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Humanist Essay for November 2013
"A Kind of Hope"
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Someone special died. I know that everyone is special to somebody, or to a few or many others. But I write of someone who wasn't a close personal friend of mine - she was someone I knew and she was special.

We all know people like that. They shine. They uplift by their very presence. Here was a woman beautiful inside and out, talented and hardworking, smart and generous. I know there must have been times when she didn't smile, but I never witnessed any. She was in the middle of life and full of life, even in the face of a cancer that had taken the lives of close family members and would eventually take hers.

Nature's pretty sneaky with those genes. The science of it can be leave one feeling powerless or alienated. If we are each just a cocktail of chemicals that's been cooked up in a long series of unsupervised experiments to no particular purpose, then what is the point of ... anything? It would not be unreasonable to drift from this existential dilemma into nihilism and submerge oneself in an indulgent lifestyle of excess and excitement, even - or especially - if that meant hastening the inevitable end. Yet I have never known anyone who was facing impending death who did that. Yes, they reprioritized, but the principles and the people they cared about didn't drop down on the list just because chemistry had decreed the situation to be hopeless.

"Stuff" happens, as they say. Stuff that's hard to accept, impossible to undo, painful to remember. Reinterpreting events with a spiritual spin or in a mythic context can be a healing practice. Meditation, dreamwork, therapy and prayer have proven to be effective techniques for dealing with sudden change and misfortune. But I draw the line at looking for any kind of moral or karmic "reason" for a jumble of events in which I and mine are mere, fleeting specks. For me, the superficially random but actually quite consistent processes of nature offer more comfort in trying times than the idea that we have arrived at this place by some willful action of an outside force. Or willful inaction. (If such a force exists, it is appalling indeed - I don't see how I could possibly appease it even if I tried.)

I was asked recently, following a talk I gave about humanism, where I find hope in the absence of religious faith and belief in god. "In humanity?" the questioner guessed with a hint of disapproval in his voice.

"Well, yes, in humanity," I told him. "But what I was going to say is that I find my hope in the fact that humans don't have all the answers, that we're capable of learning more and being better, and figuring out how to solve our problems and live together. I know it's easy to look around at today's society and say, 'Not much hope here,' but my hope, my belief, is that it isn't going to be this way forever. This is not all there is, this is not the best we can be. We can and will continue to evolve."

Well, there were no more questions after that! But many questions remain for me and for humanists. Looking for the answers is what pushes us forward and keeps things interesting. Our curiosity is a kind of hope. As for comfort, our minds and imaginations allow us to transform intense emotional experiences into a story that does have meaning as it threads its way through all the highs and lows of life. I suppose that's why I write - so that I can start out with a lament, "Someone special died," and work my way around to, "Someone special lived, and I was lucky to know her."

But I'm still p.o.'d at those stupid genes.

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Copyright © 2013 Zelda Gatuskin

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