My Reunion

Evanescent used to title his posts starting with the word “My” for a good bit after he started blogging until, I suppose, he ran out of reasons to do so. This post is inspired by a personal event, so I thought I’d emulate him, since I admire his writing, as a sort of homage. I was going to call it, “Ruminations on My Reunion”, but decided that shorter is better.

I attended my 35th high school reunion over the weekend. It is hard sometimes to grasp the idea of aging, but seeing my fellow, onetime teenage, students on a regular basis, tends to bring it home. My emotions are mixed, combining the senses of youth with the feelings of age. I try to think back to when I was that eager, naive, undereducated, inexperienced kid. Could I have envisioned standing around a local club sipping a vodka, and making small talk with my ex-classmates? It’s very hard to put myself in that skin. When you’re young, life is just beginning. You don’t think about such things as senior citizenship, aching bones, male pattern baldness – or death. It’s too far in the future, and the natural tendency is to believe you’ll live forever, at least on a visceral level.

I enjoy these reunions. My high school was a small, Catholic institution, with my class graduating only 187 students. Small is good, though, because after four years there, I could say that I knew everyone in the class, at least on a speaking basis. I still maintain close friendships with many of them. When I see them in these five year cycles, and start talking to them, I feel like every conversation is a continuation of one previously started the last time I saw them. Some conversations I can trace back to high school. There’s a continuation, a thread that, if tugged slightly, pulls me back into the innocence of a time when life was in front of me.

So I was surprised when one girl (it’s still hard to call these folks men and women – they’re kids to me, despite the bald pates, sagging chins and wrinkles) early in the reunion, came into the room and grabbed me, said my name, and then “I want to give you a hug.” She grabbed me and squeezed me tight, holding on a bit longer, and a bit more forcefully, than I would have expected from someone I saw only five years earlier. In fact, she came up to me so suddenly, interrupting a conversation I was having with someone else, that I hadn’t even registered who it was, just that she was a old classmate and familiar. When she stopped, and extended her arms, holding my shoulders, I realized who it was, but still didn’t know why I got the hug, until she told me.

“You sent me a beautiful card when my son died”, she said, and then I knew. I had forgotten that about 2-3 years ago, her only child, her son, was killed in an auto accident after a ski trip. I read about it in the local paper. I wasn’t close enough to call and intrude, but I did know her, and so I went out, got a card and sent it, I think with a little note of condolence. Then I forgot about it, as we all do when life intrudes, until I got that hug.

She said she still had it, and told me how much it meant to her to receive that card from me. I’m sure she got other cards and condolences from many people, so it wasn’t unusual, but she seemed so effusive about it, I could tell that it had touched her in an unexpected way. Maybe because it was from an old classmate, or from an occasional acquaintance, or maybe because all the cards she received touched her the same way. Whatever it was, her comments to me were clearly heartfelt.

From my side, it was a little out of the ordinary for me. Usually, my wife is in charge of card giving, especially sympathy cards. I really don’t know what made me go out and get the card. My memory of the time is that I knew her, liked her, and felt very sorry for the fact that she lost her only child. It could have been that thread I mentioned, tugging back at me. I don’t know.

At the time, however, I was solidly atheistic in my worldview. I had clearly admitted to myself, and others, that I no longer believed in the god I learned about, partly in high school (religion class was as mandatory as Math, Science and English). So the sympathy I felt for her in her time of loss was not something that arose because of my religious upbringing. I’ve been ruminating on it for the past two days, and I think it’s something deeper, something more primitive, that motivated me. It was concern for a fellow human being, someone I knew, but more than that, someone who had suffered a terrible loss I could imagine myself suffering, one I would not wish on my worst enemy. It was pure human empathy that caused me to do that.

I don’t intend to use this now to bash Christians, or any other theist. I could do that, but I won’t. My point here is that my motivations for reaching out to someone who was experiencing my greatest fear – losing a child – had nothing to do with religion, religious upbringing, or any sense of spirituality. It is a one on one human reaction to human loss. And while she may still be religious (she in fact mentioned that her faith helped her get through it) I really don’t believe her faith made her tell me how much it meant to her, thereby making me feel good about what I did. I think she felt compelled to tell me because she truly appreciated what I did, and knew that I would appreciate knowing that. Again, a human to human contact. At that moment we created a bond between us, one that will probably diminish with time, but will always be there.

Frankly, I think this is a better basis for human morality than those premised on religion. But that’s just me. To do good things for the pure sake of their goodness, and how they will make others feel, is the highest form of morality I can think of. To do those same things because you want to curry favor with god, because you think he might withhold the keys to heaven from you, is so selfish, I can’t imagine how we ever formed a sense of morality based on it. In a religious based moral system, you really don’t do good for others, you’re really doing it for yourself. My sense is that people who say they do it “for the glory of god” or whatever, are actually giving in to their primal human empathetic notions, and don’t even realize it. It’s as if religion is a mask they put on for conformity’s sake. Good theists, then, would be very comfortable with humanism. Shedding god, they would still be moral. They don’t realize it, but it’s true.

My classmate is probably a humanist, and doesn’t even know it.

(Happy Thanksgiving everyone! I’ll be back after the break.)

17 thoughts on “My Reunion

  1. Great post, SI. Hit all the right notes with me. In fact, it was an important reminder. A lady I know very casually has recently lost her spouse. I meant to pick up a card and send it, but haven’t. I will now. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Nice post, friend.

    I would recommend it along with John’s recent post about Pip to anyone who thinks “godless” necessarily translates into “heartless.”

    If anything, it means being human, because humans and our fellow creatures matter more to us than the rules of some ancient tradition. We are motivated by compassion for living things, not obligation to or fear of some supreme being.

    Thank you, SI and John, for reminding us of that.

    May natural selection treat you better than your Thanksgiving turkey.

  3. Thanks “A”.

    I went out and got a card and mailed it. There was a lot of religious BS on most of the cards, but I found the perfect humanist card. My wife always said that no one picks cards better than me.

  4. Great post, sad story.

    I think those primal emotions are only later labeled with a divine source. When in the moment, it comes from the same place in all of us, religious or not. It’s humanity at it’s purest.

    I’m sure what was the most overwhelming thing for her about getting your card was that you two weren’t that close. I think when someone you don’t expect drops some kindness on you, it’s a bit more profound.

    Have a good thanksgiving!

  5. I’m sure what was the most overwhelming thing for her about getting your card was that you two weren’t that close. I think when someone you don’t expect drops some kindness on you, it’s a bit more profound.

    I think you’re right. I was grasping for that, was close, but couldn’t quite figure it out. Thanks.

  6. Pingback: Friendly Atheist » Compassionate Atheist

  7. “WTF is up with this learn spanish crap?”

    Cross posting between “like” blogs…

    You know – Learn Spanish -> Spanish Inquisitor? Makes, er… perfect sense.

  8. Beautiful story my friend. And I’m honoured that you titled it after my blog’s former nomenclature.

  9. A touching post indeed. It is so sad that we need to keep reminding people that many of us (atheists) are kind, compassionate, empathic people and that none of these traits have the slightest thing to do with mythical creatures.

  10. Nice post. I agree with some parts, disagree with other parts. You can probably guess which parts. 😉

    But you bring up an excellent point, one which is often forgotten in the whole theist/atheist debate. What really matters is how we conduct ourselves towards our fellow human beings while we ARE here.

    Does God exist? Is there an afterlife? Who really knows? Soon enough, we’re all going to get the answer to those questions the hard way–sooner or later, we’re all going to shuffle off this mortal coil and die.

    Whether or not god exists, it seems to me that is what is truly important is how we spend the life that we are given, and whether or not we made our little corner of the world a better place by having lived in it.

    -smith

  11. I’ve had a similar experience several years ago. The person to whom I sent the sympathy card actually pulled it out of it’s storage place (rather quickly, I might add) while I was visiting him to show me exactly what I had sent him nearly 20 years earlier. It just goes to show you that our seemingly insignificant actions and expressions of compassion have the potential to touch someone in a powerful way at any moment in time. Which, in my opinion, gives more merit to the power of spontaneous human compassion than to the power of things said and done for the approval of god. Even if it’s a twofold gesture, it’s seems hardly genuine.

  12. It just goes to show you that our seemingly insignificant actions and expressions of compassion have the potential to touch someone in a powerful way at any moment in time. Which, in my opinion, gives more merit to the power of spontaneous human compassion than to the power of things said and done for the approval of god.

    Well said!

  13. Pingback: Humanist Symposium #12 « evanescent

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