A Global Humanist Shoptalk episode on solutions for childhood precarity invites reflection on messy beginnings, great ambitions, and how we at OnlySky strive to do better with the time we have.
The Humanist Chicken Egg – Global Humanist Shoptalk
When I was a wee sprog, I dreamed big. I was going to be a physics professor, working on tricky cosmology problems related to heat and expansion. (I was the precocious twit reading Feynman and Hawking at twelve and, like any twelve-year-old, feeling confident that I understood everything because I’d read a few pop-sci texts.) I’d get my Nobel Prize in Physics by my mid-50s, then build on my concurrent interest in writing to advance an author’s career in essays and fiction. Maybe even pick up a second Nobel for literature before my death! Who knew? And in my 60s, I’d shift into local politics, becoming at the very least a valued municipal leader for change. A wonderful balance of all my interests, scaled out appropriately over a full lifespan.
But although I had a really good start on the academic front, I also came from a household that progressively struggled with deep anger and economic precarity on the parental front. All the kids in my family tested gifted, but the stress of living with so much routine domestic disruption at home had a huge impact on our behavioral and life outcomes.
I remember that, in Grade 5 gifted, I was taken out of class with one other child, because we had the highest percentiles in the gifted program, and the teacher wanted to offer us a chance to interview for an elite private school starting in Grade 6. The other child immediately said yes (his father was a tropical disease specialist), and I very casually said “no thanks” and never told my parents about the conversation, because I knew that we couldn’t possibly afford it. I also had a strong feeling that even raising the possibility would trigger household shame, leading to more anger and resentment. Why add fuel to the fire?
When I went to university at seventeen, my existing suicidal ideation, which had started at around nine and unfortunately given me a reputation for thinking I was “too good” for my family, reached a breaking point, because I was devastated to have left my younger siblings in such a miserable environment in another city. How could I not be the most useless person in the universe if I couldn’t even help the people dearest to me? What was the point of higher learning if it just made people think I was looking down on them?
The humanist reframe
Life can take us on strange paths, so I had both the knowledge of a precocious twit who’d first dreamed so ambitiously, and a wealth of (ongoing) trauma that I spent my twenties trying to fix. Young adulthood is a mess, though, and unfortunately there’s a fairly predictable relationship pathway for people who grew up as appeasers, always worried about making someone else angry, and always going above-and-beyond to try to please. I did not make “good” choices. I couldn’t figure out how to be safe, or who was safe, and even if there were kind folks along the way, I lived with a very strong conviction that once they saw how awful I was, they’d never want to be around me again.
Intelligence is one thing. Emotional intelligence is quite another.
My thirties have come with their own set of challenges, because leaping to a new life in Colombia, while restorative in some ways, hasn’t been a cakewalk. I still have so much to do to make this a permanent move, and there are so many arbitrary factors in my way. But no matter. When I look at the scatterplot directionality of my life, it’s easy to despair at its mess. It’s also possible to reframe that mess as a wealth of experience through which to deepen my (healthier) empathy for others. And that’s certainly what I’ve tried to do.
One trait that hasn’t gone away, though, is my desire to do “all the things!” In part, this is a habituated response to socioeconomic instability: I write short stories, I write novels, I translate fiction, I write nonfiction essays and reviews, I edit academic articles, I teach English, and I try all kinds of new things like, say, the podcast Global Humanist Shoptalk (which was only on hiatus because I didn’t have time to upload and write about each episode while adjusting to other work schedules). And I’m dead sure that I’d be able to narrow my focus if I had a clear sense of which pathway would eventually work out.
Doing the best with the time we have
But also, I’m a curious and questing sort of nutter, as I’m sure the range of my articles here has illustrated. I read widely, I study the world widely, and if I want to understand a topic, there’s no better pathway than to do the research necessary to write about it well.
One part of that exploratory process, though, involves bringing up others alongside me. And that’s one thing I’ve found to be a huge struggle in our world, with all its focus on putting people on pedestals and treating ongoing issues as mere flash-in-the-pan media trends.
And yet, there’s just so much to cover, that one hardly knows where to begin, and we can’t do it all on our own. Even just this past week, I’ve learned about huge loan-shark scams, backed by China and affecting West Africans, that I could easily write about in comparison to the US’s current slate of predatory financial products and laughable industry regulations. But… wasn’t I already working on a piece about El Salvador and cryptocurrency, to help explain not only what’s happening with that market but also the why behind disillusioned people leaping to any new scheme that might help? (There’s even a slice of US presidential history in that one, relating to good ol’ Andrew Jackson. Should be fun, when ready!)
And I’m trying to get my ducks in a row to present a series on eco-projects and bureaucratic red tape (with the help of one fine commenter here!). And I’m trying to pin down the last intel I need to submit a proper feature on the plight of Afghan refugees in other parts of the world, where many have been living in limbo for a decade. And I want to finish a piece or two on some of the rarely discussed facets of men’s mental health and childhood outcomes in our extremely toxic Western culture that get overlooked and brutally essentialized when young men do violence, or when men of any age commit abuse.
So much to do! So much to say! And so little time, especially when I’m also juggling many other writing projects to sustain a level of socioeconomic stability!
So what’s a body to do?
The OnlySky aspiration: a more constructive and collaborative secular society
Whenever I publish articles, I’m always acutely aware that there’s a structural authority-divide in the layout of most mainstream media. Big prominent article up top, along with the established writer-brand, decisive title, and topical summary! Everybody else down below, their presence shaped by standard online-content design as the peanut gallery, the commentariat, the reactionaries and disgruntled dissenters.
From day one, folks behind the scenes at OnlySky have been thinking about how to counteract this online standard with a wide range of other tools and refinements. We wanted a conversation that would prioritize commenters’ words above all else. We wanted a level of supportive author-commenter engagement that would allow for deeper, collaborative ideas to emerge: the article as just the beginning of any discourse on a given theme. OnlySky is… a bit like me, to be honest! Its brain trust is brimming with ideas, and champing at the bit to unroll them all in a way that can be managed on a business- and tech-level, too.
You’ve probably also seen my face on the main page every Friday now, too. I.C.Y.M.I. is a weekly column that grew out of what I was already doing on the backend with other OnlySky writers: calling attention to the fantastic work of other site contributors, and celebrating what I thought were some rock-solid pieces that built great synergy together. I’m delighted that I get to do the same now on the frontend, too. We rise together, or not at all.
You’ve probably also seen an “It Kills Me To Admit This” article by now, too, and that’s in the same wheelhouse. We’re all hoping to write a piece that fits the category, to continue to cultivate the idea that we’re most definitely not right about everything all the time. No pedestals here! And we’ve got more features coming to counteract that “The Author Is The Be-All And The End-All” vibe that comes with standard journalist design. We welcome dissent, and doubt, and elaboration, and you should just see the backend discussion that comes from OnlySky writers talking about the brilliant comments on threads here. We love it, and we’re working on more ways to show just how much we love it, too.
The work goes on
One feature that I still think we need to do a better job of promoting, though, is the Community Inspired component: content by OnlySky writers that’s been inspired by you, our fellow-travelers in this great big mess of our one-and-precious lives. With the time we have left, with whatever backstories have brought us to where we are today, we all need to do our best to uplift each other further still.
It’s not easy, of course. The world is filled with setbacks, and none of us is really as secure as we’d like to be, to be able to pull off even modest ambitions all at once. We get derailed by other priorities, and many factors beyond our control end up driving our lives and political discourses into time-sucks that we really wish we didn’t have to go through all over again. The time we have is fleeting, and we need each other to make it count.
So, I for one know that my slate is mighty packed! And that other writers here are juggling a multiplicity of tasks as well, to make the best difference they can everywhere in their lives.
But please don’t hesitate to reach out and tell us what you’d like to see more of. And please keep sharing in these conversation spaces the wisdom and curiosity and concerns that your own wide ranges of experiences have brought to your secular lives in turn.
Because they matter. As do you.
This isn’t our last generation’s secular movement, after all.
The earthquake of perspective-shift amid disaster now demands, oh, so much more.