Let’s begin with a story. When I lived in Southern Ontario, my most heart-heavy season was that long stretch of winter in which cloud coverage blotted out the sky for weeks: a hazy pink canvas over salmon-orange streetlights, dark shadows, and deep snow.
I need that clear night sky. I need to be able to look up sometimes into an immensity of stars, like a seal sucking on air pockets under a stretch of endless ice. I need to gasp at something outside the murkiness of cultural narrative in which we swim.
And the night sky is perfect, because in an instant it reminds me that all our rituals, our stories, our understandings of what life should be are pure artifice: a blip of chatter between a few billion biological beings on a pale blue dot in a speck of a galaxy drifting through cosmic background radiation.
What remains when these narratives are stripped away?
Well… another narrative (these are all narratives, aren’t they?), but one at least based on harder facts. In this more fundamental narrative, I’m no longer a “single 33-year-old white feminized queer atheist/humanist Canadian-immigrant to Colombia.” I’m not a writer, or a teacher, or an editor aspiring to translation work, either.
I’m simply a biological entity with a central nervous system (which includes a brain with the capacity for more abstract environmental processing), thanks to evolutionary pressures that benefitted organisms better able to anticipate future needs.
I also have a sexed body (female) because around 1.2 billion years ago our Last Eukaryotic Common Ancestor (LECA) got into the “true” sexual reproduction game, which was winning out as a more effective way to prevent the inheritance of deleterious effects in the genome, as well as better defense against viral riders the code.
Fairly incidental and value-neutral events, no?
And yet, within our culture these simple facts–having an abstract-idea-generating central nervous system, and having a sexed body–have created a truly boggling range of social expectations for how to behave, how to strive, and how to live a good life.
As such, even though I firmly recognize the underlying meaninglessness of all meaning-creation… I still fall prey to social expectations. I struggle routinely, that is, with how to spin a story for myself that satisfies our culture’s implicit sense of what a life is “supposed” to include… and what mine does instead.
I think a lot of my fellow humanists do and feel the same. So let’s consider why.
I recently had a serious discussion about some of the flawed givens underpinning my perception of the world. I don’t mean my cosmology, exactly. I mean, how I interpret behavioural signals from other people, and the kinds of fight-or-flight responses they trigger in me. The way I think I’m drawing rational conclusions from the facts at hand, but am nonetheless colouring them with both my greatest hopes and worst fears.
This kind of reckoning is… not easy. It requires advancing your theory-of-best-fit for the data, then letting others counter with their own, and then often haggling over the validity of the data points themselves. It also requires being exceptionally leery of any assertion that seems to affirm what you already feel–even though our self-help industry thrives on our desire for just such affirmations.
I’ll give one example, to keep this from getting too abstract:
I was asked what I wanted in life; that is, what I thought would fulfill my requirements and make me less anxious and sad (as I often am). Because the answer wasn’t “living with someone else” (I prefer my solitude to write), but it also wasn’t not having someone to just relax around (touch, after all, is a key component of human thriving); and it wasn’t marriage, or having kids, although I do sometimes get a twinge of sadness when I see other people on the street holding hands–the small, quotidian affirmations of a commitment to share a life (or a few years, or maybe just a moment).
So… What, Then?
The best I could manage, when asked, was that I wanted to feel like I belonged somewhere–and I knew that this was correct because I choked up when saying it. And then I choked up again when talking about a fear of abandonment: a fear of never being safe, never being loved, never being able to rest, always needing to prove my right to exist.
Sound familiar? This is the kind of rhetoric that often serves, in spiritual realms, as a precursor for “finding God.” Of course you want to belong, the argument in many denominations of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam goes: You’re being called to return to the divine, to be reunited with a creator who will fill that ache in your heart!
I remember, for instance, a young adult who had recently been converted to Christianity, and was as such eager to try his hand at converting those he knew. He told me all the usual reasons for a later-life conversion: the relief, that is, of giving all one’s problems to another, of letting oneself be washed clean of so much pain from fruitless striving come before. He told me about his pain at various rejections, and how much it meant to him to have been forgiven for all past transgressions; how the church community, conversely, had welcomed him with open arms.
I was happy for him for finding a community that gave him hope, but as I’ve written about before, the one good thing about a fraught childhood is that it can sometimes remind you that a person born into a painful situation is not responsible for that situation. The idea of needing forgiveness for being born, or for being in a context where whatever you do only compounds systems of trauma come before, is repulsive to me.
More importantly, though: I’m fully aware of why the ache in my heart exists. I don’t need to grope around for new quick fixes, because I understand the vast majority of biochemically impactful experiences that shaped my responses to new stimuli, and set me down certain reward-seeking pathways less conducive to emotional stability.
As such, after being asked by my first conversational partner what it is I thought I wanted, our conversation turned to familial preconditions. After all, a childhood wherein one knows love is contingent, love can be taken away, love has to be relentlessly earned… is not a healthy precondition for adult thriving. It is, instead, a recipe for never feeling that one is good enough, and that one never has a place they can call home.
It’s also, I might add, often why people have children of their own: to make a family, to make a home, and in so doing to fill the ache that their own difficult pasts created. …Which, from an evolutionary perspective, is still fine and dandy, because you’ve fulfilled your biological purpose! Huzzah! Time to pass on those troubled genes!
And so, as an adult human with just such a childhood, yet no progeny… it’s not technically wrong to say that I am a deficient biological organism.
As are, I’m sure, quite a few of you.
Okay, Debbie Downer. Your Point?
But are we simple biological organisms, deficient or otherwise?
Hardly. This very deficient biological organism, for instance, nevertheless has a nervous system that can experience wonderful emotions, and a brain that can produce original content–words in orders never before seen in its given language!–in a universe where we humans are rare, precious witnesses to existence on whole.
So how do we focus on those positives, and build better secular narratives from them?
It’s not as easy as you might think, even if we secular folks think ourselves well immunized against religious rhetoric. In the secular sphere we still have narratives built on dangerous premises: many so pervasive, we hardly realize we’re swimming in them.
The person I was talking to about my wants and needs, for instance, had asked me a great question, but they then followed up my answer with a bad suggestion: Volunteering! Volunteering, they were sure, would make me feel useful! Volunteering would make me feel a part of something!
And, oh, don’t get me wrong–volunteering is critical to good citizenship, and something I happily do in many capacities. It’s also a terrific way to meet new people, make new friends, and maybe find a special pair-bond for life or a little while.
But hearing my anxieties uttered aloud, and hearing which words had immediately made me want to cry, I’d realized that the solution to my existential complaint was instead something far more in the realm of Buddhism, with all its observations about how “want” itself is the real problem. Indeed, I knew “volunteering” would be a poor solution to my internal issue (though again, still a good thing to do in general!), because my want to belong was insatiable. My need to prove my worthiness was relentless. And so the exhaustion of new proving ground after new proving ground would remain, in volunteerism as in every other community I’ve struggled to belong to, until I stopped treating the fact of my current needs and wants as evidence of their correctness.
In other words, I needed to recognize the natural fallacy at work in it all.
Secular Stories that Promote Maladaptive Striving
And yet, when I look at our culture’s stories–about relationships, careers, life success on whole… I find that we still take our biological striving, deficient or otherwise, more or less for granted. The body wants what the body wants. The mind craves what the mind craves. (And for my religious humanists: The soul cries out for what it longs for most.)
Listen to your heart’s desires, say our stories.
Follow your passions and your dreams.
Pour your heart into what you love, and the rest will follow.
Shoot for the stars.
Nor does this rhetoric relent for “smaller” existences. Even when our lives are incredibly mundane, we’re likewise tasked by many of our cultural narratives and economies to find that heightened state of achievement and self-control within the everyday. We’ve got a whole industry, for heck’s sake, around bullet-journaling, which might be our most bonkers attempt yet to gain mastery over every minute facet of our secular existence.
Likewise, even when we do articulate that some behaviours are destructive compulsions that need to be curtailed, we tend to frame the problem around competing drives. To this end, we have concepts like the framing tool of an “inner child,” which positions a great deal of recovery work for poor coping mechanisms and social maladaptivity around an anthropomorphized set of behavioural responses formed by trauma. In the process, the concept of an “inner child” concretizes our anxieties as in legitimate need of being answered and placated.
And all of this–why? Why, really?
To soothe the anticipatory excesses of nervous systems that can tolerate a significant amount of individual maladaptivity before losing overall evolutionary benefit.
Questioning the “Inner Drive”
Now, I’m not trying to discount the need to provide comfort to folks in distress.
But I do favour some tools over others, and one of them–Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)–relies on a humanistic argument not always reflected in our cultural storytelling. In far too many of our stories, the existence of an ache, that compulsive “drive” toward or away from specific beliefs and actions, is still equated with the necessity of trying to fill it. Yet humanists need to be leery of such alignments, because in both secular and religious spheres you’ll find that there’s always someone more than happy to exacerbate an unanswered need, then capitalize on the delivery of solutions.
CBT, conversely, proposes something radical: What if we don’t give unconditional reverence to that inner drive? What if we focus instead on minor acts of disruption–from countering negative self-talk with stop-words; to applying our senses to the observation of our immediate surroundings instead of dwelling on future or past; to practising active, conscientious breathing; to setting ourselves very small and specific tasks as distraction from negative thought processes and behaviours; to keeping meticulous records of our basic bodily activities and moods throughout the day?
Put another way: What if, instead of striving to acquire the object of our current need or want, we try disrupting the intensity with which the desire manifests within us at all?
I’ve struggled my whole adult life with fears of making others angry, of never “earning” love, of never belonging, of always losing safety once it’s found. As such, I could cling to all the external activities and affirmations I wanted, and still never be convinced that any were sufficient to make me worthy of continued existence. Why? Because the very act of trying to prove my worth, of trying to fill that need, affirms the validity of the need itself.
And yet, when I suck at the right air-pockets–which is to say, when I look up at a clear night sky… I remember the vast context against which all these intense sociobiological pressures are playing out. I remember that I am simply one of 7.5 billion working drafts in my species; one of 7.5 billion powerhouses of central-nervous-system activity perpetuating genetic lines either directly, or (as myself and other childless people do) indirectly through contributions to communal welfare.
I remember the biology, that is, behind my every conscious experience in the cosmos.
And then it hits me, if only for one brief breath of clarity, that the most extraordinary win-condition for sentient beings has already happened. I remember that I have the ability–as do all of you–to see compulsive drives within us for what they are, biologically speaking, and to turn unthinking evolution against itself. To choose to strive less to appease needs or wants simply because they exist, and more to recognize when they are destructively insatiable… and then learn to let them go.
It’s a major season for Christianity, so fellow atheists will see lots of discourse about religion’s flaws on their social media channels in the coming weeks. (Christians probably will, too, but hopefully not at the hands of secular humanists.) Meanwhile, our shared sphere has some serious narrative failings that tend to go unaddressed so long as we have easy scapegoats like the Christ-child story to pick on instead.
Even though CBT is a standard tool in the mental-wellness paradigm, it’s not well-supported by our cultural storytelling writ large. But it could be, and it should be–because when we give too much credit to “inner drive,” or when we otherwise treat all our needs and wants as intrinsically valid, we conflate biological imperatives with what makes human existence so extraordinary.
We forget, that is, that whether our biochemical responses are healthy or maladaptive, the human central nervous system has incidentally yielded enough self-awareness for us to recognize its autonomic nature. Our autonomic nature.
And so even if we can’t escape our biology entirely, neither do we have to let the stories we create become mere endorsements of our most compulsive, unthinking behaviour.
We can choose, instead, to remember that all our losses and setbacks, all our emotional wounds and skewed perceptive states, are simply stories laid over a fairly basic set of biochemical responses. As such, when that “inner drive” yields only aches and pains that make us susceptible to the promise of anyone’s quick cure… we have it in us–all of us–to choose different narrative overlays instead.
May there be clear skies ahead, for all of you, so as to light the way.