The Hole

This is a piece by Kitty Mervine, which was originally published in her blog, Yankee Skeptic.

Skepticism is not finite. You don’t become a skeptic and then are a perfect critical thinker able to guide others to the same perfection you have reached. It’s actually a learning process. One of the lessons we learn from skepticism is that life itself is enriched by educating yourself everyday. We never know it all, and being open to learning new things, makes us better people and better teachers.

I’ve been lucky to meet people that have been a good influence on my life.  They have influenced not only my skepticism and critical thinking skills, but also influenced the way I live my day to day personal life.  These are people that made me not just a better skeptic, but a better person.

One of the most memorable was Mark Henderson.  I first met Mark when he drove with his son Asher to Vermont to meet his skeptic hero James Randi, who was giving a talk.  I remember introducing him not only to Randi, but also to someone he was thrilled to meet, Rebecca Watson.  His enthusiasm, and his obviously close relationship with his son, made him instantly likable.  He asked me take photographs of him with Rebecca and Randi, and I promised to forward them to him.

I later learned more about Mark.  He was a person that found his calling serving others.  Mark was a pastor, and this was reflected in his openness when speaking to people.  He clearly liked people, and when he spoke to you, you felt he was intensely interested in what you were saying.  He made you feel what you were saying was a gift to him.

Mark worked as Methodist and Humanist minister.  He not only led congregations, and his sermons are the stuff of legend, he was  a hands on pastor.  He didn’t just talk a sermon, he got out from behind the pulpit to practice what he preached.

He did pastoral care at hospitals and with hospice.  We often talk about “preaching to the choir” but sometimes forget those that are in pain, emotional and mental, that need to hear from us.  These people are often very difficult to deal with as they remind us of our own mortality.  Many people feel they get nothing back from these people, and in fact feel emotionally drained from dealing with them. Sadly those that need us the most, often get the least.

Skeptics are most happy engaging people that agree with them.  The ability to be with people that agree with us, and protect our views without challenging us, is a comfortable place to be.  To seek out those that make us uncomfortable, and comfort them while remaining strong in our humanist beliefs, takes a strong person.  Mark was a strong man, though I imagine my first impression of him as a truly happy man, is  what his friends and family will remember most.

Mark sadly was diagnosed with the disease that would eventually result in his far too young death shortly after we met in Vermont.  I was able to meet Mark several times over the next few years.  It was heartbreaking to see the physical changes, until Mark opened his mouth and you were immediately reassured.  He was doing fine.  It didn’t matter what was going on physically, he was enjoying life.

Mark gave everyone he met the respect of being truly interested in what they were doing. During a meeting at Granite State Skeptics, he asked me about my work with people that felt they had been abducted by aliens.  He listened intensely, and took a moment to think about what I had said. He then looked at me and said “I hope you find something to fill the hole you left by taking away their belief they had been abducted.  When you take something away you leave a hole.  You need to fill that hole.”

I always learned something when I talked with Mark.  His care with words meant that when he spoke, you needed to listen.  This time I learned the answer to a problem I’d been dealing with.  Many of the people I worked with were left depressed after giving up their paranormal beliefs, and I didn’t know what to do about it.  I had missed something very important.

I was taken aback.  Like most skeptics, I like to brag a bit.  ”I’m being asked to give a talk here. I’m having an article published there.  My blog is really taking off.  Did I mention I know James Randi, he got me a cake for my birthday!”  I am used to people saying “Wow, that’s great, you are doing such wonderful work!  I really enjoyed that post in SWIFT, and your blog post last week on Bigfoot was great!”

I am not used to feeling I have messed up.  I realized I had taken away from many people something very dear to them.  They believed they had been abducted by aliens.  Most of the people I’ve worked with have come to my group because they are very unhappy about this belief.  However, this belief had also been a defining aspect of their life.

I had, over the years, worked out some good skills to help these people.  Time, support, listening, and getting them involved in finding the answer rather than just telling them the answer, had proven to work well. The therapists I directed those needing therapy to were excellent.  They were also honing their skills and getting good results.  We weren’t 100%, and often all we could do was reassure people. Still, I was proud of how well we were doing. The only problem, I found that depression and loneliness was often what a believer that lost their false belief was left with.

I had created holes that I had not even tried to fill.

I thought about friends that were atheists, and said what they missed most was the feeling of community and friendship they had with church.  I thought of atheists that had lost families, and not felt comforted until they had  found skeptic friends that helped fill that hole.  I knew one reason so many UFO and Bigfoot believers held onto their beliefs was that there would be a huge hole to be filled.  They were not only giving up a false belief, they were giving up all their friends and family that had been supportive of that false belief.

This is a problem with believers of any sort.  I know my daughters PhD thesis challenged a strongly held belief of another more experienced scientist.  She was quite nervous about her findings, having them checked and double checked by other experienced scientists.  She then felt strong enough for the criticism that resulted.  It took real bravery for her to publish the truth, in the face of the anger of a scientist that would be left with a hole.

I knew I had to do something else besides take away.  I had to offer something to fill the hole left.  I began to learn more about local astronomy clubs.  I put together a list of astronomy groups for those I worked with, because one thing most of them have in common is a fascination with space.  I tried to find out more about the people that contacted me personally. I tried to take an interest in them beyond their paranormal belief so I could show them the skeptic community was welcoming.  I found  sometimes just honestly telling a believer, “you will miss this belief when it is gone” is all you can do.  But you can’t just take something away, and expect that truth alone will be enough.

I like to tell how I found family and support in the skeptic community.  How I now have friends I can talk to without worrying about making a joke about astrology or tarot cards.  I enjoy all my friends, believers of woo and non believers, but there is something special about hanging with people that are like minded.  People ask me why I attend TAM (The Amazing Meeting) every year, and I reply “Because I can be myself!”

However, spending too much time with just skeptics can make spending time with believers difficult.   Critical thinkers have much in common with non critical thinkers, we are all just human.  We all know what it is like to lose something, a belief, a friend, a family member, and know that the hole left from that loss can be painful.

I thank Mark for teaching me I need to learn to help fill in the holes I help dig.

For Mark’s obituary click here.


About Sarah Jane Chandonnet

Sarah Jane Chandonnet is the Program Director at the Humanist Community at Harvard and the Humanist Hub.

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