Monday, June 11, 2012

Alone in a Crowd

"We have an informal association of radically individualistic rationalists, but we've reached a plateau. Now we need to find a way to come together with a unified vision for a better world, even if we have to sacrifice 'every man for himself'."    - Jason Torpy, President of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers
I keep saying that I don't like groups. I don't.  With a group comes baggage - labels, commitments, disappointments, betrayals (whether large or petty) and miscommunication. With a group comes scrutiny of your motives, judgment of your choices, obligation of your time and effort, and no real privacy.

And yet...
"Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships... The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all."     - from The Humanist Manifesto III
I've said for years (though not always out loud) that I don't need a supernatural being, and I don't need the irrational, institutionalized group with its fear and guilt being imposed from outside in order to control what they have no business controlling.

I managed to break free of the groups I was raised to believe in - ironically, by joining other groups - and I've found my way to where I am now.  I follow my gut, and I strive to make the best choices; I am good, except when I fail, and when I do, I fix it as best as I can.

I feel like I'm in a good place.  I like it here, and have no real need to drag anyone else along who doesn't want to be here.  I don't need a group to affirm or support who or what I am.  I simply am, and I have come through pain and fire to get here - on my own, without any mystical help.

And yet...

Have I really been on my own?  There has been no mystical help, but my personal journey has taken me through the lives of many others who have helped me along the way.  I've written about many of them, in some form or another.  Some have slept by my side; others I have never met in real life.  But we've shared time, and ideas, and while I can't guarantee I've always enriched their lives, they've certainly played a role in enriching mine.

But they're people. And in groups, they behave unpredictably, and cannot be completely trusted - so my instinct is to retreat, taking only what I need from them and giving back the minimum necessary.  I share my words on the internet, I measure my time carefully out for some, and try to devote myself to a few who really seem to appreciate me - and whom I appreciate in return.  And that brings me to the puzzle I'm facing right now.

Because, you see, while I have not tried to advertise, proselytize, witness, or otherwise claim any kind of mantle of wisdom, I still find that people approach me - behind the scenes, offline, sotto voce - because I'm visible with my lack of belief and I express the questions they are afraid to ask.  I haven't defined myself, I won't accept a label willingly, I argue constantly, and I'm confusing as all get out - but still they ask me for ideas and advice.  They are searching, and they've come to me.  But what do I have to tell them?

That's the question I've avoided for so long.  What do I have to offer to others; what is it that they sense in me that they think will help them?

I was not able to attend the Reason Rally in DC a few months ago.  Our calendar was triple-booked that weekend, but the following weekend saw us sitting at home with little to do, so while my lovely bride caught up on some scrap-booking, I watched the videos from the Rally. She listened across the room as Adam Savage (probably our favorite speech), PZ Myers, Hemant Mehta, Sean Faircloth, and Richard Dawkins spoke.  They varied from the upbeat and positive, to the thoughtful and scholarly, and to the fire-breathing and angry.  I was enjoying it immensely, and watching the crowd, and wishing I could have gone.

At some point, I realized she had stopped working, and was just listening intently.  I thought that I must be annoying her with the videos.  I was about to offer to put on some music or do something else - but then she said:
"I had no idea there were so many people out there who believe what I do."
It almost broke my heart to hear my dearest companion, and best friend across two decades say something like that.  She sounded alone.  And that's what my friends sound like when they tell me privately how they enjoy my posts on Facebook, my stories here on the blog, or my comments on Twitter.  They sound slightly shocked that they are not alone.
“Many people need desperately to receive this message: 'I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.” ― Kurt VonnegutTimequake (Honorary president of the American Humanist Association)
And that's the answer.

It doesn't matter to me if you "agree with me" - whatever that meaningless phrase has come to represent - or if you believe what I believe about legal points, political machinations, science, or history.  I don't care if you like the same music, writers, movies, or art. But if you feel like you are alone in your doubt, if you feel lost in a cold universe, or if you are just tired of living inside of lies for the sake of the group around you - if you're lonely in a crowd... I can tell you that you're not the only one.  That's my gift; I can be here, visible, letting you see and hear that I am here.

For whatever it may be worth, I'm joining a couple of groups.  I will see what I can learn from them, and what I can bring to the table.  I don't intend to give more than I have; I certainly won't be impressing anyone with my organizational or time-management skills. I don't intend to bend or conform; I certainly won't wear a uniform or toe any lines. I won't drag anyone into it with me if they don't want to go.  I'll just do what I do best: think, read, share, and laugh.

But I can't hide in plain sight without making sure that those around me know this:

You are not alone.

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