I was watching Annihilation, a 2017 stand-up show by the comedian Patton Oswalt. For a comedy show, it treads in dark territory: the bulk of it is about Oswalt becoming a widower the year before, when his wife Michelle McNamara, a journalist and true-crime writer, died unexpectedly in her sleep. He talks about the second-worst day of his life – when he found her not breathing – and the worst – the day after, when he had to tell Alice, their 7-year-old daughter, that her mother was dead.
It was raw and devastating and, notwithstanding that he wrung some laughs out of it, I can’t imagine how painful it must be to tell a story like this to huge crowds of strangers. It reminds me of the old proverb about how the essence of writing is to sit down at a keyboard and open a vein.
In another forum, he’s confessed his own struggles with the steep learning curve of becoming a single parent, made even harder since both he and his daughter were carrying that huge burden of grief:
It feels like a walk-on character is being asked to carry an epic film after the star has been wiped from the screen.
Despite the darkness of this material, Oswalt manages to find some humor in it. He joked about how he detests the phrase “healing journey” (he says “numb slog” would be more appropriate, because then he’d feel he was doing it right), and tells the story of how he tried to deliver a preplanned, heartfelt speech to his wife’s memory at her graveside, only to be drowned out by a family having a screaming argument at the next grave over.
There’s one part of the show that stayed with me more than any other. Oswalt and McNamara were both atheists, but of different philosophical flavors. He recounted how they used to clash over their worldviews with a line that brought half-laughs, half-gasps from the audience:
The phrase she hated the most was, “You know, everything happens for a reason.”
She’s like, “No, it fucking doesn’t. It’s chaos. It’s all random. And it’s horrifying. And if you want to try to reduce the horror and reduce the chaos, be kind, that’s all you can do. It’s chaos. Be kind.”
…We’d have these huge philosophical arguments where I was like, “I don’t believe in an intelligent creator, per se. But I think that there might be a latticework of logic and meaning to the universe that maybe we’re too small to see.”
And she was like, “Sweetie, it’s all random. It’s all chaos. It’s chaos. Be kind…” And then she won the argument in the shittiest way possible!
Days later, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that.
As an atheist, I can feel the emotional tug of Oswalt’s (former) view of the universe. Even if there’s no anthropomorphic being doling out miracles, it would be comforting to believe in a much greater god – an impersonal force of goodness or justice that we can rely on to see that everything turns out OK. It would be pleasant to believe that our lives are part of a bigger story, that everything is working toward a grand culmination, even if we don’t see how the pieces fit together.
But whenever I feel tempted to believe this, evidence soon arrives to remind me why it’s untenable. Every fact available to us points to Michelle McNamara being right. The universe is a chaotic place, where innocent people suffer tragedy and disaster for no reason at all, and there’s no greater good or foreordained happy ending to make our pains worthwhile. The only good we can expect to receive is the good we create for ourselves and each other.
It’s up to us to create a society that buffers us all, as much as possible, against the blind blows of chance. It’s part of our collective moral obligation for the stronger to shelter the weaker. But in answer to the inevitable right-wing rhetoric about “takers”, we have to remember that “stronger” and “weaker” aren’t fixed, separate groups of people. We’re all vulnerable in different ways; we’ll all need help at different times in our lives. If we don’t extend our protection to others when it’s in our power to do so, we have no right to expect that others will do the same for us when we need it.
Objectivists and others might prefer a purely atomistic society where everyone is responsible for his or her own fate and no one else’s. But people who try to put that ideology into practice tend to get in over their heads in short order and soon learn how and why humans depend on each other. Most wind up very glad that we don’t live in a society where people in need are abandoned to fend for themselves.
More than its value in the math of reciprocity, kindness is what makes lives like ours worth living. An existence where we had all the material comforts we wanted, but no love or respect or friendship from other people, would be torture. We have an inherent need for connection, to be known and loved for who we are. And the more we offer that understanding to others, the more we receive it in turn. Despite all the religions and philosophies and strange ideologies that people have come up with, no one has yet invented anything that can substitute for this fundamental human need. In a chaotic universe of wild and storms, it’s the only lighthouse we have.