This post is a part of the Humanist Community at Harvard’s 2012 Blogathon, a 12 hour blogging marathon by Chris Stedman and Chelsea Link to support HCH’s end-of-the-year fundraiser. Chelsea and Chris are both publishing one new post per hour, for twelve hours straight, and none of the posts have been written or drafted in advance. For more blogathon posts, click here. If you enjoyed this post or any of the others, please consider consider chipping in to support our work.
My last post was kind of weird and emotional, reflecting my state of mind at this point in a very long day of blogathon-ing. Chelsea and I are now somewhere around 11 hours into it, and I’m pretty out of it, so I’m going to cheat on this post a little bit by quoting from something I previously wrote. And I will also continue with the earnestness of my last post.
Last year, I wrote a piece that referenced what is perhaps my favorite episode of one of my favorite television shows — the inimitable Doctor Who.
One of my favorite episodes from last year’s season of Doctor Who found The Doctor and his companion battling an invisible creature that was terrorizing Vincent Van Gogh. It may sound bizarre, but it was actually a beautiful story that explored both the loneliness and possibility of the human condition.
At one particularly poignant moment near the episode’s end, the three of them looked up at the night sky and van Gogh exclaimed: “Hold my hand, doctor. Try to see what I see. We’re so lucky we’re still alive to see this beautiful world. Look at the sky! It’s not dark and black and without character. The black is in fact deep blue. And over there! Lighter blue, and through the blueness and the blackness, the wind swirling through the air, and then shining, burning, bursting through the stars. The stars, can you see how they roll their light? Everywhere we look, the complex magic of nature blazes before our eyes.”
The Doctor replied: “I’ve seen many things, my friend. But you’re right: Nothing’s quite as wonderful as the things you see.”
We look at the stars and can easily become overwhelmed by our seeming insignificance. We squint our eyes and try to assemble meaning out of their grandeur, looking for order somewhere in their grandiosity. We create constellations in an attempt to structure some cosmic meaning. Some have found it in the religious imagination; others in science fiction; still others in scientific study. Each has contributed to our growing understanding of the world, and of one another.
Some look up at the night sky and see swirls of color. Some see the possibility of another life beyond this. Others see a brilliant collection of stars that contain the potential to tell us more about our existence through studying them.
But as a Secular Humanist, I most readily find meaning in what is directly around me. I find significance in the absence of meaning; in my conviction that the human task is to assemble meaning through relationship, to come to see the other as more alike than different, and to advocate for inclusion and compassion.
This is just one reason why I love Doctor Who — while it entertains me, it also inspires me to think and reflect on my own place in a crazy, chaotic, and all-too-mystifying world. Earlier this year, I screened that episode of Doctor Who for the Humanist Graduate Community at Harvard, and we had a conversation about it after. We discussed the importance of creativity, and of compassion, and how we saw our values expressed in the program.
Less than a month after this meeting, I accompanied our graduate students on their annual Alternative Spring Break community service trip. Every year, the graduate community selects an issue they’d like to focus on, and a location they’d like to visit, and then I work with them on planning the trip logistics. Last year, they chose at-risk and homeless LGBT youth in Los Angeles. For months in advance I contacted organizations, arranged our schedule, secured a rental van, found accommodations for our group, and planned reflection activities. I got everything down, putting together a tight schedule that enabled our students to work with multiple organizations every day, and I coordinated accompanying educational sessions so that they could learn from a variety of organizations and young people. But as much as I planned it all out, I couldn’t plan for what our students would bring to the table.
This is one of the things that I love most about participating in and helping to organize an egalitarian Humanist community — it ensures that no one person calls the shots, and encourages everyone to bring their own perspectives, ideas, and experiences to the table. As we met young people who have endured the greatest of hardships, I witnessed our students acting on their values in ways I couldn’t have predicted, expressing compassion and offering assistance with innovation and profound thoughtfulness. And as wonderful as it was to sit alongside our graduate students and watch an episode of Doctor Who, it was infinitely more enjoyable to watch their brave and brilliant work for and with people who really needed it.
The stars are rife with possibility — but, to me, the greatest wonders are found in the people around me.
Want to help our students’ community service efforts? Please consider donating to support our work.
Chris Stedman is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and the Values in Action Coordinator for the Humanist Community at Harvard. He is the author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, and the founder of the blog NonProphet Status.