better than we've been, better than we are. I believe we must strive for the equal treatment and dignity of all of us. I feel compassion, but seek a world in which compassion is not frequently felt, not because we're all unfeeling assholes, but because the reasons for the compassion have been eliminated. I believe in restraining compassion in favor of respect and dignity, or as the late Christopher Hitchens said "Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others." (Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001))

I have laughter, joy, and love. Few can make me laugh like my wife, who herself laughs often and loud. Little can compare to the pleasure, even the joy, of making her laugh myself. There is joy in visiting my best man and his daughter, my niece. He provides great discussions, cooks an awesome steak, his wife is fun to have around, and his daughter calls me "Uncle Nathan." If you're lucky, you know exactly how awesome it is to hear something like that from a toddler's mouth. That I can bring a huge smile to her face just by walking through the door has been the highlight of many a weekend.

I love stories, especially fantasy. My first rule for a good novel is that the story must be good, regardless of any theme, or even no theme. But if the author manages also to make me think, then that is awesome. I value fantasy not just because dragons are cool, but because it provides a rich medium in which to explore humanity, what it is to be human, how we might relate to each other in extreme circumstances. Fantasy and science fiction stories can be thought of as opportunities to engage in massive thought experiments. How could a society full of amoral, selfish individuals survive and function, if at all? What of a society that sought true harmony with nature? What might it mean to be immortal? Does the method of immortality matter to that question? What happens when certain individuals have power so far beyond normal people as to be almost godlike? And so on, and so forth. But also, dragons and sword fights are just plain cool.

I have not always had a good life. I have been told that the place I thought was becoming a home, would no longer be making me welcome. I have been bullied, shoved, and cruelly teased. I have had to sit back and take it while my family was abused for eight long years, because I was a child, and powerless. I have had times when I was terrified of my anger, and then discovered that I had no idea who I was without that anger when the reason for the anger was shown to be a mistake on my part, and not a cruelty on someone else's part, as I had believed. It took me years to build an identity that was not based in anger (and no matter how often I post something with anger in it, anger is not central to my identity). I have held the knife to my wrist after signing the note. I have swallowed the pills with a chaser of alcohol. I've had a relationship in which I spent months just fighting and having sex. So not healthy. I've wandered the streets at night before, looking for a place I could lay my sleeping bag that would not be discovered by the cops, because I had nowhere to go. I've sneaked onto corporate property and slipped into the back of semi-trailers that were clearly going nowhere, just to sleep. I've sneaked into the garage behind an apartment building, and out at the crack of dawn, ever fearful that someone from the building would see me, and report me, and I would lose my shelter. I've had to clean my pants because I could not find an open, public bathroom fast enough. Being homeless sucks. There are many, many, many people who have had it worse than me, who continue to have it worse than I ever had. I survived. Many have not, many do not, and many will not. I grew. Many have not, many do not, and many will not. But many CAN.

That preceding paragraph is not there to elicit your pity, or your compassion. I do not need either, and I do not want either. It is there so that you can know that when I say I have a life of hope, a life of meaning, a life of joy, and a life in which I strive to be moral, I know what the fuck I'm talking about. I kept my ethics even when I was cleaning shit from my pants, but the hope, meaning, and joy had to come later. I found that meaning through hard work, by examining my emotions, and by applying reason to them. My brain was broken, and medication helped me combat the Severe Depressive Disorder that I had. Therapy and critical thought helped me to combat the thoughts and emotions that contributed to the disorder, and to find ways to live a life of meaning and happiness. I have to continue using those skills every day, because depression is a disease that's never truly gone it seems, but is only in remission. But I persevered then, and I do so now. And like now, there was no "higher power" then. There was me, and the support and assistance of people who helped me. There was science backing the words of my therapist, and science backing the medication prescribed by my psychiatrist. There was love in the hearts of my friends and family. And if you're going through anything like what I went through, please, look at where I was then, and where I am now. Let that be encouragement for you. Because you can do it; you can survive, and thrive.

I believe in the power of people, helping people. I am a skeptic, and a secular humanist.

And I will speak against those who would drag us down, and I will express my anger at those who, no matter how good their intention, would keep us from getting better as a species.

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