As my regular readers* will remember, I travel fairly frequently for work. With alarming frequency, the purpose of travel is a meeting that lasts no more than an hour, but my physical presence is required. Often, this necessitates a full day or more spent flying and driving to the meeting place, together with long periods of isolation in hotel rooms, working as best I can while on the road.
* - Assuming, of course, that I have regular readers. It wouldn't hurt you to write once in a while, just to let me know you're out there.
Lately, however, it's been a bit worse. A few weeks ago, I injured my back. I've now had four separate doctor's appointments, with the latest diagnosis being a ruptured disc (L5-S1, for those keeping score) that's pressing on my sciatic nerve, causing pain and numbness down my right leg. This injury is actually a very ordinary one, one that happens to a lot of people of middle age, and in some respects I feel a little silly because it's affected me in this way. There are many people who suffer through much more pain than I'm experiencing. But the pain is significant enough that it interferes with my ability to concentrate on work.
It also interferes with my ability to sit at a desk, so nearly every piece of work I've done in the last several weeks has been lying in bed, with my laptop** in front of me. My productivity is way down. But, more importantly, it's interfered with my ability to interact with the world. It's been weeks since I spent any significant time with my friends, in part because sitting for the car ride over or at a restaurant table for several hours has at times been virtually unbearable.
** - Which, if we are to be accurate, ought to be called a tummytop.
I have had to travel three times for work since I suffered this injury, and I'm proud to say that I have muscled through it each time. But aside from the primary purpose of my travel, which left hours of free time, I haven't felt like doing much other than lying in the hotel bed, contemplating my circumstances. In fact, on each of those trips, I have been to a city where a good friend from high school lives, and I just haven't even bothered to call him because I couldn't do more than the minimum.
The experience of the last few weeks, however, has shed some light for me on how pain and isolation can lead to depression and loneliness. I can feel those creeping in at times, lying to me about how alone I am, how alone my injury has made me.
When that happens, I turn to the humanism that animates my worldview and force myself to remember that we are not alone. There are seven billion of us. We are all interconnected. Everything we are is the sum of the triumphs and failures of our forebears, of humans working together to tame our world, to build a life beyond bare survival, to stretch our reach and secure our grasp. Even in the quiet times, when I lie in my bed, when I am feeling tired and in pain and alone and depressed, I can think of the humans who created the environment in which I live: The woodworkers who made my furniture. The technicians who designed my computer and television. The writers and producers who scripted my entertainment, and the technical workers who executed the script so that I would be entertained.
When I am on the road, I think of the workers who paved it, the engineers who designed it, the politicians and bureaucrats who planned it. When I fly I marvel at perhaps the defining miracle of the modern age: rapid, safe, comfortable, inexpensive travel to nearly anywhere I would want to go, all of it the work of humans.
In the smallest moments, when the world seems its darkest, when my life seems so much like marking time, to feel better about the world of which I am a part, all I need to do is to think about the work of all those people who came before me, preparing the way. In a way, they did these things for me. Or, perhaps in a better way, they did all these things for us.
This idea, this sense of connectedness, is simultaneously frightening and humbling and exciting. It spurs me to do more, to be more, for my fellow humans, now and in the future.
The earth we call home does us humans no favors. We had to pull ourselves from the primordial ooze by our own merit. Other species have had their time, and vanished. We have survived and thrived because we worked together for our common survival; that adaptation, among many, is responsible for our relatively secure position in this world.
If there is anything we can learn from the story of human evolution it is that working together as a civilization confers upon us an advantage over the harder parts of our environment. Our civilization requires laws and customs and specialization and trust. Some people believe that a supernatural being has conferred these things upon us, but I see it differently. Our civilization, with its laws and customs and specialization and trust, is simply an expression of natural selection in action: What works is what allows us the opportunity to survive and reproduce; what does not work is conveniently discarded. Our DNA is the vector of that natural selection, and it has hard-coded us to be this way.
We endanger the survival of our species when we go against these things. Although I am usually willing to view religion as a benign influence that supports our civilization, there are times when I am troubled by the way in which some religions discourage their members from humanism, compel their members to disconnect from reality and rational thought, deny their members the full depth of human experiences in ultimately futile attempts at "purity," and practice hostility toward learning.
These moral guardians of humanity are superfluous at best and malignant at worst. They claim moral superiority, to the point at which they falsely accuse humanists of being morally ungrounded opportunists who desire most to be free of rules in order to engage in a game of the survival of the mightiest. In a great irony, the common tenet of all of the world's major religions--that a moral person treats others as they would want to be treated, known as the Golden Rule--is an essentially humanist principle, being derived not from the supernatural, but from our innate sense of self-interest and our empathetic response to the realization that we are all the same. For an understanding of what it means to be human, or to be a humanist, you need not look any further.
The major problem of religion is not in its adoption of this idea, but in all the many ways in which religions, whether in their orthodoxy or in their practice, stand fundamentally in opposition to this idea. I have seen religion motivate people to great service, and make no mistake, that is a good thing, but I have also seen religion motivate people to unspeakable acts of brutal inhumanity.
I have written previously about my internal conflict as I struggled with overcoming, then finally succumbing to, disbelief. As I have had time to adjust to my new worldview, I have taken comfort in the realization that this world, this life, is all that we have. It is a precious thing, not to be wasted, but grown and extended as best we can. It is especially not to be wasted on empty exercises that amount to prophylactic measures undertaken in the event that there is a world beyond death. I have talents and skills. I live in a world of sensory experience, of pleasure and pain, of beauty and disgust. I am of a world that will have an existence long after I am gone, no matter what I do. I will not live forever, so the best I can do is to do my part to enrich the world of those who come after me.
It's easy to view our ultimate mortality as grim, and to adopt the fantasy of a further life to cope. But this central fact of our existence is not a reason for despair. Instead of lamenting that this is all we have, or giving up what we have in the hope of something better, the task of our lives is to make the world a better place. When that happens, we thrive--together, as we are in all things.