Let’s begin with a story. I’m in the middle of trying to do Big Things that are also fairly Small Things, in the larger scheme of Things In General. I soft-launched a literary press website on December 1, and I’ve been spending the last two weeks learning the tricky ropes of professional e-publishing (distributor and e-format variability, non-Western impediments to global-economic participation, marketing) leading into the sale of my first novella in a four-part SF-mystery series. I’ve made a great many blunders along the way, but what’s irked me most is my lack perspective when I make them. I’m supposed to be a freaking humanist. Why can’t I “do” humanism better all the time?
For instance, I found a typo in an Amazon version of Third Planet Fall Down, which I can’t change on that website until post-publication (other sites, like Gumroad, are more forgiving), and… it had me crushed by a sense of utter failure for two days.
Meanwhile, a friend of mine has been on ventilator for COVID for two months.
Meanwhile, another friend lost his wife, after first having to divest himself of his savings to be able to access proper care for her at all.
Meanwhile, a younger friend is waiting on an extremely dangerous surgery for severe scoliosis, and COVID has already delayed the procedure for so long that the best outcome from that surgery keeps diminishing day by day.
Meanwhile, when I go to the market, ten minutes away, I walk past a long line of some two dozen panhandlers, including children, elderly persons, disabled persons, displaced persons, and marginalized indigenous persons, who are barely subsisting.
Meanwhile, outside my building, every late afternoon, a person rolls their coffee-and-pastry stand, neatly packed up after the day’s work, to a clump of trees in the middle of the highway, where their plastic tent serves as a home.
I talk a great deal about the work involved in being humanist: the work, that is, of committing to the fact that humans are the most important agents of change in the cosmos, whether or not you believe there’s at least one god about as well; and of seeking to be informed by the full scope of empirical evidence (including behavioural sciences that illustrate why your grandstanding about “the facts” might not be the decisive win you think it is) so as to make good public policy, public policy that maximizes human agency for all.
But sometimes the work of just… “being human” is a challenge. We’re a mess of contradictions, getting irate or otherwise hung up on the Small Stuff even when we know how much the world is filled with atrocity and grave affront. All the energy we pour into our private bugbears, or our seething over, say, the latest op-ed that was written precisely to have readers frothing at the mouth… is distraction.
And we know it’s distraction.
But also, gosh darn it, these are our distractions. They’re the weirdling preoccupations that frame our sense of self, our interests, and to a large extent our communities. They are a part of “who we are”, by which I mean our distinct experiences of the cosmos. And so, we can often no more let go of the Small Stuff — even when we know how many big issues require humanity’s attention — than we can let go of who we are.
One of the reasons I love The Brothers Karamazov so much that I wrote a whole book inspired by it (but in a secular, sci-fi context in lieu of its reliance on the Christian Bible) is that, in it, Dostoevsky brilliantly articulates a body of human experience related to our horror at our own failures. In this story, so many characters are traumatized by the knowledge of how much harm they’ve already done to others, and they react to this trauma by lashing out: by doing even more that hurts others, and in consequence themselves, so that they can dwell in a state of perceived victimhood over their own monstrosity at the end of it all.
So it is that many of us get caught up in cycles of horror and self-castigation over our all-too-human failings. Now, maybe not all of us are lashing out with thundering rage and petty violence at others when we’re so abjectly ashamed of ourselves… but we can still manifest that same sort of narcissism in other ways, like allowing ourselves to wallow in the thought of how much time we’ve already wasted on the Small Stuff.
I come from a family that’s very good at all of this, mind you, so when I first read The Brothers Karamazov at 17 I gained great insight into the cyclical nature of what was happening on my homefront… but twice that lifetime later, I still find myself struggling at times to put those lessons to optimal use: to break the cycle of feeling sorry for myself for having not been able to break the cycle sooner, and better, and for having left… oh, such a mess of wasted possibilities along the way.
And yes, I’m talking a lot today about personal example, aren’t I? But it really is the best, most honest way to lay the foundation for inviting others to reflect on their own circumstances in turn. I used to take a more confident and declarative tone in these essays, which gave them impression to some readers that I was “lecturing” them by “demanding too much” of human beings.
But the truth is that I demand a lot of myself — and then I also fail, spectacularly and often, to live up to those aspirations. And so, to lift some words from another favourite writer when it comes to depictions of humanity’s endless failures (Iris Murdoch), I never mean to ask others to do more than to try to “coax weakness and inspire strength” in their own lives. (And if it ever comes off as otherwise, well, let’s just add that to my failure-heap in turn.)
Here I am, an educated human being from a part of the world and a cultural context that has imbued me with a body of advanced aspirations — the writing goals, the desire to launch a press that can help elevate other voices in turn — which are usually achieved by people who have a higher class background and “better” geopolitical positioning. Even in my circle of writer-friends, I’m routinely reminded that I’ve known different forms of precarity that continue to make me a less likely candidate for being seen as a person of value and insight within the literary world. (Nor is this the first sphere in which I’ve experienced this: When I was in academia, my exhaustion from working three jobs to get by was seen as insolence and anger by the tenured professors on my committee. Alack.)
What bothers me most, though, isn’t that the challenge of becoming decently established as a writer is greater when you come from class precarity; it’s that I sometimes get caught up in feelings of failure predicated on my life not being as easy as others, when I know that my life is also far easier than many others’ still.
This is normal for human beings, though. Whatever our community is, that community then becomes the benchmark by which we measure our personal sense of success and failure. And my communities — being mostly of literature and “the mind” — tend to be communities populated by people of greater familial and class-based stability.
However, some of my other communities also involve persons with a completely different range of possibilities and dreams. Many of my friends here don’t have computers — their lives are on their phones — and are lucky if they completed a high-school education. My friend on ventilator has no health insurance and no family that can help her, so her care has become my care (an unconscionable position for any human, to be routinely asked to make financial decisions to keep another human being alive — but also, one that I know estadounidenses deal with all the time). Many were displaced, saw war-time, lived through eras of minimal means and lack of safety out of doors.
And so, when I get hung up on the Small Stuff, when I let my ego get the better of me and agonize over the possibility of failing at all these ambitious ventures and classist aspirations with respect to a writing career… I then also find myself mortified by the fact of my eminently classist hangups in the first place. Yes, I have all these grand ideas about how, if I succeed, I can help so many others… but if I don’t succeed? If I fail at e-publishing, if I never get an agent for my novels, if I become consigned to a middling blip in the history of the written word?
So bloody what?
I’ll still have lived a life in which I was able to indulge in the attempt to a far greater degree than most human beings.
And that is the strength which humanism — when I remember to lean into it! — can bring to bear on this fraught business of being human.
Now, someone caught in Disqus purgatory a few months back really railed against the idea that spiritualism can be nihilistic — but alack, when I finally noticed them in the spam filter and released them, I lost track of which essay they’d been responding to — so I’m going to emphasize this part again:
Religious nihilism is the idea that, outside one’s particular belief set, there is nothing of value; and thus, that those who lie outside the faith are also without value. Religious nihilism gives us terrorists who believe that other human beings are expendable, and it also gives us people who shudder and turn from the needs of fellow human beings without taking up a bomb-vest, likewise believing that their best bet is to focus on those in their (spiritual) circles of care and let “God” sort out the rest.
Our common challenge, as humanists across the spiritual and non-religious spectrum, is to ensure that those people do not get to set public policy, because they sure as heck aren’t committed to maximizing and optimizing human agency for all.
And so, here, then, might be the biggest difference between spiritual-nihilist approaches to the horror of being human, and humanist ones:
When a spiritual nihilist confronts the reality that human beings are flawed by nature/design, they readily agree that we are despicable and need “God’s grace” to be saved from our vileness.
But when a spiritual or secular humanist confronts the reality that human beings are flawed?
When one of our number sees that wealth of flaws in themself, and is so mortified by their own existence as such a creature that they lash out, wallow, or otherwise do more harm to others from the “trauma” of realizing how much harm they can do at all?
When that happens, we have a broader context of human struggle, striving, and complexity to lean upon, to contextualize our behaviours. We can use our commitment to a comprehensive study of empirical data to recognize the socioeconomic and cultural factors shaping our preoccupations and forms of response. We can see what makes the animal in us act the way that it does.
And so, we can come to see our very flaws, weaknesses, and overall capacity to do harm as forms of intel, too: intel that can then better inform our personal practice, how we engage with others, and of course, public-policy design going forward.
In other words:
The nihilist says there is no hope to be found in human striving.
The humanist says… hope exists in the fact that we strive at all.
May you all be ever so kind to yourselves when the struggle finds you wanting.
And may you always have the means to learn from those failings, rather than to castigate yourself (and others) for your having failed at all.