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I’m not feeling good right now.

I feel sad, and tired, and lonely, and empty.

It’s my spark. I’ve lost my spark—which is funny, because I never knew where it was to begin with.

There’s an episode of The West Wing where Toby, speechwriter for the President, talks about his inability to write. He says, speaking to a younger writer:

I used to write like this. It was 10 months ago. I don’t understand what’s going on. I really don’t. I’ve had slumps before. Everybody does, but this is different…I don’t understand what’s happening. There’s no blood going to it. I’ve never had to locate it before. I don’t even know where to look. I’m the President’s voice and I don’t want him to sound like this.

I’m not a President’s voice—nothing so lofty or grand. My writing is heard by relatively few, and read by even fewer. But I am the voice of a community and, to some degree, for a life-stance.

As clergy for the Ethical Society of St. Louis, a Humanist congregation of moderate size, I am one of the very few professionals whose full-time work is dedicated to the poetic expression of the humanist philosophy. There are many humanists—more and more as society secularizes—but there are few professional humanists, and fewer still who do the strange dance of leading Humanist congregations. Mine is one of the largest of all, they look to me to speak with and for them, and I have lost my voice. So perhaps you can see my problem.

I can fake it still, of course: put on a brave face, smile on the outside, stride onto the stage and perform. Sometimes, when you lead a community, you have to fake it in this way, projecting emotions you do not really feel, but that you understand are needed. Congregational leadership is in large part about determining what a community needs to feel or grapple with at a particular time and finding a way to bring those feelings to the surface. It is an art of emotional orchestration, and you can still conduct the orchestra if you know what emotions need to be felt, even when you don’t feel them yourselves.

If human beings are fundamentally self-serving, stupid, and wicked, then what hope is there for humanity?

Increasingly, though, I don’t even know what my community needs to feel. I do not know where we need to go. Do they need hope and succor at this time of unending miserableness? Do they need to feel angry at the incompetence of our governments and the irresponsibility of our fellows? Do they need to be scared about the future of the planet, pushed to urgency and action? Usually, I have answers to these questions. I can feel the answer inside me. I know the story which must be told to meet the moment. Now I just feel empty—I look inside and I feel nothing.

I am trying to describe the sensation. Before, I could trust my instincts; I am a very instinctual person. Throughout my life, I have made major decisions on the basis of instinct alone. Choosing high school teaching instead of a career on the stage. Moving to the U.S.A. to study at grad school. Avoiding the theater a second time to pursue a doctorate instead. Moving from Boston to St. Louis to serve my congregation.

I have upended my entire life based on intuitions, feelings about where I needed to be (something I could only do due to a mountain of privileges that afforded me such freedom). Perhaps the best way to describe it is this: there was, when I was younger, an unimpeded channel between my values, my emotions, and my actions, such that I felt what was right for me and did it without question. I had integrity.

Now, that channel is misaligned. I still have values—if anything my values seem to be clearer and brighter than they seemed before, their demands more forceful. I have a strong sense of right and wrong, and of what really matters. But that knowledge is not translating into feelings, and so my spur to action is gone. I am out of joint, and I feel frustrated, even disgusted at myself.

There are lots of words for this: burnout, depression, languishing. I’m sure all of them are correct, to an extent. I need rest and time to recharge my batteries. But I don’t think any of these terms quite capture the problem, because they don’t get to the heart of it, the why of it. I feel misaligned and out of joint because, increasingly, I am a humanist who can’t stand humans.

This is tough to write.

I am used to being an endless optimist about people. Mine is the humanism of Carl Sagan and Star Trek, based on an idealistic appreciation of the enormous capacities of human beings for good. I used to look at human beings and see something, if not fundamentally good, fundamentally full of possibility, something which filled me with hope. I used to think we were on an upward trajectory, a march toward greater justice and freedom for all, despite the challenges along the way. We were going in the right direction.

Now I struggle to see our future that way. I look at the world around me and feel despair, not hope. I see the increase of nationalism, populism, and xenophobia curdling into renascent fascism. I see rampant conspiracy theories corrupting the minds of many. I see unprincipled and incompetent political leaders embracing demagoguery, and the populace allowing themselves to be misled. I see, during the pandemic, the unwillingness of so many to do the very least for their fellows: never was so little done by so many for so many. I see these things, and I begin to dislike human beings as a species. I think poorly of us, and of our prospects.

Amidst all this, I have begun to wonder what the point of humanism is. If human beings are fundamentally self-serving, stupid, and wicked, then what hope is there for humanity? And the personal correlate: how can you be a humanist if you can’t stand humans?

I don’t want to understate the significance of this feeling, for me. My entire career and much of my identity have been built on a view of humanity that I can no longer sustain. The foundations of my worldview have been shaken, and I am not sure it can stand up. This is a full-blown crisis of non-faith.

I am not sure yet where to go from here. In fact, this column is where I am going to try to answer that question. I know there is goodness in humanity I currently find it hard to see. I know that the values to which I am committed are good and true, even if they feel less likely to be victorious than I once thought. There are foundations to my humanism that are secure, even if they are currently covered by the detritus of human weakness.

My entire career and much of my identity have been built on a view of humanity that I can no longer sustain. This is a full-blown crisis of non-faith.

So that’s where I’m going to look. I’m going to use this column to dig into the roots of my humanism, to evaluate it critically and honestly, hoping to find a way to move forward. I promise my readers unstinting honesty as I conduct this search—I want true hope, not false. But I also want to like humans again. False despair is as damaging as false hope, and I want to find a way to affirm the fundamentals of my humanism while being honest about our failings and the parlous state I’m in. If you’re so inclined, wish me luck in the comments below—I’ll need it, and perhaps one day others will support you in turn.

James Croft is a philosopher, activist, and Humanist storyteller. As Leader of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, he is professional clergy for one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. A...