Aspirational Humanism and Contradictory Real-World Practice

Aspirational Humanism and Contradictory Real-World Practice April 6, 2020

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Let’s begin with a story. I didn’t share one last week, because I was still in processing-mode. I think a lot of us have been during this pandemic. I shut off my personal Facebook for a greater sense of calm; and then Friday, I deactivated Twitter, too. (This upcoming week is Semana Santa, which means my online teaching schedule drops away, and my novel-writing time surges. Fingers crossed I can finally finish the first draft of book two!)

Before I did, though, I couldn’t help but note that my Twitter feed was awash with startling contrasts: people celebrating creative achievements; people noting friends and colleagues who’ve died from COVID-19; people sharing fun activities to while away their quarantine days; people mocking the fun activities others use to while away their quarantine days; and plenty struggling with depression, abuse, anxiety, and fear.

But what else is there, really?

Connection is such a fragile and often bewildering thing; and yet, it is also at the essence of good humanist practice. We need to engage with each other — safely, responsibly, mindfully. We need to engage, too, with the data being gathered in a wide range of scientific disciplines (especially human behaviouralism and related fields), so that we can find ways to communicate and advance better public policy.

Today, then, I want to talk about four types of connection that just this past week tested my sense of what being a “good” humanist entails. Why? Because it’s important to remember that social media isn’t any more of a mess of contradictions than we are.

And that these gaps between aspiration and reality are nothing to be afraid of.

Our failure to perfectly sync theory with praxis is nothing to dive into platitudes and mythology to resolve.

But we must still take stock of any inconsistencies in how we connect with one another as humanists — to see where we’re vulnerable, where we need to improve — if we’re to mount an effective counter to the spread of nihilistic ideologies in secular and spiritual realms alike.

1. When We Connect to Contrast

My first connection is one of my most joyous, because I’m so thankful to be a part of young people’s lives. I have five nephews, three by blood and two of the heart. I get to connect with my nephews of the heart far more, though, and during quarantine I’ve been doing so on a consistent basis as part of their home-based educational crew. But while this is a joy and a privilege, it does leave me struggling when I then talk to my nephews-by-blood, because the differences in households are so pronounced; and with them, the differences in the children’s outcomes.

I say this with shame at myself, though, because it’s in these moments that I find myself hung up on could’ve beens, the lost opportunities for the kids my family member is working hard to raise. In grieving all that they don’t have, I miss out on who they are, and reveal to myself the biases I retain re: what a life of meaning entails.

In other words: It’s a failure of imagination on my part — but also, an excellent stepping stone to better humanist practice. Because, yes, there are systemic reasons for the differences between households. There are plenty of public policy changes I could advocate for to ensure that future generations have better outcomes. And I should.

In the moment, though, when faced with this fatalistic sense of “loss”, this dwelling on could’ve beens made manifest through direct contrast with other people, I can at least try to remember that nothing is served by my disappointment. Nothing.

My task, as a humanist, is to be constructive as possible with any new intel I acquire about the state of my local universe.

And that’s as true for direct relationships with individual human beings as it is for my reaction to state- and culture-wide failures, too.

2. When We Connect to Compete

My next connection is one on the decline, or at least in the middle of transformation, because an old friend and I are growing argumentatively apart. My impression of the situation is this: This friend has increasingly settled into a form of contrarianism that automatically sides with the status quo when certain marginalized groups raise concerns. I, in turn, have come to dislike the presumption of neutrality that comes with siding automatically with the status quo. (And I suspect that what’s bothering my friend, to add fuel to the fire, is a belief that I’m trying to claim the moral upper hand in all our discussions with my increased focus on listening to marginalized groups’ articulated concerns — but I can’t say for sure.)

Historically, when our disputes get heated, I’d be the one to reach out and apologize after, reframing the issue in terms of emotion, which gave my friend leave to see themself as the more rational party, and we’d make up. But after a couple encounters where I felt that my friend was refusing to acknowledge the emotional side of their own argumentation, I stopped doing the work of reaching out to reconcile, and of adopting the position of greater emotionality to smooth things over. And because I stopped reaching out… we stopped reconciling post-argument entirely. Now if we disagree, it’s simply a neutral and tepid acknowledgement of the other person’s position, and we move on.

It’s an uneasy peace, though — because how can it not be? The ability to argue well, to be willing to hold one another accountable when we believe the another to be misguided to the point of moral and ethical error, is integral to an honest friendship that sees both parties striving to bring out the best in one another.

At present, then, I don’t feel my friend argues in the best of faiths — but I also don’t know for sure what the problem is, because I’ve been avoiding a direct discussion. At some point, though, if I value the friendship, I’m going to have to figure out how to advance ways of arguing that don’t feel like competitions. (And, yes, it would be nice if my friend tries to figure out the same as well — but I can’t control what they do: only myself.)

Here’s my real-world test, though, no? Because as a humanist I strongly believe in seeking out good-faith argumentation, and favouring argumentation that isn’t about being “right” so much as fortifying communication pathways to reduce others’ entrenchment in information silos. But right now I’m failing.

Can I apply my lofty idealism to even a single, long-standing relationship in my life?

The jury is still out.

Connecting When We “Shouldn’t”

On March 2, I moved to a new apartment in a new part of town, after a series of delays that felt disastrous at the time because I had been trying to make as expedient, orderly, and calm an exit as possible from a deeply upsetting situation. And I did it. I was so relieved. I was beginning the process of going cold-turkey, too, on a long-standing “friend” and starting over far from their neck of the woods.

But what timing, huh?

So here I am, isolated in a new part of the city during pandemic, having had to cut out most of my old life in Medellín, and… after a week or so in isolation, the very “friend” I’m trying to go cold-turkey on messages to check-in, to see if I’m okay.

Which is nice, even if this “friend” has been painfully inconsistent with his check-ins in the past. When I was robbed at gunpoint in 2018, he never checked in after I told him about it, though he did have a field day sharing my story with family and coworkers. When I was violently assaulted in 2019, and told him about it a little after the fact, he didn’t check in with me about that issue for two months. And when I mentioned as much, later, his excuse was what it has always been: he doesn’t “do” check-ins, but he’s already around if I want to write. And that part is more or less true.

So, again, it was a complicated thing, receiving a check-in from him for COVID-19; and feeling that the reason for it was that this time the situation affected us both.

But still — it’s a pandemic. You write back and say that yes, you’re okay, and you hope that they and their family is okay, too.

At least, that’s what I strive to do as a humanist: never retaliate with pettiness; always try to meet carelessness, say, with the wisdom to walk away from situations that don’t serve you — but also, with the wisdom to walk away from carrying a grudge, too.

The “cold turkey” clock simply starts anew.

3. When We Connect and It All Goes Wrong

The other downside of moving just before COVID-19, though, is that I haven’t had the means to make new associations in the neighbourhood — although I’ve of course been as friendly as possible with the guards who work the exit I’m allowed to leave two days a week for groceries, and I’m cheerful with whatever neighbours I meet as well.

However, being friendly can have consequences when you’re a white, female-presenting person with an odd accent in Colombia. For some people I represent money. For others, a ticket to citizenship in another country. For others still, I represent easy sex even if I have made zero comments even in the vicinity of that topic.

Two Sundays ago, for instance, I somehow managed to be out for only 45 minutes, talking about family and community values with a guard outside the supermarket who asked to continue talking about Canada vs Colombia via text (not uncommon here: WhatsApp is life for many Colombians; and he readily said he understood when I emphasized that I was only looking to get to know my neighbours, nothing more)… and by Thursday, he had flat-out propositioned me, telling me that yes he had a wife but who cares because I drove him wild. Really? From 10 minutes in person and a few messages about Canadian vs. Colombian perspectives?

Oh, I blocked him right away. But he was hardly the first of his type here, and he won’t be the last. And so, some folks like to offer the inane advice of “Never give anyone a chance! Don’t talk to strangers! Be cold and standoffish when you move through the world!” (One even told me, entirely unhelpfully, “Don’t go outside!”)

But I’ve had some of pretty awful things happen to me already. I’m fully aware of how violent and dangerous the world can be. I just also don’t like carrying my cynicism as a loud, flashy badge, and I refuse to allow the things that have happened to me take from me the possibility of delighting, say, in conversation with people in my community.

(And, NB: as this person is a guard at a supermarket a five-minute walk away, you bet your bippy he’s community. But I have the moral upper hand over this cultural Catholic in a face-saving culture, so I have no fear of shopping from here on out. I could look him dead in the eye while hauling out, say, a stolen air-fryer at this point — because the last thing he’ll want is to be called out in public for not only trying to cheat, but to risk his wife’s and daughter’s health during COVID. What a rotten thing to do. And I have the receipts!)

Now, I know people are just trying to be helpful when they give that terrible advice about being cold to every stranger. I know they are pained to hear about the difficult situations I’ve found myself in, and the times when I’ve been seriously endangered here, and their first thought is to tell me how to act differently in the future.

Moreover: If you, reader, have had similar experiences with harassment and straight-up violence, and have chosen this path of public coldness in response? I wholeheartedly understand. Trauma affects us all differently. We recover differently, too.

But for me, I work very hard not to let individuals who have done me harm do me even further harm by changing the empathy with which I approach future interactions. That doesn’t mean being naive; I go into all situations fully aware of my exit strategies. It simply means living, as best I can, with the (pragmatic) hope that we can do better.

The Take-Away

I’m alone in another country, which is now my home. Connection is vital, but it’s not easy to maintain wisely, with empathy — even before taking COVID-19 into consideration.

But as I think about how often I argue here on Patheos for a more aspirational humanism, a humanism of doing better by one another by first taking stock of ourselves and our biases; our flawed discursive methods; our insufficient secular storytelling for a more informed and empathetic world… I realize that in some ways the pandemic has offered me just enough of a slow-down to take a closer look at the gaps between ideal and real practice even in my own life.

The ego that has me hyper-fixated on what is missing in certain relationships, instead of celebrating what is there, and doing more to fill in the gaps.

The ego and cowardice that has me unsure how to go forward in improving argumentation with an old friend.

The shame that I feel for acting with common decency even when I know I’m “supposed to” be putting up hard lines against those who have hurt me in the past.

The fear both of being seen as naive for refusing to be daunted by bad experiences; and of caving to that first fear, and losing my love of humanity in the process.

Folks often comment here by stating that I ask too much of my fellow human beings, in encouraging them to try to rise above knee-jerk emotional responses and seek out better secular discourse, instead of going after easy targets in other barrels.

But I’m not posing such questions from a pedestal (even if Patheos is, well, a platform).

I’m posing those questions, rather, as an open book of a flawed human being: seeking fellow-travellers in the difficult and life-long journey to improve humanist practice across the religious and non-religious spectrum; knowing full well that “perfection” isn’t even within the realm of possibility for any of our end results; but also, knowing that letting ourselves fall prey to nihilistic ideologies would be worse.

Warmth to you and yours, then, as you take stock of (and practise kindness with) your own contradiction-riddled selves.

May the path of self-reflection lead you to a clearer sense of how to go forward, coaxing current weakness not into future flawlessness — but into future strength.

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