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.)