We are creatures searching for meaning. We are also feeling creatures. And it’s important to understand the difference. Meaning is the oven and the dough in the oven. Feeling is the heat that converts the dough to bread. But feeling is not the bread. It is the heat, and also the taste. It is not the bread in the stomach, but it is what fills us. If I only say what I mean, you will never be filled.
The question “is there a god” is not important to me. It is not important because, if there is a god, I will try to love the world, and if there is no god, I will still try to love the world. There is nothing of more importance to me than this.
I believe there is no one coming to save us. If there is an end of days, it will be our own stupid fault.
I believe empathy is more important than law or logic. But to practice empathy it isn’t enough to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes. We must take off our shirt also and our pants and underwear and we must forget everything we ever thought was true and be like an empty bowl and let them come to us and fill us with their water and wash their hands and clean the tears from their faces. We must be their portraits reflected in the water.
Our actions affect other people. And we don’t always know if it’s for the good or bad. So if we are going to err, let us admit our error and ask forgiveness, not from god who, if there is a god, is above offense, but to each other.
Definitions change. Languages change. But love, though it changes also, does not change in the same way. Love is the thing that is not a thing, an idea that is not an idea, an emotion that is all emotion. Think of the first human to light a fire. Look at his eyes: the fear, amazement, wonder, confusion, disbelief. And watch this first human sit by that fire, drawn to it somehow. And when the fire dies down, this first human, not understanding what it is, makes rising motions with his hands and stands up and jumps and dances to keep it going. I think love today is like this.
I’m a transcendentalist at heart. That means I try to live simply. I try to see past the labels we place on each other: Christian, Atheist, Gay, Straight, Teacher, Poet. In some ways I even see “Mother” and “Father” as labels. Not that these labels are bad or useless, but they fail to describe who we are, they fail to express our common humanity. They are like name tags we wear, because to function in society it seems like we need them. But I like to imagine a time when we can all see them as just labels. I try to imagine a time when we can see the danger they present – the tendency they have to isolate people from each other.
I believe faith in each other is more important than faith in god. If there is a god, he or she doesn’t need our belief. I also believe morality is not a religious concept. Morality comes from being human. We are conscious of others. To be moral is to live not only peacefully as a whole planet, but intimately, willing to share in everyone’s happiness and sadness. Everyone’s happiness. Everyone’s sadness. This I believe is human nature. Not violence, not the battle over territory, not the fight for authority and power. I must believe this. Anthropologists may disagree and point out the brutality that makes up human history and how our ancient ancestors had to defend their territory in order to survive. But that’s the past. Humans are unique among the world’s creatures in that we are conscious of our shortcomings and can change our nature. We must change our old primitive chest-beating nature.
I believe it is impossible to make very many specific statements about what is moral and what is not moral. Morality resides somewhere inside compassion and empathy and kindness and understanding. More than this, it’s hard to say.
Unfortunately, in this world, we must often (or we are led to believe we must) interfere in the lives of others. When this is required, our opinions, our beliefs, are less important than logic and reason and empathy.
When making world-wide moral demands, I believe there are few things we can say for certain. Perhaps there is really only one demand we can make of the world: to the best of our ability we must do no harm to others. This demand is unshakable. I will always demand this of the world. Also no more chest-beating, prehistoric territory defending, authoritarian gavel smacking. More than this it’s hard to remain unshakably certain.
Finally I am with the poet Mark Doty, who writes: “lucky we don’t have to know what something is in order to hold it.” I’m not going to explain what this means. Mark Doty is a poet and this is from one of his poems. If it makes no sense to you, try harder. Or don’t. It’s up to you.