Discussion Group Meeting
Why Are We Here?
Sunday, March 19, 2023
Harmons Holladay Market
Holladay, UT 84117
If you like, you can pick up a beverage at the coffee shop to bring upstairs for a discussion with fellow humanists. HoU will buy some cookies for all. (please email firstname.lastname@example.org so can buy enough cookies—if you identify your favorite variety we will use that as a suggestion.
The current flavor of humanism is optimistic. Humans are awesome! Humans are great! Or at least, humans are as good as it gets! (I think humans are small, selfish, and social. We are as good as we are incentivized and empowered to be. More on that in a later column.)
One of the most important critiques of humanism is that it reflects limited perspective. The rallying cry of human awesomeness too often means that it’s awesome to be a human who is a white intellectual (basically the perspective of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now.) Too often humanism doesn’t reflect (or attract) much diversity, thus mostly reflecting the perspective of white men. Social Science has a “Weird Problem”, and humanism too often (and not coincidentally) has the same problem. As Malcolm Gladwell talks about in Talking To Strangers, Our understanding of human nature is too often simply an understanding of the students of the researchers who write about human nature. Thus, our textbook understanding of humans reflects a Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic perspective.
I believe an important reason that humanism is not more impactful is because of this limited perspective. I also believe the most responsible humanism is a humanism that doesn’t just focus on humans, but respects all life, the interconnected web of existence called the biosphere. Thich Nhat Hanh’s Engaged Buddhism is grounded in this concept of “Interbeing.“
But getting back to humans, too often humanist rhetoric is not plugged into our day to day reality, where most of us are “barely hanging on”, as Alain de Botton quips in his TED talk Atheism 2.0 (highly recommended.) My humanist call to ministry came as an impression to serve the imprisoned and dying. I intuited that the most important field test of humanism would be to minister to those at the extremes of human experience.
Those I work with laugh when I share one of my favorite jokes. Three test tubes are labeled Optimist, Pessimist, and Realist. The Optimist says, “I’m half full!” Pessimist says, “I’m half empty!” Realist says, “I think this is pee.” This joke plays with the fact that most of us focus on the surface details rather than deep aspects of reality.
Ok, now it’s time for the point, and it might be the most important point I ever share.
Making peace with the dark and difficult might be the most important thing you ever do. Fortitude is the mother of all virtues because it’s really hard to sit with how hard life is. I believe that most evil and terrible things stem from pain and effort avoidance (in the midst of systemic oppression.) Understandably we don’t want to hurt, but we also don’t want to work harder than we need to.
The powerful paradox is that once we embrace the challenge of life, we release all the energy that we had been previously expending on avoidance. Fear and anxiety are exhausting. Avoidance is expensive. It is scary to face the fear and anxiety, but once we do, we free up our resources and plug into our power.
I am moved by Victor Frankl’s term “tragic optimism,” the idea that we can and should stay optimistic in even the hardest circumstances. With respect to Frankl, I prefer the framing of “Redeemed Reality” when we clearly and courageously assess the truth about ourselves and our circumstances, we have the best chance of making the best of those circumstances. Toxic positivity and spiritual bypassing are terms used in ministry that refer to jumping ahead to positive framings (Brene Brown condemns the practice of “silver lining”) without doing the hard work of remaining present in challenge and grief. One of my favorite compliments during Divinity School was from my Preaching Professor, who said of my final project, “Wow Jared, that was really heavy and dark. But it is a testament to your skill that we hung in there with you.”
It has now been over six years that I have followed the intuitive invitation to serve the imprisoned and dying. I want to serve those who serve at the extremes of human experience, so that I can help those in the broadest range of human experience. Chaplains show up where life breaks open, but the truth is, all of our lives break open. As my favorite poet David Whyte observes in his book Consolations, “Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot, in other words, it colors and inhabits and magnifies each and every day; heartbreak is not a visitation, but a path that human beings follow through even the most average life.”
Our humanism will be better for humans and all life when we courageously ground it in lived reality. I’m encouraging all of us to engage in an existential workout that will dramatically improve your life. What is your point of minimal acceptable wellness? What do you think you could deal with it, if you needed to? We could call this snuggling your rock bottom, using it as a mattress. “Embrace the suck” is a military term that also aligns with Buddhism. If life is going to be hard and painful, avoidance is a waste of time. Spend the currency of pain and consequence. I also call this “cleaning out the rabbit hole “We are often and understandably afraid of what could happen, how bad things could get. This fearful wrestling with hypotheticals is exhausting. If we spend time making peace with even that hardship, reassuring ourselves that we will be ok, even if things get hard (as they inevitably will), we reduce anxiety and can show up more powerfully to our own lives.
—Chaplain Jared Anderson
In the past, while talking to someone at one of our meetings, I would characterize our chapter of the AHA as an oasis of rationality in a world chaos and irrationality. When the pandemic hit, it put an end to us and everybody in the world for that matter from getting together in groups. But, even though the covid virus is still around, it’s slowly been getting to where infection rates are coming down for the most part and especially the possibility of it being fatal is much lower. With that in mind, members of the board have been meeting once a month on Sunday for coffee to discuss a variety of subjects. I’m happy to say that we have decided to take the first step by planning for our Sunday get together to become a discussion group for all members and guests to attend. Part of the first discussion group will be to talk about who we are and what we want to do going forward. We hope that some of you will attend and give us some suggestions. But I must admit that in all the years that I have been on the board of directors our request for input, or submissions to the newsletter or to ask that some of the membership volunteer to serve on the board have been met with silence. So, I ask that you give our chapters future some thought and let us know how you feel.
As I mentioned, some members have been meeting on Sunday, and we would like to continue to meet on Sunday in late morning or early afternoon. Some have suggested Sunday because as humanists we’re not going to church so why not get together then? Others have expressed that they are not comfortable driving at night, so morning or afternoon is preferred as a time to meet. For small meetings we enjoy meeting at Harmons Grocery stores because they have areas upstairs where there are tables and chairs for small groups. Plus, you can purchase refreshments to take upstairs with you.
Also, for larger gatherings, I have been looking into using facilities at Holladay city hall. They are located in what used to be a school. On one end is a police station and on the other end is city hall. In the basement they have rooms they rent out. Two of the rooms are small and a good size for a discussion group. Two larger rooms have a capacity 100 and 200. The larger rooms have kitchen facilities and the largest rooms has a stage and electronics and a screen. The large room looks ideal for our Darwin Day celebration.
I hope you will give our chapter some thought and let us know what you think. Also keep an eye out for announcements for where and when we will be meeting. Thanks for being members of Humanists of Utah and I hope to see some of you soon.
HoU Chapter Member
Check it Out
I have recently become aware of a really fun podcast (thanks Salt Lake Tribune!) It’s called “City Cast Salt Lake” and boy did it come at just the right time. Listening to it is making me feel re-invigorated about living in Salt Lake.
They talk about all sorts of things: like a recent “why isn’t this housing” episode, discussions about the ballpark, and always keeping on top of legislation going forward. Plus, lots of interviews with local people that adds to the “it’s great to be living here” feeling: like city planners and Trib reporters. It’s done with fun and energy and a love of our city.
So, check it out! It’s a weekday podcast around 20 minutes or so, a great break in the day.
HoU Board Member