Rabbi Sherwin Wine: The Life of Courage

by Rabbi Sherwin Wine (1928-2007), of the Society for Secular Humanistic Judaism.  (Talk given at the HumanLight celebration, Parsippany, NJ, 12/21/03)

I’m really glad to be here and I want to give an award myself. I believe that important things in life are done by creative people, who, sometimes, after long brainstorming discussions have gone by and nobody can make up their minds, they go ahead and do something creative. I’m talking about the people who created HumanLight. So, I want Joe Fox to come up here and stand over here. And I want Gary Brill to come up here. When people are pioneers, and they do good work, and they create something from which we all benefit, then what they deserve is a huge round of applause!

What I want to do is to ask a question that normally isn’t asked, because what happens often when we get together as Humanists, atheists, freethinkers, whatever word we choose to use – secularists — what we do is we talk about what we believe. And I’m not interested in what we believe. I’m interested in what we do. And in order to clarify the question, I want to turn to the role of this time. HumanLight is taking place at a time when other important holidays take place in the world of religion. And its by no mere coincidence. In the northern hemisphere, at the end of December something happens. Its meaning is so powerful, it strikes not only the mind, it strikes the heart. At this time of year you may have been noticing the days grow shorter and shorter. The night grows longer and longer. The darkness increases. In fact in the ancient world, people were not sure that the darkness would possibly consume the world. And so at this time of year, this was a season of hope. All of sudden the darkness stopped growing and everything is turned around. And the light is reborn.

Nobody knows when Jesus was born. Somewhere in the 4th century, whatever it was, they decided he was born at this time of year. And the reason they decided he was born at this time of year, was because, his birth, in the eyes of Christianity, was a sign of hope. I want you to know that long before the Chanukah story began, the Jews were celebrating a holiday. It was the holiday of lights, which occurred at the time of the winter solstice. And the reason why you don’t light all the lights at one time – you light them 1,2,3,4,5,6 consecutively, is because its an expression of the growing light of the winter solstice. So, it’s a season of hope. All the great religions of the world embrace it in some way, and turn it into a way of celebrating something very, very important, which is the defeat of the darkness by the light.

Now there are many ways for you to conceive the defeat of the darkness. The big question always in life is, life is filled with all kinds of problems. The question is how do we push back the darkness and how do we increase the light. This is called HumanLight, right? How do we push back the darkness and increase the light in our lives? It’s not only a question that religious people ask. It’s a question that any human being asks. The reason why religion grew is not because of any belief system. If you ask the question “who made the world?”, and the answer is “God”, it’s useless information. You can’t do anything with it to solve any problem. It doesn’t fix your plumbing and it doesn’t find you a friend. The reason why religion grew in power (and we can learn from it, by the way. It’s very easy to mock, but you can learn) — the reason why it is so powerful is because it responds to two problems in life that every one of us experiences. Sometimes we practice denial, but they are there and if they didn’t exist, there would be no religion in the world. I’ll mention them: suffering and death. If they did not exist, there would be no religions. And in fact it’s because we have suffering and death that people are saying (and this is the fundamental question of religion and philosophy in their practical forms): “As the darkness enters into our lives, we ask the question where will I find the power to increase the light in my life? To defeat the darkness. Where might I find it?”

So, let me tell you a few stories of things that happened to me over the last few weeks. They’re practical stories — they don’t have to do with theoretical things. I met someone who grew up in my community – a young man of great promise. He ultimately went to medical school. He became a physician and ultimately became a very, very skillful researcher and his research helped save a lot of lives. He’s now 33 years old, and he discovered two weeks ago that he has pancreatic cancer. By the way, he’s a Humanist, he’s a freethinker, he’s an atheist. So what do we say to him? How do we respond? We’re always talking about the world in general, humanity in general. The reason why religion is so powerful is it doesn’t talk about humanity in general. It address the individual in particular. It address the individual at his or her most vulnerable and it says: “Don’t worry. In the end, the light will be provided for you. The darkness will be defeated and light will triumph.” That’s what we’re celebrating at this season — the rebirth of the light, the triumph of the light. So what do I say to him? I’m his friend, his counsel. What does one say?

Let me tell you another story. It’s a story of a mother who remains almost inconsolable. She’s been trying to pull herself together after an event that occurred in this New York area over two years ago. It happened on September 11th. The Twin Towers came down. And in the Twin Towers was a young man in his early forties who I knew from infancy. I named him. And he was a good Humanist, a good atheist and a good freethinker. And he melted. And the news was brought to his mother and his father. You can go through all the arguments about why there is a God or there isn’t a God. What difference does it make?

I want tell you that the great challenge to us as Humanists and freethinkers is that we have all the answers to the great questions in the world. What do we have to say to people who confront the darkness? Who confront suffering and death? What do we have to say to them? We hold meeting after meeting after meeting. And we bring in lecturer after lecturer. We know what we should do in Nigeria. We know what we should do in South Africa. We know what we should do in Brazil. The whole thing. But what do we have to say to the person, to the individual living his or her life?

We have a song that we sing. I’m not going to sing it for you, but I’ll give you the words — they relate to HumanLight. We sing them all the time in our community. It goes like this: “Where is my light? My light is in me, not out there. Where is my hope? My hope is in me. Where is my strength? My strength is in me. And in you. Because I can’t get through this only by myself. I need other human beings around.” The song represents — those words represent — a lifestyle.

When I talk about Humanism or freethinking, I don’t just talk about the things I don’t believe or what’s wrong with organized religion. I can respect, in some ways, their ability to respond to the needs of people confronting both suffering and death and problems in their life. I don’t need to mock them. I try to define what it is positively that we stand for. And for me, what it all means, what it all boils down to ultimately, what Humanism means, is not simply a way of rescuing all of humanity. I know a lot of people in my life who know how to relate to people in general, but they can’t talk to their neighbor, their wife, their father. They can relate to humanity in general. They love humanity. They don’t know how to love any single person. They can’t even go to a meeting of Humanists and behave.

There is a phrase that I use to describe what I consider to be the lifestyle of a Humanist. We cannot live the life of faith. The life of faith does not correspond to our experience. The life of faith is the belief that the world is ultimately fair. You tell that to the mother who lost her child in the Twin Towers. It’s not fair. Life is not fair and in the end, most likely all things will not end up beautifully, with lions talking to lambs. It’s a hard world that we live in. There is a lot of darkness. And what we search for in life is the light. Where’s the light? So, the phrase that I use, that I find most useful for reaching this idea of people individually, not humanity collectively, is what I call the life of courage. If I cannot live the life of faith, than I have to live the life of courage. What does it mean to live that kind of a life? What does it mean to live the life of courage? If we knew how to tell people about that, then we could connect to where people are in their own individual lives.

First of all, the life of courage means for me that I am willing to face reality, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant. The world doesn’t always conform to what I want it to be. And what I find is that we have a little thing in our minds that we can use that enables us to avoid this. It’s called denial. We sometimes can look problems in the face and we say, “It’s not dark, its light.” But we do have the ability to look any fact, any reality, in the face and to acknowledge that it’s true. One of the things that I know as a part of the life of courage is that we live in a world of enormous disharmony, and in order to get harmony in the world you have to work very hard at it. I was recently talking to a fisherman who said to me, “Oh, I can’t wait. I love to go out in the summertime out to the lake. I love to fish. It’s so quiet, so peaceful and so restful, and I feel so much in harmony with nature.” So I said to him, well that’s great for you, but what about the fish? What’s good for one, is often not so terrific for another. That’s the universe we live in. There is no single over-arching harmony in the world. Life is always negotiation. If you’re in a marriage, there are two people, and it isn’t true that both agendas are always the same. If you’re a parent with a child, there are two people, and it isn’t always the case that both agendas are the same. The life of courage means an endless negotiation between agendas.

The second thing that’s very important to me, is that all I ask for is improvement. I never ask for utopia. One of the most dangerous ideas, I think, that has entered into the world is the idea of messianism. The idea of messianism is an idea that basically says that when the darkness expands and things look almost impossible to solve, magically, some kind of magic power will appear to change all of that, and in the end everything will be okay. And I want to tell you that that kind of thinking isn’t simply a kind of thinking that is to be found among so-called traditional religious people. I grew up in a neighborhood filled with radicals. And they were messianists. They believed that once the revolution came, “once the revolution came” then lions would lay down with lambs, there would be equality, the whole thing. They also practiced large amounts of denial — no matter what horror Stalin committed, they always found an excuse. I’m always very wary of utopian thinking. The life of courage says any decision you make in life has advantage and has disadvantages. There’s no decision you’ll ever make in life that has only advantages. An so what you do in life, is you don’t get utopia, you hopefully get some improvement. We were just having a discussion here about smoking. The advantage of prohibiting smoking is that you’re going to clean out the environment, or whatever else. The disadvantage is that you’re depriving certain people of their freedom to choose. The life of courage means I’m willing to make decisions without being self-righteous, saying “I’ve got the perfect solution”. I don’t have any perfect solution. And I’m willing to make the decision even though I know it has disadvantages. People often wait in their life — the life of delay. You never make the decision when you need to make it, and you pass over the opportunity because you’re afraid there’s some bad consequence. Well, I don’t know any decision that doesn’t have some bad consequence. It’s like making an event like HumanLight. Finally some person had to make a decision, right, and say we’re going to go ahead with it. But this person or that person won’t like it, or maybe we should choose another name for it. Nothing ever gets done that way.

The third thing for me is to accept what you cannot change. I spoke about the mother whose son was killed on September 11. She’s a Professor at the University of Michigan, at Dearborn. An extremely talented woman. She had lost another son at the age of 19 from a heart condition. And what she chose to do, was the only way she could. After the news, everybody came over, and they assumed that she would just stay in that daze and shock forever. But three days after, she picked herself up and she went to teach, because that was her way of saying I will not be defeated. The fates may, whatever they be, conspire against me. Life may be unfair, but I’m not going to brood about “what ifs.” What if he hadn’t been there, what if I had phoned, what if he’d come home. Nuts! What happened a moment ago is as far from our reach as the farthest star. The life of courage is to let go. By the way, I’m engaged always with Israeli-Palestinian discussions. Have you ever been to one of them? I’m right! No, I’m right! No, I’m right! I’m right! And that’s how the discussion goes on. The State of Israel should never have been created – Right! But they’re there. So, what happens is both sides are right. The Palestinians are right because after all, they’re being oppressed and persecuted. The Israelis are right because after all, most Israelis were born there. The way I was born in Detroit. I didn’t come and take the land away from the Indians. I didn’t, personally. I didn’t choose where I was born, I was just born there. And I’m not prepared to give up my condo to anybody who comes back for it. So you can’t live a life of courage if you’re only dealing with who’s to blame. It’s done! There are two nations occupying the same territory, now how the hell do we solve that problem, not who was there first. I find that I overhear people talking in restaurants – you can’t help but overhear. And I find that 50% of human conversation has to do with who’s to blame. It’s not my fault! No, it’s her fault! It’s his fault! It’s my fault! It’s nobody’s fault! Instead of focusing on how to solve a problem, people are always focusing on who’s to blame. The life of courage means that once a thing is done, it’s done. Now how do we solve the problem? How do we solve the problem?

The life of courage for me means affirming my own power. One of the philosophers that I liked when I was young, and I go all the way back to before World War II, was a man who became very popular after the Second World War. He sponsored a form of Humanism which has a fancy name. It’s called existentialism. At the heart of existentialism is a phrase that this philosopher used. His name was Jean Paul Sartre. The heart of existentialism is a phrase, which is “no excuses”. Now, obviously it’s an exaggeration, isn’t it? I mean, there are excuses. Of course there are. But “no excuses” means a lifestyle. When you have no excuses, you then take responsibility for your life. Yes, in the end other people did this to me, but wait a minute — no excuses! Because if I live the life of excuses I can’t take hold of, I mean I can’t even find, the strength that I need to take hold of my life.

The life of courage — what it means to me is sharing my power. Often I hear this word, transcendence. And it’s used by people who are into what we call forms of religious spirituality. “I want to feel myself as part of something greater than myself.” Do you ever hear that? And I always say, well if that’s what you mean by spirituality, then I must be spiritual. Because I feel myself part of things greater than myself. Otherwise it would be very hard for me to live my life. One of the ways I find the meaning of my life is that I live the life of courage by sharing what I have. It enhances my sense of my own control over my own life. I experience transcendence. The baby in the womb experiences transcendence, connected to its mother. None of us is independent. I am part of my family, and my neighborhood, and my community and humanity. And one of the ways to live the life of courage is not to be self-absorbed. Self-absorbed people cannot be courageous.

Finally, there’s a phrase that a contemporary of Sartre used — his name was Albert Camus. He referred to the universe as absurd. Now, what he meant by it was not that there aren’t laws of nature. There are laws of nature, uniform sequences of events. You can speak of the law of gravity, but the law of gravity is morally indifferent. It doesn’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. It doesn’t care whether you’re a nice guy or a bad guy. The law of gravity will cooperate with somebody who’s dropping food down to people who need food, from a helicopter. It will also cooperate with somebody who’s standing on top of the Empire State Building throwing bodies down. What Camus meant by absurd was that the world, the universe, has no moral agenda. The only beings in the world that do, are us. It is we who have that. Therefore, the universe is absurd. It lacks meaning. Meaning is brought to the world by us. But how do you live in an absurd world? Well, there are times in life when you confront an absurd world with defiance and anger, and sometimes you confront it by one of the great gifts that we have. Let me try to describe it.

When I was in my youth, I worked on a boat that plied the waters of the Great Lakes. It went from Buffalo to Duluth, and in 1949 people thought that was a great vacation. They got on at Buffalo, they went to Duluth and then they went back from Duluth to Buffalo. And the people who ran the boat generally had false advertising. They told people, especially women, that they would be able to meet men on the trip. So at Buffalo, getting on the boat were 255 women and 13 men. I remember one Friday when we were at Buffalo, somebody got on the boat, and I liked her immediately. She was this woman with an incredibly good sense of humor. She looked around and she realized that the advertising had been false. Now there were 6 of us who were like bellhops, we carried the luggage up to the rooms. She wasn’t interested in me, but she was interested in my friend. She liked him. So what happened during the trip was that whenever she saw him, she would pursue him. And she would chase him up the stairs, down the stairs. He would see her, and run. She was sort of ample. And one day on one of the decks I saw her go by and she spied him, and he ran. He ran down a stairway. She went after him and when she got midway down the narrow stairway, she got stuck. So I ran up to her to see whether I could do anything. There she is stuck in the narrow stairway, and she could barely turn her head around. She knew something was behind her, she saw me, and she let out with a howl of laughter. Have you ever gotten stuck in an existential stairway? What happened? How’d I get here? What the hell happened? That’s what life is. There are times to cry and times to defy. Then there are times for this great gift in life — times to just throw your head back against the absurdity of the universe and howl.

Let me say that one of the things I try to do, I’m not sure successfully, but it’s for me the message of Humanism. First of all, I want to tell you that I regard myself as a believer. I believe many things. I believe in the power of people to solve their problems; not all of their problems. I believe that most likely each one of us has more power than he or she imagines. There is a story, by the way, of Bertrand Russell. He once gave a lecture before he was Lord Russell. And Bertrand Russell of course was one of the great philosophers of Humanism. After he was finished, a little old lady in tennis shoes went up to him, and she said to him, “Mr. Russell, you’re nothing but a nonbeliever.” And he said to her, madam, I most likely have ten times as many beliefs as you do, and my latest one is that you are an idiot. So, I am a believer. I’m a believer in the life of courage. That’s what I talk about. I don’t spend my time mocking religion, because, quite frankly, they have a track record of appealing to the person. They direct their attention to the issues of personal suffering and death. So, there’s no point to be made. I address myself to the challenge we have. What do we have to say personally to the people, every one of us in this room, who live their lives filled with problems. What does it mean to be a Humanist or a freethinker and confront those problems?

It’s the celebration of HumanLight. Somebody made a HumanLight card for me and sent it to me, with a quotation that appeared in something that I had written. I’m going to read it to you because it sort of summarizes what I’m saying: “Realistic living is the courage to acknowledge the truth, even when it is painful. It is the courage to strive for happiness, even when it is unlikely. It is the courage to make necessary decisions, even when there is uncertainty. It the courage to improve the world. even in the face of overwhelming defeat. It is especially the courage to take both the blame and the credit, even when they are embarrassing. Realistic living is the courage to stay sane in a crazy world. The sun requires no courage to rise in the morning, to shine in the day, to die in the evening. But we, living, breathing, passionate people, we do.” Happy HumanLight!

(text transcribed from audio by Patrick Colucci)