Contemplation: Why I am a Humanist
“I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead.”
~ Kurt Vonnegut Jr. God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian
Today is World Humanist Day, which always falls on the Summer solstice. It is a day in which to share with the world what Humanism is, and as such I figured it was an appropriate time to write my next (very late) “Why I am . . .” post.
I do not know for certain when I first officially started thinking of myself in the terms of being a humanist, but in hindsight, thinking about my experiences with religion, philosophy, and contemplating personal worldviews, it is now clear to me that humanism was something I had been working towards for a long time (even if for much of that time I was unaware of it). Admittedly, reading authors like Kurt Vonnegut (quote above) played a role in the formative and recognized ideas of actually calling my worldviews (or, “life stance” if you will) as “humanist.”
I include the above quote because, in all honesty, I think it gets to the core of what it means to me to self-identify as a humanist. The world, life, everything, is extremely complex. Over the past 29 years I think I have done a decent job at figuring out some things, but I have to admit, regularly, that there are a ton of other things that I am constantly just having to guess at. When it comes down to it at the end of the day, I feel like I am doing pretty good if I am being a decent person to other people simply because that decency seems infinitely better than the alternative.
There is too much suffering in the world. Read the news daily (which I do) and you’ll encounter a ton of suffering. Learn about history (which I have) and you’ll encounter a ton of suffering. Think about the future and you’ll hear about all the potential for eventual sufferings. Suffering is everywhere, in so many shapes and forms. Whether it is war or starvation or stubbed toes or being late to work or whatever. It is all suffering. At times it feels almost constant. The thing then, that is so shockingly tragic, is how much of the suffering that goes on everywhere, all the time, is caused by other people, who, its reasonably to presume, know what suffering is themselves.
It is thus, that I try so hard, to be decent, and not to contribute to the causing of the already overwhelming amount of suffering.
Sometimes I fail. Sometimes we all fail. But recognizing those failures and challenging ourselves to do better is part of what the whole humanist thing is about. That idea of “we can do better” is such a driving factor for me. Doing better won’t always be easy or comfortable or familiar. Doing better will require tough decisions. But doing better is something humans have consistently proven themselves capable of. In fact, much of our history can be summed up with people trying to do better.
Where we trip up the most I think, is when we try to sum things up too simply, to look at the world through bold blacks and whites, goods and bads, rights and wrongs. Life is too complex for that. Our ambitions and fears and memories and whatever else we’ve got going on are a mighty flowing and fluid mixture of order and chaos that refuses to ever be simply summed up. We all experience this and it terrifies all of us. And so, the easy route is to choose a stance and stick to it until the end, defending it with every means possibly, but unfortunately, in this constant churning and changing and fluid systems of existence in which we occur sticking doesn’t stop the flowing; we’re carried along whether we like it or not.
Why be kind? Why help people? Why try to solve the daunting problems facing the world? Because, as I said above, as best as I can see it, it is better than the alternative. We’ll disagree on the means to a lot of these things, in part because there is not a single “right” means, but many possibilities that will help in the efforts of doing better. However, if we can challenge ourselves to remember that just because our means are different that doesn’t mean that either of us are any less than human, then we’ll be doing better at minimizing potentials for suffering.
Humanism is so named because its major focus is trying to strip away our tendency to look at people and only see their difference from us, to only recognize their otherness, and instead to see them as what they are, fellow humans, who are so much more the same than we’re often comfortable admitting. We’re all born into this world. We’ll all live our lives, encounter our joys and sadness, and then, at some point, a point generally beyond our fathoming or control, we’ll expire and we know not what happens next (regardless of all our mythologies and theories and what not). What we do know, in the here and the now, is this thing called being human. Recognizing that the person sitting next to you is also knowing the thing called being human, and then, in turn, letting them be human to you yourself, creates more of an opportunity to connect, to face the myriad challenges, and to work together at being better.
I don’t expect reward for simply being human towards other humans. At most, if even, I simply hope that my being human and kind and decent will in turn encourage others to be the same. One cannot force others to be humanist, because such a force would completely contradict the whole purpose of humanism. Humanism then, to me at least, is something that has to be come to on one’s own. There are no incentives in the rewards of heaven or punishments of hell. You will not encounter humanist missionaries. It is the product of that wanting to do better for everyone, whoever they are, in the hopes that some of that suffering can be lessened.
And when I am dead and gone, I hope that maybe my efforts will have left the world a better place, even if only slightly, even if only for a few people. I will be gone and my role will be done, but perhaps the memories of me and my works, will continue to contribute to the dream of that better world.
If I could offer then a challenge to people today, on this World Humanist Day, it would simply be this: Do something decent without expectation of reward. Do it because it is a humane thing to do. Do it because you can hope that somebody would treat you with such decency in turn. Do it because it is ceaselessly better than the alternative.