On Meeting People Where They Are

On Meeting People Where They Are August 24, 2009

While he was hospitalized a couple years ago, Daniel Dennett got irritated when people offered to pray for him and insisted that they thank doctors rather than offer their ineffectual prayers.  The Wittenburg Door was appalled and inferred (quite unjustifiably) that Dennett did not understand that all many people mean to say when they say “I’ll pray for you” is “I love you” and that the sentiment should be appreciated as such even by an atheist.

In reply, I wrote:

I’d only say I’d pray for someone if I really believed it was efficacious and someone is listening and so I assume those who say it to me mean the same or that they are trying to make themselves believe the same. I’d rather they just tell me they love me or that they are thinking about me and feeling concerned for me and I’d rather just give them the same honest expressions of my feelings, hopes, and love than take the occasion of misfortune to indulge in wishful thinking, superstition, sublimation, and/or denial of inevitable realities.

And George replied to my reaction as follows:

When I went to friends houses for dinner growing up I’d rather their parents serve Pad Thai than meatloaf, I’ll sadly profess…they did not. What I’m getting at is in past posts we have agreed that a good rule is to “meet them where they are”. Does this not extend to the courtesy of taking well wishes at face value? Do we need to split hairs over what seems to be a difference of symantics? Should Mr. Dennett be “upset” that someone shows compassion toward him in a way that is relevant to them instead of him?

To me it’s just a question of intention. We should be upset when the intention is to convert us or undermine us, maybe even when religions plant missionaries in hospitals in an attempt to covertly comfort people in what is certainly a vulnerable moment. Just as I choke down my meatloaf knowing that my friends parents intended to feed me a good meal, so too must we humble ourselves long enough to be thankful for well wishes even if we don’t agree with the religious overtones. Meatloaf was a favorite dish at my friends house; those sentiments at the hospital bed were, in context, the best they could muster.

The atheist dilemma is that we are mirroring our reaction to religion as a default language in the manner in which those same theists have condemned humanistic language. We have no reason to be so defensive. Centuries of indoctrination did not abolish atheism. Centuries of economies and societies built on the backs of slaves did not stop emancipation. What scares religions is that they know the zeitgeist is changing, that Natural Law has inevitable consequences. Ideas are powerful things….

I always had contentious relationships with my grandparents.  My mother’s parents were not fond of my father and my father’s mother was not fond of my mother and my grandparents did not like the strong ways in which I expressed either my mother’s or my father’s personality.  I really have a particularly strong mixture of my parents’ two strong and contradicting personalities.

The grandparent I was closest to was my mother’s father, even as he found me maddeningly argumentative as a kid.  We didn’t argue over practical matters, I was an obedient kid who almost never got into any trouble that way.  But my mom often recalls the day that Grandpa babysat me when I was a kid and she came home to find him all riled up because I had insisted to him that there was no such thing as Italian bread because bread cannot have a nationality and refused to hear otherwise.  As I grew up and my mother and I became outspoken Evangelical Christians, he (a borderline atheist sort of nominal Catholic) always (rightly) found some of my theological positions dubious.

By college, I had started to learn not to fight him on these things.  I didn’t know quite how to handle Christmas 1997 when he showed up excited to show me an article about the Pope’s recent expressions of approval for evolutionary theory.  For one thing I was an Evangelical Christian to whom the Pope’s opinion might carry even less authority than it would for the average non-believer and for another thing I really didn’t care about the question of evolution as it had very little to do with how I understood my faith or what the important questions were.  But he was really insistent that I engage him on this.  And I just tried to blow it off.

Right after my junior year ended, in the spring of 1999, he fell very ill while up from Florida visiting us in New York and spent a couple weeks or so hospitalized in New York where we could see him all the time.  This essentially turned out to be the beginning of his year long process of dying.  And we spent as much time as we could visiting with him.  And at that point, I had already matured to the point where I learned not to argue with Grandpa at all but simply to appreciate him and love him as much as I could.  Whatever Grandpa said was right as far he had to be concerned.  There was simply no point in butting heads with him and irritating him.  He wasn’t going to change his mind about anything and it wouldn’t make a whit of difference were he to do so.  And it certainly was not worth a rift with my grandfather to worry about philosophical disagreements.  I just wanted to enjoy being with him and helping him in whatever ways I could.

And it means a lot to me that through that time we spent there at the end we became really close.  A little voice just piped up in my head and asked, “But were you really close if the closeness was conditioned on avoiding discussing your truest thoughts and placating him?”  And the answer was that absolutely yes, we were genuinely close because we opted to be closer to each other than even to our own opinions.  But no, I didn’t placate him, I respected, loved, and appreciated him as he was and how he saw the world.  I let go of worrying about how I saw things and learned to focus on appreciating the way his mind worked and the unique wealth of experiences that informed his thinking, rather than worrying for that time about my own mind and experiences being understood.  And it makes me prouder than I can articulate to know that in the end he was proud of me.  And it makes me sadder than I can say here to think that he is gone.

The last time I saw him was in 2000 as I was preparing to graduate college and waiting to find out whether or where I would get into graduate school.  He would die very shortly thereafter.  I made the trip home for spring break just to make sure I saw him in case it was the last chance to do so.  That week he gave me the directions to Fordham (where I had applied) so that I could go make a spur of the moment visit.  He knew the directions because he went to high school right across the street from the school about 60 years prior.  I got extremely lucky to randomly bump into the chairman of the philosophy department who recognized that I was lost and asked me if I needed anything.  When I told him I had applied he told me that even though they don’t regularly give interviews he would meet with me.  He told me that the night before I had been accepted into the PhD program but it was up in the air whether I would get funding.  I like to think that that interview played a role in my eventually getting funded to start the PhD program that I am now just months away from completing 9 transformative years later.  It means a lot to me to be able to pass his high school, to be able to associate his help with my academic progress, and to connect the place where I spent my twenties tangibly with the one where my grandpa grew up.

So forgive the occasionally wandering remembrances of my grandpa.  They are all to say, George, that I appreciate and am thankful for the wisdom of what you have to say about this topic a great deal.  An invaluable, crucial part of love involves sometimes being willing to put people over philosophical disagreements and personality disagreements.  And so there are certainly times to put love even before truth.

What bothered me about Briggs’s criticisms of Dennett though was that he tried to exploit the awkward clash of beliefs between people who love each other as an unseemly opportunity to try to find some pathetic flaw in atheists.  I found his dismissive remark that “atheism has no cubicle for love” really insulting.  And I just wanted to stress that it is false and slanderous to say that my or Daniel Dennett’s ideas about how we want to love or to be loved are either weak or cold.

Dennett wants his visitors to express gratitude towards all the doctors and nurses and scientists and technicians who made possible his continued life.  He wants them to direct their love horizontally to those helping him instead of vertically to the empty sky.  Dennett is calling for a love that matches its object better.  He finds it not only ridiculous but a a sad squandering of human love when people thank God rather than doctors and call their healing a “miracle.”

And, in my case, I find it unnecessarily mediated to tell someone you’ll pray for them if all you really mean is that you love them.  Why not say you love them?  I understand and will be able to appreciate some one’s sentiment when they say they will pray for me (as long as it’s not a crass attempt to exploit my vulnerability for conversion).  That can be a way of getting the message that I am cared for through other words.

But what’s wrong with advocating here, in the abstract space for exploring what would be ideal practices, the idea that we atheists shouldn’t feel embarrassed that we have no consolations of eternal life or prayers to offer but instead realize the constructive implications and possibilities that can grow out of our rationalism and stoicism.  I want to encourage us to recognize that part of being anti-superstitious and trying to embrace reality as directly as possible can also mean loving directly.  It means communicating love not indirectly through offers of prayers but through the real words, “I love you.”  The same courage that eschews false hopes should also eschew masks for our real feelings.  If the loss of faith takes away the words “I’ll pray for you” and leaves us with no recourse but to gulp hard and actually come out with an “I love you” then atheism has more than a cubicle for expressing love, it’s got a catalyst.  And I think it’s important that atheists be willing and able to consciously think that out rather than just accept their only option in life to be meatloaf.

So while I see the place for having times and places wherein we put people before abstract truth and whereas I do not advocate routinely having philosophical arguments on death beds, I must admit nonetheless admit it puts a twinkle in my eye to imagine Dennett reacting with an indomitable philosopher’s spirit on his sick bed, overflowing with rational gratitude towards his fellow human being and raging against falsehood where many others worry only about the realities of their own mortality.  The latter image cheers me because it reminds me of my grandfather’s sheer, tenacious force of will to live which my mom reports never left him, even in his very final moments, until he was completely dead.  I love the powerful, substantive, and compelling case Dennett actually makes from his sick-bed—the insightful lessons that he draws from this experience where so many others clutch in fear to superstitions.  Watch the video below and listen to his actual recognition of, and gratitude for, the love communicated to him by those who offered to pray for him even as he opts not to miss the opportunity to make a passionate and rational argument.  As you watch the video ask yourself which one has no room for self-transcending love?  The magnanimous, overflowingly grateful, truth-insistent Daniel Dennett or the Christian writer who upon hearing such a letter reasoned that Dennett must not have any room for love in his heart?

For the side by side comparison to be easiest, here again is what Joe Bob Briggs took away from that speech:

One of the most touching moments (for the atheists) and troubling moments (for me) came on the final evening of the convention, when Daniel Dennett was presented with the 2007 Richard Dawkins Award . . . by Richard Dawkins. (Yes, things were getting ridiculous by then.) In presenting the award, Dawkins told the story of a life-threatening illness that Dennett had suffered through the previous year. During Dennett’s time in the hospital, he was upset by the number of people who said “We will pray for you.” He thought the focus should be on the wonderful staff and technology available in the hospital, not on appeals to a fictitious force in outer space. Dawkins tells this story with great admiration, and the audience agrees–what a brave and honest man.

The name for this is stoicism, and they’re committed to it. They don’t even realize that when people say “We will pray for you”–sometimes even non-religious people–it means they have run out of any other thing to say to you. They’re overwhelmed by the enormity of what you’re facing, and what they’re facing, and so they use this phrase to mean “I love you.” I think most people would instinctively know this. I can imagine few people on the planet who would be offended or upset by the offer of intercessory prayer. I don’t even think that most people offering intercessory prayer at a time like that intend to follow through on the prayer, at least not in any formal way. There’s a connection made at that moment, and it’s recognized by both parties as love. This may be the main reason atheism has no long-term legs. It has no cubicle for love.

Another remembrance of my grandfather’s skepticism is here.

Your Thoughts?

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