Monday, December 31, 2012

Seeking comfort with Mr. Rogers

In the last two weeks, several people posted this quote to their social media profiles. It's from TV personality and children's advocate Fred Rogers:

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world. quote

It's a sentiment that I have always taken comfort in when tragedy strikes. I'm sure that, as a Presbyterian minister, Mr. Rogers believed it was "God" that was spurning people into helping others. But I'm so glad he didn't say that in this quote, since Atheists like myself do the same after a horrific event: we look to see the people helping, or we jump in to help ourselves, and it gives us comfort. And we need comfort, just like anyone else - we're human. I tried to explain this in my last blog regarding The Atheist Response to Tragedy.

Why does seeing others providing help, and why does providing help ourselves to others, help us in a time of crisis? Because it grows, or restores, a belief in the capacity of humans to do good, to want to do good, something very much needed in the face of an inhumane act.

Every day, we do a hundred activities based on the assumed goodness of humanity: driving somewhere in a car and assuming that other people are going to drive safely, taking the bus and assuming other riders will intervene should anything dire happen, going to a doctor and assuming all staff will read charts correctly and listen as we speak, getting on a plane and assuming the pilot and flight attendants and mechanics will all be doing their jobs correctly, and on and on. Even the most diehard every man for himself person has to make these assumptions every day, over and over. The alternative is to build and stock a fortress, and never leave it, and live every day based on fear.

There is tremendous support happening right now to the many, many victims of mass shootings and natural disasters in the USA. Some areas are overwhelmed with support and offers of help. If you are looking for the opportunity to help, to feel some control over life, you might start in your own community: there are seniors that would love to know how to use cell phones or computers to connect with resources they need, games they would enjoy and people they love. There are parents of special needs kids that would love a sitter for a few hours so they could shop, go to a movie or sit in a coffee shop. There are kids that would love to go camping.

Here's how to find ways to do some good in your community - to provide comfort to others and, perhaps, to yourself:

Most Atheists don't believe in a soul - an immortal entity or essence that occupies your body and will continue after your body dies. So it would be disingenuous for me to say that helping others will restore your soul. But I can say that helping others will help you want to get out of bed every morning. It will help you build up a large storage of beautiful memories - and that can help you greatly when faced with tragedy or horrors created by humans or nature. It's worked for me - and Mr. Rogers. Maybe it can work for you too.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Atheist Response to Tragedy

Oh, how I've cried. I've thought about the terror those little kids must have felt in their final moments, the trauma the surviving kids will always feel, the teachers and school administrators who must have felt desperate and shocked as gunshots cut them down, the police and firefighters who had to see those dead children and adults and work with families going through an extreme grief that seems deep and endless. And when I think of that, and see the news coverage, I have wept.

That's empathy. That's what most humans feel during a crisis like this - including Atheists and Secular Humanists. Empathy is not an exclusive trait of people who believe in an invisible, magical friend. Empathy is, to me, what creates and sustains caring people and societies. It is our empathy that guides us in decisions and actions at times like this.

Atheists / Secular Humanists have moments of despair and moments of hope, just like any other human. We seek comfort in the arms of loved ones, in holding our pets closer, in being kinder in little ways throughout the day. We seek reassurance of overall human goodness and signs of normalcy - we look at a woman coo'ing with her baby at a bus stop, a parent patiently talking to a child in a store about why he can't have THAT toy, an elderly couple holding hands, a teen ager opening a door for someone, and we see life and kindness going on, continuing - unstoppable. We see a choir singing, an out-of-shape person jogging, a neighbor wearing his cowboy riding duds because he's just been off somewhere riding a horse, and we are comforted. We remember times of profound human horror that we have studied - the Holocaust of WWII, the mass slaughter of various people in different times, slavery - and we see the amazing resilience of humans in the face of such, again and again. And we are comforted. 

We also try to offer comfort. We cook meals. We hold hands. We send cards. We say, "I love you. I care about you." We ask, "How can I help you?" We mow someone's lawn and buy groceries for a grieving family, without fanfare. We contribute to a college fund. Those things feel good to do. We have been on the receiving end of those acts in our own time of crisis, and we remember how it made us feel. We feel love for other humans, even humans we've never met, and we want to be a part of the kindness extended to them.

We wonder why the media interviews only religious leaders about how to handle this tragedy - why they ignore secular ethicists that have so much to offer in this time as well. Some of the most caring statements I've seen on Facebook and Twitter after this tragedy are by people I know are Atheists. By ignoring those that can speak about comfort and hope from a non-religious perspective, the media ignores the needs of Atheists in this tragedy - and, being humans, we need words of comfort and hope and acknowledgement just like anyone. 

Atheists are not burdened by questions of destiny, of why a supposedly omnipresent being was so NOT present to protect people from this horror, about any bigger "plan" for humanity that required this carnage, because we don't believe in such. That lack of burden is definitely a comfort in times like this. And instead of praying for the victims, we try to think of ways to prevent this from happening again - we look for things to actually *do*. We look at countries like the U.K., Germany, France, Australia, Spain and other places, where the number of homicides per capita, as well as the number of gun-related deaths, are so dramatically lower than here in the USA. We think about the psychology of the murderer, and what we can learn about that person's thought processes in order to prevent this from happening again. We wonder how to get better access to mental health services, and better awareness of mental health issues, for everyone - for the survivors, for the first responders, for parents of mentally-disturbed children, for EVERYONE. Also instead of praying, we may find solace in volunteering in our communities, to feel a stronger connection to neighbors, to feel a stronger connection to humanity, to all life on Earth, and to feel like we do have control over much of our lives. 

Atheists/secular humanists don't think poorly or unkindly of people who do find comfort in a belief in an invisible, magical friend. But many of us do cringe at people saying, "We survived because God was looking out for us," thinking about just how much that statement hurts parents who lost a child - they've just been told God wasn't looking out for their little one. We also cringe at the statement, "God called them home" or "this is part of God's plan," knowing there will be children now terrified because of those statements, fearing that same God will "call them home" soon, that his plan is for them to go through such a horrific experience. Those statements are tough for Atheists to hear, as we know just how much fear and pain they cause so many people.

We feel anger at statements like, "This happened because God/prayer was taken out of schools." This kind of misinformation creates hatred against Atheists - as well as those who are in a religious minority in a community. These statements are designed to create hate, and such are reprehensible at any time - but particularly now. It is absolutely legal for children to pray in public schools. There is no law whatsoever preventing anyone from praying in a public school. We are appalled that many religious people will use an event like this to demonize Atheists and spread this misinformation. We worry at the fallout that will come as a result, how many unkind statements Atheists and Secular Humanists and those in minority religions can expect to hear as a result in the days to come.

We're here, and we're grieving too. We are a part of the world, full members of the human family. Please don't forget about us. Please don't ignore us. Please don't demonize us. Let's all grieve and learn and help others together.

ADDENDUM: for parents seeking help in talking to children, see Parenting Beyond Belief.

Friday, December 14, 2012

You're humiliated. But you don't have to be defeated.

A man walked into a movie theatre and shot and killed a dozen people. A professional football player used a gun to murder the mother of his child. A young man walked into a mall in Oregon and fired a gun into crowds, killing two people. A man walked into an elementary school and begins shooting, killing dozens, many of them children. All this happened in the last few weeks - and one happened today.

And years ago, there was a high school in Paducah, Kentucky, and another school, in Stamps, Arkansas, and another in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and another in Springfield, Illinois, and another in Littleton, Colorado, and a university in Virginia, where young men who felt humiliated or persecuted decided to use guns to murder.

Yet, this is not a blog about gun control. It's a blog about humiliation. About being a loser. And about not using violence as a response to that.

It's an awful thing to be humiliated: to find out the person you love actually loves someone else, to be fired from your job, to be rejected by anyone, to miss an opportunity you've worked hard for and dreamed of most of your life, or to be belittled by anyone. It hurts. It burns. The pain is real. Your heart may race, your head or stomach may ache, you might feel like your body will explode, and/or you may feel like you are at a pit of darkness so deep you might never get out.

It can also hurt to hear your values belittled, your beliefs made fun of, your world view satirized, your culture mocked. It can hurt to know others are talking, smiling, even laughing, at YOU. The pain from being insulted can hurt like repeated slaps in the face or punches in the belly, no question. It can make you feel persecuted and victimized. It hurts. It burns. The pain is real.

I know what it's like to be humiliated. I've had my dignity publicly injured. I've felt like a loser - and known others have thought the same thing about me in those dark times. I've been alienated from people I liked because of the words and actions of others. I know that very, very real pain of humiliation. I've felt it many times. I bet I feel it again.

Being humiliated, insulted, offended, rejected, alienated - the pain you experience from that is real. And to feel anger, even rage, as a result of humiliation or rejection is completely natural. But to use those feelings to justify physical violence against anyone is an insult to humanity and does nothing - NOTHING - to improve your situation. To use those feelings to justify shooting up a school or a mall or a workplace or anywhere, to justify killing "infidels", to justify murder - it's reprehensible and far worse than any humiliation you have felt.

I've never been fond of the saying, No one can humiliate you without your consent. I think it denies the very real pain caused by very real words and actions, and creates an expectation that we all have to be Buddha or Jesus Christ or some other super hero. You are human and, therefore, you are going to feel humiliation and anger. That's natural. You are not a super hero.

A better saying, IMO, is that No one can defeat you without your consent. I have been humiliated, insulted, dishonored - but I have never been defeated.

A story that changed my life regarding humiliation was a parable about Gautama Buddha, the man that most in the West simply refer to as Buddha. The story: a man was constantly insulting and mocking Gautama Buddha, who, at last, said to him, "If you buy a gift for someone, and that person does not take it, if that person refuses the gift, to whom does the gift belong?" The man answered, "It would belong to me, because I bought the gift, I am the original owner." Gautama Buddha smiled and said, "That is correct. And it is exactly the same with your insults. If you become angry with me and I do not get insulted, then the insults fall back on you. All you have done is hurt yourself."

I love that story. What I love about it is the power transfer - Gautama Buddha says that the person that refuses the "gift" of an insult becomes more powerful, better, than the person offering the insult. You insult me - and I win!

If you are a Christian, then consider what Jesus said, as quoted in Matthew 5:38 - 40: "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well."

I never really understood that story, not really, until I heard the Buddhist story. I thought it was a blessed are the meek example, but in fact, I think it's another there is power in refusing an insult story. That makes me like it much better.

Another story I like about how to handle insults is regarding Stoics, from this blog:
    The Stoics actually welcomed insults, for two reasons.

    The first is best summed up by these words from Antisthenes (who was technically a Cynic and not a Stoic, but I digress)…

    “Pay attention to your enemies, for they are the first to discover your mistakes.”

    The idea here is that insults can act as signposts. If there’s a grain of truth to them, then they help point us in the direction of our faults and insecurities, and we can get busy working on those and improving ourselves.

    The second reason Stoics welcomed insults was because they believed they helped build a kind of immunity against criticism. A man who has been criticized regularly in the past is likely to shrug off future insults as no big deal, while a man who has never been insulted before will surely be left reeling when someone first likens him to donkey appendage.

And then there is the dignity and honor I've seen in so many people that have survived rape and torture. People who have been through unspeakable horrors, far worse than merely being insulted, and have no sign of defeat in their eyes - if they can do it, can't I? Can't you?

None of this is to say that you should have no response at all to insults. When someone uses language that I find demeaning, I will say to them something along the lines of, "That is demeaning. That is hateful. That is wrong." I'll never become unoffendable. But I hope that I always remember that I can choose my reaction to what is happening to me - and that choice can be what's best for me and have nothing to do with violence whatsoever. I work to channel my rage in such a way that I don't make the situation worse. I try to think, "What's best for me, now and in the future, regarding how I respond to this?" That reaction may words. That reaction may be to remove that person from my life. That reaction may be start a petition or otherwise bring a spotlight to what has happened. That reaction may be to go far away, on a journey where I can get perspective regarding what has happened. Whatever the reaction will be, it will be what's best for me - and, therefore, will never be about violence.

What about revenge? For me, the most important thing is that I recover, that I work to find my strength and dignity again, something that is ALWAYS possible - not that I hurt the person as much as he or she has hurt me. If I feel the need for revenge - and, yes, sometimes, I do - then my recovery and later success is revenge enough. For me to know that I have been triumphant over assaults on my dignity is my revenge - it is enough for me. I also believe being an asshole brings more assholes into your life - when Miss Celie says at near the end of the movie The Color Purple, "Everything you done to me already been done to you," I get that. I believe it about all the assholes of the world.

When you lose, when you are rejected, when you are humiliated, you will lose some friends - perhaps many. That's okay - ultimately, it is a gift to be rid of those people, because you don't want people like that in your life. The good news is that those that remain will be real friends. And if no one remains, then you get to use your new-found people assessment skills to make new, better friends who would never abandon you because you have been rejected in a job or a lover or American Idol.

If you want to hurt others, to shoot, to kill, it's time to get professional help. If you feel despondent, that there is no hope for your situation, that things will never get better, it's time to get professional help. There are people that are ready to talk to you, to hear your story, and to get you the help you need. Go to Google and type in the name of your city (if it's relatively large) or the name of your county or the name of your state, and the word crisis hotline. Do it again with the words crisis counseling. Most of what you will find will be suicide hotlines. If that's all you can find, even if you aren't feeling suicidal, call such. Say anything that provides information on the seriousness of your situation. An example,

"I am feeling a huge amount of rage. I want to hurt someone. Help me."


"I am so upset I'm shaking all over. I can't stand this feeling. I'm desperate. I need help, right away."

You may need ongoing counseling. You may need medication. Any of those activities are better than violence.

There is no honor in violence in response to feeling insulted or persecuted - none at all. It might make you feel better for a few seconds, but it will provide you no peace nor satisfaction long term. And to kill yourself afterwards just makes you a coward, worthy of all the insults that will be hurled your way in death.

If it takes selling all your worldly possessions and taking off with a backpack and tent, or a car and small trailer, and coloring your hair and changing your name and rejecting every person you've ever known up to this point in your life in order for you to completely distance yourself from the humiliation, in order for you to be a new person, a different person - do it. The stars won't judge you. The trees won't judge you. Lakes and rivers and streams won't judge you.

No one can defeat you without your consent. Don't be defeated. Go live, flourish, and pursue joy. That is always the wonderfully selfish and better choice than violence.