Archive for January, 2013

Meaning In A Time Of Mourning: Secular Celebration of a Life Well Lived

Posted on January 30, 2013. Filed under: Atheism, Atheist Ethics, Forward Thinking, Parenting, Personal, Religion |

This post is my contribution to the Forward Thinking project, an amazing online community project started by Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism and Daniel Finke of Camels With Hammers.  For more information or how you can contribute click on the links above.  The topic of interest this time is “Mourning Death Collectively”.

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When my Grandfather passed away two years ago, I sat in the chapel of the funeral home where his service was held and listened to a Minister deliver a eulogy to a man he had never met.  My Grandfather was not a religious man- at least not in my lifetime.  He was clever, kind, jovial, and gentle; he was the kind of man that made a room light up with his presence.  He never talked about God, and he never went to church.

The Minister did an admirable job of ducking and weaving; he recounted the life of a man who left so much love in the hearts of those he touched, a man whose life had purpose and meaning, a man whose life seemed bursting with grace and bereft of God.

The Minister had clearly done his homework; he had spent several hours during the days leading up to the service talking to several of the friends and relatives who would be in attendance.  He had cornered me on the day of the funeral- asking me to share the memories I had and the things I might miss most now that my Grandfather was gone.  He listened attentively to the stories of going to visit my Grandpa on the farm he had worked at when I was little; how I was thrown ten feet by a sheep that took exception to my petting her lamb.  Stories of him taking me up to the top story of the barn to look through all the arched doors, stained glass and cast iron fixtures collected over a lifetime of renovating century homes and landmarks with his construction company, of giving me my sense of wonder and a love of architecture and history.  What I would miss most about my Grandpa, I said, was how he would always have a magic trick or two to show us when we sat around drinking coffee; he would confound everyone with his sleight of hand, showing us the same trick over and over as we tried desperately to figure out how he did it.

During the eulogy, the Minister recalled this story of my Grandfather and the magic tricks.  Being the rhetorical magician that most Ministers are, he took the moment to try and teach us a faith lesson about how a man can be so close to the beauty of religion without ever actually expressing it in words.  The Minister seized upon this moment, telling us all that here was a man who loved the mystery- who embraced the illusion; here was a man who saw that there was something more to things than what lies at the surface.  Isn’t that what faith is about?  Isn’t it about trusting that there are reasons that lie beneath everything that we see, even when it is not visible to the eye?

There was a part to the story of my Grandpa and his magic tricks that the Minister had left noticeably absent from his retelling.  The reason I liked those tricks was that after frustrating over so many of the solutions, and admittedly solving very few of them on my own, my Grandpa would show me how it was done.  He would slow it down, take special care to make me aware of his hands and what they were doing- and expose the illusion as just that: an illusion.  My Grandfather loved the mystery, yes.  What I want to think he valued more was watching me solve the puzzle; he wanted me to look past the surface and see that there was no magic there other than what he had wanted me to see.  I like to think that my Grandfather did much to train my mind to break an illusion down into simple, explainable steps and not get caught up in what seemed to be the implausible.

Maybe this Minister thought that in a moment of grief that none of us would give much thought to what can only be described as the worst analogy ever.  Maybe he thought it was just a cute segue from a personal story to the conciliatory platitudes of his faith.  I wanted to laugh.  I thought to myself that my Grandfather had played one last sleight of hand that day- he had let a rhetorical magician build an illusion; he watched as I carefully examined the sleight of hand and exposed the trick.  My Grandfather respected illusions, but he always wanted you to be in on the sleight of hand.

As we gather together to celebrate the lives of those who are close to us, it will increasingly be the case that we will have these confused mash-ups of religious tradition and secular culture.  Funerals are, of course, for the living and not for the dead.  At this moment in time we have families and communities that are not, as we were perhaps a half century ago, religious monoliths.  It was the case with my Grandfather that his funeral was religious more because the people who planned it were religious and not because he would have wanted it that way.  I was in the minority in that room, and I’m in some sense glad that the Minister was able to balance those religious platitudes with an honest acknowledgement that my Grandfather was not one to suffer religious hand-wringing.  Increasingly though, there will be more and more people like me who are grieving more and more people like my Grandpa.  As our society shifts farther toward the irreligious, those traditional ceremonies will be increasingly less relevant to both the mourners and the memory of those being mourned.  The religious people delivering eulogies, too, will feel the pressures of the tightrope walk between not disparaging the dead and the honest acknowledgement of what their faith says lies ahead for those who “turn their back on God”.

It was amusing for me to watch a religious man wax poetic about how downright godly my atheist Grandfather was.  I wonder, too, if these moments take hold in the imaginations of the religious mourners who must be torn between reality and faith.  How can a man who has done so much good be destined for eternal torment?  Why should my belief in Jesus be the difference between everlasting bliss or punishment?  Is there no value to being a positive light if that light doesn’t give all credit to God?   In death the assumptions of religion come to loggerheads with the reality of a life well lived- for every person who tastes their own mortality perhaps another will see how simple it is to live on. Mourning is a cathartic moment and each of us has unique and meaningful experiences.

With the death of those closest to us comes the cold realization of mortality and the inevitable questions about the meaning of life, consciousness, and what lies beyond.  These questions are the bread and butter of religion- many a person has taken comfort and refuge in the idea that corporeal existence is merely a springboard to the eternal.  I don’t believe that we are all taking part in some “cosmic audition” for a role in eternity.  I don’t believe that my life can be boiled down to a job interview for my spiritual career.  I don’t find those ideas compelling or even desirable- but so many of us do. I would rather a compelling explanation over a desirable one- but for me religion offers neither.   This doesn’t mean that I don’t think that atheism has a compelling or even a desirable narrative to offer those of us struggling with mortality, grief and the meaning of life.  I think we have both.  Life is transitory, death is not; it is not a path to something that transcends it.  This is all we have, and all we ever will have.  We need to make the most of our time under the sun.  I was not aware before I came into this world and I will have no awareness once I leave it.  Compelling? Yes.  Desirable? Perhaps not.

This is just one part of the narrative of life, though; we do afford ourselves some measure of immortality.  The lives that we touch and the differences we make will outlive us and outlive their contemporaries.  We do get to be a part of the eternal.  My Grandfather was a product of those who touched him and the culture of his time- and he in turn touched my life and the lives of so many others.  The buildings he built still stand; and they will be here long after I am gone.  His life was bursting with meaning- and he was just a construction worker and farmhand.  He was infinitely special and nothing special at all.  So am I; so are you.  We leave an eternal footprint deep and tangible, regardless of whether we are giants or mere men.  We are the only known species to have a robust understanding of history and culture, and these things will make us immortal for better or for worse.  So be better, not worse.

That, to me, is a desirable way to live- and to live on.

Funerals can and should be an opportunity to reflect on the ways that the mourned have changed us- and in so doing have changed the world.  We ought to be sharing the value of a life that will transcend its corporeal limits.  I’d like for my funeral to be a time where my friends and family share the ways that my life gave them something that cannot die.  I’d like it if we all took the time to think about a life well lived and share that message with others.

If there is one thing that I believe important to take away from the grief of losing someone who was close to us- if there is something that we ought to take away from our mourning and build upon- it is that our lives are not strings that are measured and cut by the Fates. Our lives are braids that are woven with every other person we come into contact with.  Even after our string has come to its end, that braid goes on in perpetuity through those we have allowed ourselves to be tied to.  If we take the time to change the course of others around us, we don’t die- we just take a well earned rest.  My Grandfather taught me to see wonder- he taught me to appreciate architecture and history- he made me open my eyes and question what I saw.  I will take those lessons and teach my children, and they in turn will give those lessons to others.

My Grandpa isn’t really dead, because his life has shaped my own.

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Civic Responsibility Rebooted: Why I think we are a community and we ought to start acting like it.

Posted on January 17, 2013. Filed under: Atheism, Atheist Ethics, Forward Thinking, Personal, Politics, Social Justice |

This post is my contribution to the Forward Thinking project, an amazing online community project started by Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism and Daniel Finke of Camels With Hammers.  For more information or how you can contribute click on the links above.

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When we hear the term “Civic Responsibility”, several things come immediately to mind.  Perhaps most of us will say that voting is a civic responsibility; maybe some of us would say that engagement in local and regional issues is a civic responsibility.

Though I think those are both good examples of ways in which we can show civic responsibility, I think that they merely brush the surface of what civic responsibility means.

In the last couple decades- maybe even in the last few years- technology has made new communities.  Though the definition of “civic” seems rooted in our towns and cities, I feel it needs to be expanded to include these new communities- communities that were not even possible 40 years ago, communities that were the realm of specialized hobbyists a mere 20 years ago, communities that today are an almost assumed and necessary part of life for the “connected generation”.  We are living in a world of virtual civics- where our identity, community, and real life successes are increasingly shaped by our connections to people who live hundreds or thousands of kilometres from our doorstep.  If the reason we call local engagement “civic” is because these are the people we are most likely to interact or have the greatest sense of closeness and community, then I would argue that “civic” is a word that must be increasingly inclusive of those communities where we have “virtual citizenship“.  It used to be the case that community was beholden to the practical limitations of geography; yet yesterday, for example, I had as much (and much more robust) interaction with friends in Florida as I had with the people who live on my street.

It seems to me that if the word “civic” can’t transcend your mailing address- the word is of little use to us at all.

What, then, does it mean to be responsible to your community?  When we are talking about traditional civic responsibility the answer seems much more obvious- you are tied to others in your community by the shared experiences of geography and locality. Roughly speaking- you experience the same events, you interact with the same people, you use the same basic services.  You want to give back to your community because the state of your community directly affects your own success and your own enjoyment; your community is responsible for your success and fulfilment and an investment is both paid back and in some sense owed.  I would argue that these same transactions occur in virtual communities- and that in some sense we ought to be more cognizant of our responsibilities to these new communities because we are the pioneers and founding fathers of a community in its infancy.  Just as those who took the initiative to plot the street and sewer layouts, build town squares and community services charted the course that made the future easy or difficult for future citizens- so too are we now making the choices that will make access to enjoyment of  our virtual communities easy or difficult for ourselves and others.

In this sense it is not enough for us to be merely engaged in our communities, but we must be looking at the ways in which our own investments are going to make things better or worse for the enjoyment of everyone.  Just like the man who runs for town council because he wants to avoid higher taxes or reduced services if the town deficit is not addressed- as a community I think we owe it to each other to invest in good habits today to avoid bigger hurdles in the future.

I feel a great amount of affinity for my online community.  Some of my online relationships rival those I have cultivated for years in person.  There are people I talk to almost daily, some that I interact with several times a week, others who I speak to from time to time when something of mutual interest comes up.  There are those who I know through friends and those who I choose to avoid.  There are issues in my community for which I am passionate and issues that are of only passing interest.

In every sense of the word I am part of a community, and that community impacts me for better or worse. 

My responsibility to that community is both an investment in my future enjoyment and a way to give back to a community that gives me much.  I think I owe more to this community than simply being engaged.  I owe it to them to make my contribution as meaningful and beneficial as I am capable; I ought to offer my expertise and resources in ways that forward the best possible goals for the larger group.

Responsibility to your community is not just grand gestures; it is true that for many of us grand gestures and huge commitments are impractical or impossible.  Not every person in a town will run for office, or give large donations to local charities; those are noble contributions, but they are practically impossible for many of us.  There are those of us in the online community whose voices are bigger- who have the platform or the means to make the grand gestures. Some people in the town donate blood or volunteer a few hours a week to charities; some of us online give to a struggling blogger or join together for small scale projects.  Some in the town vote or picket or speak up when they witness injustice; some of us online post or petition or comment.  Whatever we can give, however big or small our contribution, we must remember that our actions (and inaction) are contributing to a community.

Each of us is making the community that we live in by our choices, big and small.  We are building and contributing to the community- a community that is going to give back to us and be part of our future fulfillment. I think that we have a responsibility to that community both as an investment in our future and to pay forward the good that it does for us.

Our communities are there for us, and we ought to be there for them.

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2012: The Year That Was……

Posted on January 7, 2013. Filed under: Atheism, Atheist Ethics, Children, Parenting, Personal |

blogging1Two years ago at about this time, I had a roundup of my blogging year.   The blog was 7 months old, I was just making the transition from being a “longtime commenter” to being my own blogger, and the whole enterprise was fresh and exciting.

In seven months I had written 40 posts, had 215 comments, my busiest day was 69 pageviews and the blogging world was my oyster.

By this time last year I had published 83 total posts, had 1183 comments (well, half that- since that counts my comments, and I almost always respond), my busiest day was 270 pageviews.

In a whole year I had mustered 43 posts.

This year, I managed just 21 posts, had 193 comments (again, half that), and had a post go semi-viral netting me my best-ever day of 477 pageviews.

In short, 2012 was a blogging flop for me.  I had little motivation to write and I went from having almost 100 regular visits a day down to a pretty steady 20 visits the past few months.

What The Hell Happened?

Here’s the thing:  I don’t know exactly what happened.  There are a few contenders for my bout of  “Creative Depression”- as Glendon Mellow called it in the great post he had recently about his struggles with it.  The best way to explain why I have been largely absent from blogging is to do the opposite of what I did two years ago when I posted that first “Year In Review”.  The best way to explain it is to avoid stats and figures- the best way to explain it is to get personal.

So here is my “Year In Review”- the one that really matters.   Here is a list of ups and downs in 2012- things that distracted me, enthralled me, or annoyed me.  This is the year that was…….

  1. I welcomed my second daughter (and fifth child) into the world.  Geneva Belle Blanche Waye was born
    genny

    She gets her hair from her mom……

    on January 6th, 2012.  Having kids never gets old.  It gets expensive, but it never gets old.

  2.  I lost my job in February.  Not the best timing, I must confess.  The good news is that I found another job pretty quickly at a place I had worked before.  Being unemployed gets old fast…..
  3. During the break between jobs, I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to be the guest blogger at Le Cafe Witteveen for my friend Jeremy.  What an amazing experience, and proof positive that I can be a regular blogger- so long as I am motivated by my duty to a friend.
  4. My laptop got FUBAR’d.  This is what happens when you let your 12 year old son complete the trifecta of clicking happily on any link he sees, leaving the laptop in places my 4 year old son can reach it (and proceed to rip 1/2 the keys off), and then stress the charging port until it doesn’t charge any longer.  I had to switch to my “emergency laptop” running XP, with 1GB RAM, no webcam, and no mic.  I’m not entirely sure if we are spoiled by technology in 2012 or if we just patiently suffered through horrible technology in 2005.
  5. I turned my Facebook into an atheist networking bonanza.  Thanks to Dan Finke (If you don’t know who he is, you should) I was able to become “friends” with a bunch of people who identify as atheists.
  6. The atheist community forecast was upgraded (or downgraded) from a tempest in a teapot to a shitstorm in a shallow pool.
  7. I joined Twitter (yay!!!!)- then proceeded to cause a major rift in my family by tweeting my anger about the way Islam treats women (boo…)

    Who has two thumbs and is about to alienate his whole family? This guy.

    Who has two thumbs and is about to alienate his whole family? This guy.

  8. My brother got married and I did not go to the wedding (For an explanation, see #7).
  9. I became obsessed with atheist moral theory.
  10. I wrote a popular post about Tone Trolling
  11. I co-founded (and then completely ignored- sorry about that!) a skeptics group in my hometown.
  12. I got deeper into the Scouting movement, becoming the leader of my son’s Cub pack.  (They don’t officially allow atheists, but, hey….)

So those are some of the important and/or annoying and/or enraging moments of this past year for me.  Not all of them are responsible for my lack of blogging, and ultimately it is myself that I have to blame.

My next post is going to tease you (yes, you) about what to expect from me in the New Year.  I’m going to have some blogging resolutions, and some totally unspecific/ mysterious announcements of things that are in the works for me over the next year.

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