After the death of a child taken too soon due to human failure, I reflect on the essential struggle for humanism in a world waiting on a miracle instead of stepping in.
None of this would have landed in my purview if I hadn’t stepped out on Christmas Eve last year with the last of my seasonal food hampers. I knew that only folks having the roughest of times would be out during Nochebuena, a holiday that finds folks here, from the poorest to the richest, with family or community wherever they can find it. Still, I was surprised to find a man I knew, named César, rocking in pain all alone on an empty street. He was a father, a single parent of two young boys. What was he doing out alone, pursuing so slender a hope of aid late on Christmas Eve?
During the later phases of official pandemic, César had been a daily presence among the neighborhood beggars, along with other parents (many out with their children), elderly folk, visibly disabled people, and youth helping parents at home. These are hard times for the world. Colombia is no exception. Over my years here, and especially during the fraught years of pandemic, I’ve come to know all the regulars in my neck of the woods. It makes the neighborhood safer for all, when we make an effort to see each other as human beings, and greet each other daily as such.
César had tripped into abject poverty when he lost his driving job during a tough stretch of pandemic, and then couldn’t pay to renew his licensing when work eventually became feasible again. He’d been caught in the hard cycle of begging every day for enough for his kids to eat, and hoping to scrape together enough to pay that licensing fee and get off the streets again.
And if I had known that earlier, maybe the rest could have been avoided.
Because as I discovered that Christmas night, César and his boys had been living under a bridge for weeks, after being kicked out for failure to pay rent. Just as in the US after pandemic restrictions were lifted, summary evictions had been emboldened here, especially in the “barrios populares” (humble, lower-class neighborhoods of sometimes haphazardly built homes). The eldest took care of the youngest while the dad went begging, but without proper shelter their cycle of despair was only worsening. It is extremely expensive to be poor.
When we talked that night, more than we had in all our encounters before, César explained his full circumstances, and we set up (and I paid for) a license renewal appointment online. The fee was modest, actually, but still enough to be out of his range under his circumstances. We also arranged with his old landlady to get him back in his apartment with the boys the next morning. A Christmas “miracle”, care of the cranky atheist out delivering food to anyone the season had left behind.
And I wish that this had been the end of it, but I’m also a pragmatic atheist. There are no miracles. There are times when things work out, and times when they do not.
But boy, is it ever difficult not to despair when they do not.
The miracle that was, then wasn’t, then was again, then wasn’t again
When little children live on the street, they can get sick. Pneumonia is the number one killer of children under five, César’s youngest was four, and the whole family was severely malnourished. This little one fell sick that December under a bridge, and although there are some protections under the law for children in need of emergency care while their parents aren’t affiliated through work, the system is labyrinthine. Worse still, a lot of medical administrators are pushy, dismissive, and not in the habit of educating desperate parents. That was the case here, with doctors stalling on major interventions with price points attached. Galling, to a Canadian, but because I’d advocated in similar circumstances for another cash-poor family early in pandemic, I at least knew some of the workarounds.
Still, the doctors exerted a great deal of life-or-death financial pressure around the little boy’s single, then double-lung pneumonia. All told, he had three surgeries: two to cut bits of lung tissue out, and another to scrape the infection. He also went through multiple rounds of stem cell therapy. At one point, the doctors were so theatrical about this situation that they insisted a double-lung transplant would be his only option (before reviewing the scans and settling on the aforementioned scraping instead). All told, it was… a lot. And all the while, his father was terrified and inconsolable. So much needed to be done for their home, too, because the little one couldn’t stay in hospital for the whole recovery. They needed a special bed, and oxygen, and dietary supplements recommended by the medical team.
With the help of a great many people who supported me so I could support this family, the little boy survived. It was absolutely touch and go for weeks, but at the end of the crisis we’d actually secured the family’s housing for the long term. César was back at work (well, despite an emergency appendectomy: a possible consequence of his own very stressful few years), the eldest was in school, and the youngest was on his way to recovery.
A “miracle”, right?
But no, the rest of the year was not going to be kind to this family. In a fluke accident months later, the eldest died on his way home from school. Everyone suspects a hit-and-run, but no one knows for sure. (He’d also had a seizure in January, though that had been chalked up to malnutrition.) Either way, he was found without vital signs on the street, and they called the death two days later in hospital. He’s been interred at an old columbarium in the center of the city.
And his brother will be joining him soon. Recently paralyzed from a spinal infection doctors think related to his pneumonia earlier this year, he underwent surgery at long last for it, but his little body gave out during the procedure. He was five.
Struggling against death, secular or otherwise
For me, death is death. The Big Empty. The Great Silence. One step closer to our return to stardust. We live on in the hearts and minds we’ve touched, for better and for worse, and in the material difference we’ve made in the world around us.
And yet, even those who believe in some great hereafter, some better place where children like these two little boys now dwell, will still fight tooth and nail to keep their loved ones on this side of the green for as long as possible.
Some religious parents, granted, refuse modern medicine and insist on murder-by-thoughts-and-prayers for the humans in their care. But most will rush in a panic to the ER. Most will weep and beg and plead aid for their babies when terrible diagnoses emerge. Most will be nearly inconsolable when the child still passes, especially after all they’ve sacrificed to keep them here.
This isn’t hypocrisy. This is human.
This is human beings knowing that, for all our disparate cosmologies about what happens “next”, we know for sure that what happens here is important.
This is why I identify as a secular humanist: because there are religious humanists, too (lots of them), and what we share matters so much more than what we don’t.
We believe in the importance of improving human agency here on Earth. We believe in helping people become more fully empowered witnesses to the cosmos. Some (the theists) seek to uplift others because they believe that doing so fulfills the mandate or extends the presence of divinity. Some (the atheists) do similar because this is our one brief eye-blink of consciousness: our one and only chance to thrive.
Either way, our common cause is obvious: we’re both pushing back as best we can on human frailty, cruelty, and inattention to what matters most.
The news, for instance, is filled with the deaths of celebrities: people who had an extraordinary chance to benefit from their gifts. And it’s filled with the deaths of those who caused harm, but sensationally: people who spent much of their time alive making life a lot harder for everyone else.
Meanwhile, between those singular reports, you’ll also find news of the nearly anonymous multitudes. Some of these are victims of mass disasters: whole sagas of human loss remembered only in lump sum, as a set of statistics. They’ll be remembered mainly as victims of arduous migrant crossings, or of war and other senseless, hateful violence. People who died when human-made structures collapsed, or from contamination issues caused by unregulated industry. People who died from easily treatable diseases, including the worst of the lot: neglect.
Never waiting for the miracle
One strength of a secular worldview is living with the full conviction that we have to save ourselves, if we want to lessen the frequency of so much heartbreak going forward. That doesn’t mean we will, or always can. But I am never waiting for the miracle, and never going to be disappointed by its absence—because in my cosmology the universe doesn’t work that way. The universe doesn’t care.
However, that same knowledge can place us on a delicate tightrope. Albert Camus described it as absurdism: the line one must walk when coming to the conclusion that the universe has no intrinsic meaning. Faced with an indifferent cosmos, one might end one’s life in despair, or throw oneself headfirst into comforting stories that deny the aforementioned dread conclusion. But the absurdist walks carefully between these outcomes, by recognizing that in our ability to choose at all lies one extraordinary power the indifference of the universe cannot take from us.
Yea, though our existences might feel as futile as that of Sisyphus, condemned to push a rock for all eternity up a hill, only to have it crash down at day’s end… we can choose our attitude toward such lives. We can imagine Sisyphus happy.
We can imagine ourselves happy, too, or at least thankful: for this brief moment of consciousness, and for everything we’re able to do for as long as we can within it. We can grieve the loss of people we strove to help—and we will. Meanwhile, we’ll also start budgeting for the next round of seasonal food hampers, for the next group of people enduring their lowest lows close to our homes.
We will start rolling the rock uphill anew.
What gratitude overlooks
I remember this little boy sending me a message after he was finally on the mend in February. He couldn’t speak much, this fragile little human who loved Paw Patrol and playing cars and going for walks with his dad and older brother. He needed three attempts on WhatsApp to tell me in his quavering little voice (in Spanish), “Señora Maggie, thank you for saving my life.”
And I remember how angry I was to hear this message, because he should not have had to thank me for my part. The cascade failures in his brief life need never have been so dire at all. The doctors should have treated him properly and promptly when he was ill, without hemming and hawing over payment. The landlady shouldn’t have kicked them out in the first place, knowing they’d be on the street. There should have been a system in place to give out-of-work folks like his father a path back into the workforce, so he wouldn’t have been out begging for so long.
This little boy and his older brother had only one abiding kindness in their lives: knowledge of a father who was fighting so hard for them.
They should have been able to experience the wonder of existence for much longer.
As should many other humans that our systems fail every single day.
But so it goes—because there’s no use waiting for a miracle.
Either we show up for one another, however we can, wherever we’re able… or that great and terrible cosmic silence comes a little faster for us all.