Let’s begin with a meme. That’s all stories are, really: more elaborate units of information replicated via dissemination from person to person.
In the last few weeks, we’ve started to see a range of memes specific to the end of the decade (which, for the purposes of this essay, we’re just going to accept as 2009-2019, though you’re darned right this has been a matter of contention).
I myself have taken part in a few on Twitter, where I am impressively mediocre at producing content capable of generating masses of followers. (I recently hit 398 likes for a tweet, and that is easily the most popular I have ever been on that site.) First there was the “What have you accomplished?” meme, which led to a significant backlash from people resenting the meme’s fixation on narratives of success. Then there was the “What have you learned? What have you loved?” counterpoint meme. And I took part in one about which specific episodes of TV I’d consider the best of the decade, which only emerged after the usual slew of “Best album? Best movie? Best TV show?” lists from other users. (It’s a highly reactive conversation, no?)
And yes, it’s still November, mind you–but there’s been quite a turn-out for this sort of reflective end-of-decade posting already. Which is… fascinating, from an atheistic perspective.
Here we are, that is, marking arbitrary measures of the passage of time: trying to impose coherent narratives on lives with very few intrinsic and absolute parameters–namely: We are born, we grow while we can, and then we die.
Everything else is “just” culture. (Yes, even taxes.)
Everything else, that is, is under constant re-negotiation. And that’s a funny thing to see unfold in an increasingly secular world.
The Good Traditions and the Bad
It’s Thanksgiving in the U.S. this weekend, so of course the question of cultural rites will already be on the minds of many readers here. You’ll know full well that “Thanksgiving” marks an historically heinous series of events that many people have nevertheless reclaimed (without sufficient reparations) as a positive excuse to be with loved ones–and that many others endure with significant grief and strife every year. But whether you love or hate the holiday, it remains one way that North American culture marks the passage of time. It’s a part of your story, whether you want it to be or not.
We Western-culture atheists are similarly familiar with other temporal markers simply being the way things are. Christmas. Easter. The Sabbath. We’ll also still sometimes say B.C. (Before Christ) instead of B.C.E. (Before Common Era), because does the latter really make a difference when year zero is still matched to a birthdate for which the Bible gives erroneous account? When the whole of Western recorded time is framed around the lousiest of pinned-down dates?
[NB: I don’t particularly care that there’s no more evidence for Christ’s actual existence than Socrates’, but the historical timeline on which our calendar is based is just ridiculous: Luke says the birth happened during the census of Israel by Quirinius, and Matthew says under the reign of Herod the Great, but Herod had been dead for 10 years when that census started… in Year 6. Now that’s just bad record-keeping, Anonymous-writer-of-Matthew-Mark-and-Luke!]
In the Western world, then, we find ourselves whiling away our lives under decidedly Christian temporal conventions, along with (for most of us) those determined by the changing of the seasons, too. (Here in Medellín, in contrast, elementary and high school students graduate in early November so they can spend a solid two months with family over Navidad: something that can only happen in a culture without winter and a definitive end to harvest season!)
And yes, we mark our time in private ways, too. We count the years from the deaths of loved ones. We count the years we’ve been with loved ones, too.
But how humanist are any of these fixations?
Now, some folks think I write these essays to castigate other humanists, but I promise you, I’m asking this as a humanist and as someone who plays into many of these arbitrary temporal markers. I wonder even as I do so, though: Do these rituals not alter our sense of worth? Do they not create unnecessary pressure points in our lives?
Added Anxieties and Compassionate Humanism
Ask yourself, for instance: Have you ever expressed trepidation at arriving at a certain birthday? I remember being thankful to get to 30, bipolar-disorder having a heck of a completion rate for suicidal ideation… but I also remember agonizing about turning 25 without “accomplishing” enough. (I wrote a book in 16 days one summer prior, just so I could say I hadn’t “reached” 25 without “something to show for it.”) I’m thoroughly grateful for every moment now, and consider myself to be living essentially on “borrowed” time, but I still meet plenty of people groaning at the thought of “turning 40” or “the big six-oh!”
What are we supposedly failing at, by arriving at these arbitrary turning points?
What are the “win conditions” for life that we imply by contrast, when the incredible good fortune of continuing to exist is so often treated as a loss instead? The “end” of youth? The “end” of an era? The “end” of relevancy, too?
Right now on Twitter, amid all these silly end-of-a-decade memes, I’m also one of a few thousand witnesses to a child dying of cancer, through a father who has been grieving and bargaining and soliciting aid for his family in such terrible times. The child probably will not live to see 2020, or maybe even Christmas and his next birthday.
When I see these fleeting lives, these painful ends, these moments when ritual breaks down and all that remains is the sheer act of being present here and now…
I’m reminded how fortunate the rest of us are: we who get to agonize over arbitrary temporal markers. We who get to continue playing at the game of killing time, and stir up addictive waves of emotional intensity around specific holidays or time-stamps.
It’s a luxury never evenly distributed, either–which is why I want to end this essay on something other than lamenting our fixation on arbitrary dates and rituals. (They’re here. They’re ours. Deal with it.)
Marking Time as a Humanist
Rather, as we in the Western world enter into an especially big season of arbitrary temporal markers and cultural rituals, I’d like to ask my fellow humanists to do their part to make sure that these markers and rituals, if they must exist at all, can be more universally enjoyed. I’d like to ask us, that is, to make sure that our temporal benchmarks are at least not being used to gatekeep for class status and promote tribalist exclusion.
For humanists celebrating U.S. Thanksgiving, for instance, keep in mind that your grocery-store clerk or gas-station attendant knows full well that they’re not at home with their family. Possibly for painful reasons. Don’t lecture them for providing you a service that you need, instead of “being with loved ones.”
Remind them, too, in both words and actions, that you see their humanity while they’re dealing with the harried crowds. Remember all your retailers, and other working-class persons who will be supporting your ability to grouse about, say, how to handle difficult political conversations around the dinner table. Remember, too, the cleaning staff. The garbage workers. The snow clearers and emergency power technicians.
Donate to the food bank. Donate to any clothes banks, too, if you live in a place where winter is perilous. And if you don’t have the means to donate, that’s fine, but you can still remind your local representatives of their duty to make more indoor spaces available to the homeless and the hurting this holiday season. Also, pass on the names and numbers of emergency support lines and international non-profits committed to helping people displaced for a myriad of reasons–either from their family homes, due to sexual orientation or domestic violence, or from whole countries, due to ethnicity, creed, orientation, war, or other resource pressures.
Religious humanists, I’d also ask you to start conversations in your respective spiritual communities about how fully you commit to, say, making the Sabbath or Christmas holy. Is this an entreaty made to individuals in your places of worship, to be dealt with individually; or is it a call for collective work to ensure that everyone of lesser means can actually afford to take that day of rest, or otherwise be part of seasonal events in your spheres? Also, what do you do in your churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples to ensure that the mums aren’t actually carrying the whole load on rest days? How do you provide reasonable opportunities for lower-income congregation members to participate without risking their livelihood?
We human beings measure out our lives in pomp and circumstance–from the little rituals, like a beer cracked open at the end of a long work-week, to a specific way of marking our personal anniversaries, to a grudging participation in wider cultural events we don’t even believe in but can never, ever fully escape.
In so doing, though, atheists and spiritual folk alike are at risk of elevating the value and meaning of these rituals over any of the people within them–or outside of them.
But we humanists? Whatever our cosmology of origin?
At the best of times, when we’re feeling like our very best selves, we can choose differently. We can choose to drop the pretense of a given number of spins around the sun really mattering, or participation in a specific event being the be-all and end-all of affirming individual value.
What temporal markers matter most of all?
That we still draw breath.
That our hearts still beat.
And that an end to both will come when it comes… soon enough.
So honour those three measures–in yourselves and in everyone around you–above and beyond whatever rituals and seasonal markers are dearest to you and those around you… and see if that doesn’t make a difference for all the stress and estrangement that these secondary rituals and seasons can bring on, too.
Happy Arbitrary Temporal Marker, friends. May you live to witness many more.