Tag Archives: atheism

Optimistic Nihilism


A student of mine just dropped an H-bomb of a term on me: Optimistic Nihilism.

This is not a term (and yeah, okay, it’s two terms, but … just … I mean … come on) I was familiar with before this, and I don’t know how, because it sums up my philosophy perfectly.

I’m an atheist, if you didn’t know, and along with that atheism comes the sense that there is no grand, divine purpose for existence — mine or anybody else’s, up to and including the entire human race. There’s no “reason” why we’re here outside of the fact that somehow life got started on this planet and after a few billion years in the martini shaker, we popped out the other side. Once you embrace that idea, it is a very short step indeed to come to the conclusion that nothing we do matters. One needs only consider this image, famously called the “pale blue dot”, from Voyager I as it flew past Saturn into the outer reaches of the solar system in 1990.

Voyager 1's Pale Blue Dot | NASA Solar System Exploration
For further inspiration/soul-crushing despair (depending on your predisposition), read Carl Sagan’s take on this picture.

When you consider that, from another vantage point, even a relatively close one in our galactic neighborhood, the Earth is nothing more than a speck, it is hard to see how human actions could make any difference at all in the scope of the universe.

This is hard to stomach, for some. So difficult is it, that Douglas Adams used it as a form of mental torture in a device called the “Total Perspective Vortex” in his Hitchhiker’s series. (Please to be reading it if you haven’t already.) The TPV, when entered by a victim, would immediately demonstrate to that victim their utter insignificance in the universe and reduce them to a babbling, psychologically disintegrated wreck.

So, there’s your nihilism. Nothing we do matters, our lives will come to nothing and those who knew us will themselves die and be forgotten, and none of it will make any difference.

I can’t make a difference on the scale of the universe, or the galaxy, or the solar system, or even on a scale as (relatively) small as our planet or our home country. But I *am* here, and I’m alive *now*, and I have other people in my life who I love and who love me, and maybe for the little time I have, I can bring some happiness to them and they can bring some to me. And we can make this life, which we all seem to be sharing (let’s steer away from the murky waters of solipsism today), a little less meaningless.

So there’s your optimism.

Optimistic Nihilism.

It’s got a bit of a ring to it.


Bloody Great Shoes


Would you wear shoes with a drop of human blood in the sole?

Nike sues over 'Satan Shoes' with human blood - BBC News

I mean, given the $1018 price tag, and the fact that they sold out in mere minutes, you almost certainly won’t get the chance. (Unless it’s your own blood. But that seems to miss the point a little bit. This is *somebody else’s blood* sloshing around in the sole of your shoe. Mixed with paint, of course, but it’s in there.

Note, also, the pentagram medallion on the laces. And the inverted cross on the tongue.

Nike is distancing themselves from the shoes, of course, saying they never manufactured them that way, and that’s fine. Lord knows they don’t need the religious masses picketing.

But that’s the thing, right? It is so easy to rile up religious people, and Lil Nas X has done it purely as a troll. Just because he can. There’s this big kerfuffle, now, over these shoes…. and if people could just chill out, recognize a troll for a troll and, you know, *not feed it*, the buzz about these shoes would disappear practically overnight.

But some people — and I’ll even go so far as to say some *types* of people — can’t leave it alone. This is symbology that *means something*, they cry, and out come the cries of blasphemy, etc etc.

There is nothing evil about these shoes, except for the backlash. These are man-made materials made by actual human beings to make a buck. There were no devils or demons involved. You can’t even argue that the blood is serving some nefarious purpose. It wasn’t harvested from unsuspecting children sleeping in their beds, or drawn unwillingly from a virgin sacrificed on an altar above a volcano. No, a bunch of shoe-designing nerds drew their own blood and mixed it with some paint and put it in the soles of the shoes to grab a headline.

The symbology is only as powerful as we allow it to be, folks. Yes, an inverted cross and a pentagram have connotations for those of us with religious backgrounds. But are we to believe that this kid — who comes from a few miles down the road from me, it turns out! — is really practicing Satanism here? Just look at what he’s said in response:

Nope, he’s trolling. And if you’re upset about these shoes, well, you were his intended target.


Godless Neighbor


We got one of those church mailers the other day. You know, envelope written out by hand, and inside there’s a brochure with a smattering of scripture and a blurb about the church, usually with a little note like “hope to see you there!” These I put directly into the trash.

At least, that’s what I thought this was. In this one, however, was the obligatory brochure, but also inside was a little handwritten letter. “in these trying times…” “need for community more than ever…” “God’s love will provide…” all that stuff.

And, I dunno, maybe because my neighbor went to the trouble of sitting down and writing out this letter (and for goodness’s sake, I imagine he wrote out hundreds — our neighborhood is huge), I felt compelled to read it.

And because I’m a godless heathen, I also feel compelled to respond.

Here is the letter I will not be sending in return.

Dear neighbor,

Thank you for your invitation.

I will not be attending your church. I do not think you should attend your church anymore either. You rightly point out that the world is in disarray and that we are isolated due to Covid. If you think that God is the answer to all these problems, I must ask you — where has God been up until now? Is it not Her will that all this should have transpired exactly as it has?

Are not the 200,000 American deaths from Covid part of God’s handiwork? If not, why has She not saved those who have died, or answered the prayers of those who have lost friends and loved ones? Is not the animosity so many Americans feel for their countrymen of a different political persuasion exactly as God intended? If not, an all-powerful God could surely unite us. Is our isolation due to the outbreak not God’s will? If not, why has She cursed us with such a deadly and highly contagious plague?

And is it God’s will that we now congregate, in an enclosed space and in great numbers, to aid in the transmission of this plague, to our entire community?

God is not the answer to our problems. Only we can help ourselves, and I will not bring my family to a super-spreader event to hear tales and celebrate the glory of an invisible creature who “loves us” but who also visits such terrible suffering upon us. I advise you likewise to abstain from such endeavors.

Yours,

Your godless heathen neighbor

Ahem.

My dad told me recently that I sometimes lack tact.

But if somebody’s gonna send me a hand-written letter, I feel like they at least deserve a response.

Rest assured, I will not send this letter. But it is what I will be thinking when I compose something a little less harsh.

Slightly off-topic: I know *I* see these things and simply toss them in the bin, and think no further about it. I imagine most people do the same. I wonder what the sentiment in my neighborhood would be if I put out an Atheist brochure of the same tenor?

Something tells me it would not be nearly as charitably received. In fact, I wager I might have some God-loving souls knocking on my door or complaining to the HOA.


No Thanks, We’ll Just Hope and Pray


They say that God laughs while you’re making plans.

What has been particularly frustrating to me in the United States over the past few months has been watching other nations not only not be affected as gravely as we have been by the pandemic, but watching them get the outbreak under control in relatively short order. This is actually painful to me. It paints the stark picture that things did not have to be the way they are… a thing that’s always true but which is thrown into particularly sharp relief when things in your neighborhood are, to put it bluntly, crap.

And let there be no mistake; things are crap, here. Cases and deaths are at their highest levels and show no signs of slowing. You can’t even say we’re in a second wave; the first wave never stopped, it only slowed down a little bit.

But worse than the way things are is the way people are acting.

I don’t know how it is in other countries, and I am well aware that jerks are in short supply exactly nowhere when humans are involved, and entitlement is by no stretch an American disease. But here in the States — and, I would argue, especially in the South — we have a lot of entitled jerks that are making things very hard for the rest of us, and making it impossible for us to get a handle on the disease, much less get the stranglehold on it that we need for life to go back to normal.

And that’s been the thing. We hear so much and talk so much about things going back to normal, but there are so many problems with that. Two major ones, as I see it.

One is, “normal” is subjective, and whatever “normal” we get back to is not going to be the same “normal” that we left. Yet so many people seem to think that we’re just going to go back to living our lives exactly the same way we were doing in 2019. But we can’t. Even when we get this disease under control (and I’m now convinced that, in America at least, “under control” means we have a reliable vaccine, but we’ll come to that), nobody’s going to forget how quickly and catastrophically things spiraled out of control. Even if you take the factor of the disease out of it, we now have a really good look at how fragile the economy is, how unstable several job classes are (look at all the restaurants closing their doors), and what a rift this has opened up between people socially. “Normal” post-COVID will not look like “Normal” pre-COVID. It just won’t.

Two is, we want to get back to normal, but apparently we’re not willing to work to get back to normal. This may be kind of obvious, but it’s the sort of thing I key in on as a self-proclaimed storyteller and student of character. Look at any story. The hero wants a thing, and that want causes them to do things. Luke wants off his backwater planet, so he leaps at the chance to leave it. The Dude wants a new rug, so he seeks out the other Jeffrey Lebowski for compensation. The progression is usually pretty straightforward, and it usually makes sense.

Here in America, and especially in the South, we want to get back to normal, but so many of us — too many of us — don’t actually want to do anything to make it happen. Again, this is perhaps more of an American problem than it is for many other places in the world, but we are especially concerned with “freedom”, and there is a subset of our population which is not only concerned, but obsessed with freedoms at the expense of anything else. So even though science shows pretty definitively that some measures can be pretty effective in halting the spread (wearing masks, staying home, etc), there are a lot of people (more than I would have guessed) who simply won’t be told what to do. And because these people vote, and mobilize others to vote, very aggressively, we have leaders who think the same way, or who at least perform as if they think the same way (which might as well be the same thing).

Which leaves us with a string of pathetic half-measures against this disease as opposed to forceful, definitive action. Here in Georgia, we don’t require masks to be worn out in public; we only strongly encourage” their use. But you don’t have to be a genius to know that if it’s not required, lots and lots of people aren’t going to do it. (Consider what the roadways would look like if the speed limit were not a legal requirement, but was only “strongly encouraged”. Or if stop signs were only a suggestion.)

And now we are on the precipice of opening schools up again (even though figures in virtually every state are worse than they were when we closed them down back in march). And we get more half-measures. I can only speak for my own area, where we are opening on-schedule, with virtual learning an “option” but not a requirement (most students will be in class a week from today). Masks are “recommended”, but not required. Social distancing will take place where it is “practical”. Fine Arts programs are essentially shut down — chorus classes are not allowed to sing, band classes not allowed to play instruments — but sports are going full-speed ahead. Contact tracing is limited and on the honor system (the county is not doing any testing; if a student feels ill, it’s up to them and their family to get tested — or not, if they don’t feel like it!)

But we are opening up regardless — because we are determined to get back to “normal.”

Problem is, this isn’t normal. School with all these caveats and hedges and limitations isn’t “normal”. This is a patchwork of half-measures, a cavalcade of procedures and guidelines which might sound good on paper or in a sound bite but which begin to fall apart under the slightest bit of scrutiny. Any teacher or parent knows that even under the best of circumstances, a school is a petri dish and students are walking bacteria.

We’re not doing the things that would help us to get what we actually want.

What we are doing is waiting for a miracle.

But I, as a teacher of drama, can assure you: waiting is not action.

Hoping and praying is not action.

Newton’s laws are definitive for describing motion in the universe, but they tend to be true for people too: an object at rest will stay at rest, and an object in motion will stay in motion, until acted on by an outside force.

Waiting, and taking half-measures, is simply wasting time until something bigger and stronger takes action instead of you.

They say that God laughs while you’re making plans.

But while we’re waiting for a miracle, this disease is cackling its head off.


The Obstacle Is the Way


I got my world rocked this week, reading up on stoic philosophy.

The stoics are awesome. I don’t even know all that much about stoicism except to say that this is the philosophy of the ancient Greeks — the really smart ones, not the ones who just lounged around in togas all day slathering themselves in oil and lusting after young boys (I mean, okay, the stoic philosophers probably did that too, but they didn’t just do that) — and when you ponder on their wisdom, you figure out that they really had this life thing figured out.

They weren’t religious. They weren’t spiritual. But they also weren’t despairing or existential as you might expect from people lacking religion or spirituality. (I’m not saying lacking religion or spirituality makes you bleak or dark or depressed or depressing — that just seems to be the perception our culture has for some reason, because y’know, a life without belief in fairy-tale creatures in the sky must obviously be a life devoid of joy — but I digress.) To the contrary, the stoics held that because life is devoid of magic and higher powers and providence, it falls to each of us to create our own joy, to create meaning, and to work for the betterment not just of ourselves, but of everybody around us.

This is powerful stuff, perhaps most powerful when combined with certain doses of certain substances and prefaced by sentences like “you know, man,” or “dude, I just realized” spoken at three in the morning. But still powerful enough when consumed in bite-sized quotes from the internet or delivered daily to your face by your magical pocket-sized telecommunications device. (I have an app called “The Stoic” that serves up a quote from a stoic philosopher every day. Yes, I am a nerd. I love it. Today’s nugget, from Marcus Aurelius: “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts; therefore guard accordingly.”)

Anyway, all this is to return to my original point. I got my world rocked by a central tenet of stoicism: The obstacle is the way. I read that and I realized that it’s perfectly in line with my thinking of late, with my recent productive streak, with the through-line of all the nonfiction books I’ve been reading lately about the way we think, the way we connect, and the way the world affects us.

See, we think of obstacles as bad things. I want to go a certain place, do a certain thing, and this other thing is in my way. This other thing is keeping me from the thing that I want. How could that not be a bad thing?

But it’s not a bad thing. It’s just life.

Because the things we want are, by necessity, on the other side of things that are unpleasant. Put another way, if there weren’t unpleasant things in the way of the things we want … we’d just have them. We’d go over there and get them and there’d be nothing stopping us. To put it in concrete terms: I want to publish a book. (Preferably, books, plural.) But first I have to write it, edit it, make sure it’s good, get it into the hands of an agent, then to a publisher. It’s gonna take work. A LOT of work. Hours and hours at the computer, hammering the words into shape and arranging them just so. I also want to be healthy and strong for my family, so I can live a good long time and annoy them for decades to come. That, too, takes work: it takes thinking about what I eat instead of just shoveling donuts down my gullet (which I would prefer!), it takes making time to exercise (which in my case means waking up at five in the morning to get it done before anybody in the house is even awake). Not easy. And while I’m at it, I’d like to ensure my job security, which means challenging myself at work to be not just a decent teacher but a good one, which means improving myself and investing in my students and a bunch of things it would be easier not to do.

We have all these things that we want, but the path is littered with these obstacles. Big or small, minor inconveniences or major heckin’ setbacks, some struggles you can work past in a day or even an hour, others you can’t even see the end of from where you’re standing. The obstacles are out there, and they’re not going anywhere. My books aren’t going to write themselves. I’m not magically going to discover an extra hour during the day to work out on my own time. I won’t become a better teacher by doing the same things I did last year and the year before.

And that’s enough to keep some people from doing these things. It’s easier not to face those obstacles, to keep things as they are, to accept what you’ve got and be complacent. (I was going to write “content” instead of complacent, but there’s a big difference in those words. And there’s something to be said for feeling “content” with what you have, but it’s another thing entirely to be “complacent”.) I mean, I lived with my parents until I was thirty. Because it was easy. I’m not particularly proud of that, but it did lead me to the path I’m currently on, which makes me thankful for it, even though I now lament how much time I wasted.

But the path to Better is laden with obstacles. Which means that the obstacles are the way forward.

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

When we can view the world in this way, the obstacles become less scary. They cease to be bad things, they cease to be things to be avoided. Viewed this way, obstacles become welcome. They become necessary.

And when you tweak your brain enough, you can even begin to view obstacles as a good thing.

The obstacle is the way.

Are you on the path?

This post is part of Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday.


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