Last week I offered up a rather dense introduction to the storytelling problem of “sacrifice” and “societal regression”. And I admit, writing punchy blog posts is not my forte. The underlying issue–suffering–has a literary canon as old as literature itself, and I lack the deftness of, say, an Umberto Eco or Christopher Hitchens for seamlessly interweaving a multitude of socio-political and philosophical threads in 700 to 1100 words.
But I do have one secular story that I have been refining for years. I began this piece for the wedding of two friends–secular, and in need of an appropriate speaker for the occasion. They had two in the end: a Buddhist who kept things short, sweet, and chipper; and me, who told a simpler version of this tale, much to the bride’s initial chagrin (through the bleak opener) and both her and the groom’s enjoyment for the rest, when I reached (a different version of) the triumphant parts.
The tale has grown quite a bit since that initial formation. In so doing, it has offered me fortification through personal and collective griefs. It also defines quite a bit of my other storytelling practice, as a writer of science fiction currently working on a first novel set in a brutal part of human history: the Soviet Union from the 1920s through 1940s. Bleak subject matter scares many, the same way that looking up at the night sky makes many feel unbearably insignificant. Deep time and deep space are not salves for all.
But for those who do know and take strength from secular accounts of the cosmos, I offer this as a different way of speaking about one of the most difficult facets of a secular worldview: namely, the reality that people suffer and die pointlessly. Whether by natural or human-made disaster, from the failings of individuals or whole systems of power, we hurt in both senses of the word. And there is no need to run–but much to lose in running–from that fact. When secular and spiritual storytelling tries to reframe this pain as a positive, as necessary for bringing about a better world, it strips from us the ability to benefit fully from the facts of our species’ condition.
I leave, of course, my spiritual sisters and brothers to reconcile their own narrative traditions. However, I do find quite striking that the breaking point in the New Testament, the moment when Christ elects to perform the miracle that leads the Pharisees to conclude that his death will save the world (John 11:48-53), involves the famously brief sentence, “Jesus wept.”
We may differ, Abrahamists and secular folk, in our responses to the fact of suffering. But in lines like this, I can’t help but note that we remain united by the pain of bearing witness to pain at all. And that, as I will argue below, is precisely what offers us the greatest clarity about loss.
Suffering in a Secular Universe
Once upon a time–and a very long time ago it was, in the neighbourhood of 13.8 billion years–our universe began.
The first stars burned for billions of years without oversight, and when they died they left behind heavier elements, which fueled a second generation of stars–also without oversight–for billions of years.
Quite likely, our sun is a grandchild in this cosmos: one of the oldest, at some 4.6 billion years, but hardly the most dramatic. In some 5 billion years it will be unable to burn hydrogen at its core. At this point, it will shift to helium and other heavier elements in a expansive red-giant phase before stripping down to a white dwarf. There will come a helium flash, more luminous in a cosmic blink than all other stars in our galaxy–but no supernova. No decisive end to create a nursery for something new.
Its decline will still provide significant local theatre, though. In its red-giant phase, Sol will eventually expand to engulf the orbit of five planets in its system.
Including ours, if nothing else destroys Earth first.
If nothing else destroys, that is, life on a planet that only achieved single-celled variants some 3.5 billion years ago. A planet that thereafter underwent extinction events that, in their cataclysmic nature, did not always favour the strongest or fittest. The Late Devonian took out some 3/4s of all Earth’s species. The Permian? A brutal 96%.
What is humanity in such a cosmic tale?
Some follow the mitochondrial trail to estimate the start of Homo sapiens at 200,000 years ago. Others use interbreeding with Denisovan and Neanderthal populations to mark a more dynamic and gradual development over 2 million years. Either way, we are bound together as a people at the Toba bottleneck 70,000 years ago, when a devastating change in global climate reduced humanity to between 3,000 and 10,000 members.
Our childhood survival rate has increased significantly since that time. We have discovered how to reduce deaths from pregnancy and fever and tooth decay. We can better protect against the spread of viral and fungal and bacterial disease. With modern germ and gene theories around 150 years old (and radiology, around 125) our biggest medical leaps are quite recent, and impressive. But still, the best of our national-average lifespans leaves us with around 90 years apiece.
And for those who cannot imagine surviving so many day-to-day hardships, 90 years must feel like an eternity. What point is all this talk of stars to someone enduring a violent domestic sphere? Or the daily mental-health pressures of working to make ends meet amid stark socio-economic disparities? What of someone in a community afflicted by gang violence, hunger, state persecution, military conflict, or the ravages of environmental change? Or anyone with the difficult task of watching a loved one slowly decline under a congenital condition, or cancer, or dementia?
90 years. An eternity for all who suffer–and yet, on a cosmic scale, the slenderest of blips.
But here is where we differ, too, we humans who are so small and fleeting in the cosmos. Here is where we find our strength, because–
The universe does not feel
The sun–our Sol, which will outlive and eventually consume us all–has never lost a loved one. Never cherished a moment of its existence, or laughed, or wept.
Granted, this means Sol has also never struck out in anger, or fear. It has never murdered with intent. Never uttered a cruel word to lay another low. Never preyed upon the most vulnerable to make itself feel strong.
And this is why our ability to feel is not sufficient to separate us from the ice and rocks and gas from which we came. It is not enough to say we feel, and therefore are extraordinary, because all feeling has an evolutionary impulse to it. Fear, anger, and raw desire arise from perceptions of scarcity, infection-based threat (physical and tribal), and the urge to produce a viable genetic line. These sentiments are, inasmuch as they are basic to us, the most rudimentary parts of our emotional spectrum.
And this baseline is what we return to when we suffer or cause others to suffer. More precisely, what makes suffering the most monstrous part of being human is its ability to terminate other feelings. Feelings that sentience can have above and beyond the basic compulsive urges of any species struggling for survival. We can enjoy another’s success, for instance, and not simply see it as a threat to our own. It’s possible to seek out another’s pleasures in our intimate encounters, instead of taking only what we need to procreate. We have the ability to produce more than we individually require, and thrill to see that excess shared.
Yes, there are coherent evolutionary reasons for all our “higher” behaviours, too, especially as a group-oriented species. And yet, the complexity of these reasons only further attests to our nuance as a species–the very nuance that suffering ever costs us.
Turning back to ice, and gas, and rock
The stars took generations to achieve the kind of burn Sol can now accomplish. So too does a staggering amount of investment lie behind the formation of every new sentient being on Earth.
And for what? Biological imperative suggests simply to continue to propagate, but we have layered this drive in such striking stories since. Spiritual people speak of a loving creator who either birthed humanity to have worshippers, or else to deepen its own divinity through the experience of every living being. This latter approach is shared by most of the non-religious: for some 90 years we have the wondrous opportunity to bear witness to the cosmos, and its slender, extraordinary investment of materials here on Earth, in a way that the majority of the cosmos cannot on its own.
Or we might, at least, if nothing stunts our progress. If nothing disrupts our ability to be amplifiers of sentient nuance. Nothing like, say–
A militia forcing a child to rape and murder. A majority population committing genocide upon a minority. A human being–any human being–diminishing the dignity and optimism and opportunities of another by either private or public deprivations.
Because every time we do not to expand the collective human practice of those higher, complex feelings, our society does not simply regress: it ceases. It dies the little deaths that should remind us of our ultimate cessation–whether by Sol’s expansion, or Mercury losing its orbit, or fluke cosmic ray, or more imminent climate change.
Storytelling in an indifferent cosmos
In short, in every moment’s undue suffering, there is no “sacrifice” to produce a better world. There is only a glimmer of the stardust from whence we came. The stardust to which we will all return. The stardust that will never feel its existence as we can.
What we have in our reach, for this precious, fleeting now, is the ability to feel for others. This is the one sentient experience that suggests an improvement over existing as ice, and stone, and gas. The only experience that makes us more than a bundle of automatic responses striving for the endurance of its genome.
Now, imagine if our storytelling treated all suffering as unadorned loss of this ability. Not as something necessary for our civilization to grow. Not as something necessarily lost to reap some grand reward down the line. Simply… loss.
So long as we bear witness to that loss, and remember what it represents, our cosmos is not all ice, and gas, and rock. It contains, as well, the ability to say before we die, we lived, and to mean by this, with a knowledge greater than even the stars above.