Content note: passing reference to sexual assault of minors. This piece was originally published in Free Inquiry.
Lots of atheists I know say stuff like this. I say it myself. And then I have one of those days, when I’m hit with a barrage of difficult, complicated choices with no clear answer, and by the end of the day I’m exhausted with decision fatigue and couldn’t even tell you what kind of ice cream I wanted. I have one of those days, when someone I thought I knew well does something that’s not just appalling but completely out of character, unlike anything I’ve ever seen them do, and the ground starts to crack under my feet as I wonder how many of my other friends are hiding crucial parts of their faces and their characters and their lives. I have one of those days, when the sun is shining and our backyard is beautiful and tranquil, and people on the other side of the globe are kidnapping schoolgirls and selling them into sex slavery, and I don’t know how to live in the world with it being so astonishingly wonderful and at the same time so deeply terrible. I have one of those days, or weeks, or months, or years. Or the world has one of those days, or weeks, or months, or years. And I suddenly get a lot more sympathy for the desire for an either/or world.
I don’t agree with it, of course. I’ll get to that in a minute. I don’t think it’s an accurate view of the world, and ultimately I don’t think it’s a desirable one. I’m just saying that I get why some people yearn for it.
Nuance is hard. Nuance is one of the hardest things to accept, and to manage. Many decisions are messy, with different values coming into conflict, and without one clear answer. (Do I take a bath every day, which contributes to the California drought but helps alleviate my depression? Do I buy computer equipment made in China, which contributes to appalling labor conditions but enables me to do the work I do?) Many differences don’t have clear demarcations: they’re spectrums, continuums, and even good and evil shade into each other imperceptibly. (Where does forgiveness and flexibility shade into being a doormat with no boundaries — and where does enforcing boundaries and insisting on justice shade into being an unforgiving hardass with no compassion or understanding of human frailty?) Trusting people doesn’t mean absolute certainty: it means being closer to one end of the trust spectrum than the other, and no matter how careful or smart you are about who you trust and when, you have no guarantee that your trust will be rewarded. Absolute safety is impossible: no matter how rich we are, how strong, how healthy, how well-insured, how many gates and guards we put between ourselves and the world, we can never be 100% protected from harm. (If nothing else, an asteroid could crash into the planet and destroy us all.) Decisions are messy, distinctions are blurry, life is uncertain. And yet we have to make decisions, and make distinctions, and move forward in our lives with some sort of confidence.
And we have to take responsibility for it. When the lines aren’t clearly drawn for us, we have to draw them ourselves. When we draw them wrong, we have to take responsibility. We learn from our experiences as best we can, so we can draw those lines better in the future — but we do this with the understanding that the parameters constantly change, and without any certainty that we’ll get it right.
There are moments when I find this liberating, even exhilarating. I’m free! My life is mine! And there are moments when I find it exhausting, overwhelming, when the burden of responsibility literally feels like a physical burden, like sandbags hanging from my shoulders. Those are the moments when I understand the desire for an either/or world — the desire for clear rules to follow, and for an absolute certainty that the rules are perfect.
If the world were either completely wonderful or completely terrible, I’d know what to do. If everything really did happen for the best in this best of all possible worlds, I’d put on a happy smile, enjoy all the delightful things, ignore all the terrible things (like Barbara Bush, asking “why should I waste my beautiful mind” on body bags and death), and trust that it would all be sorted out in the end. If, on the other hand, human nature really were base, corrupt, and entirely self-interested, as so many cynics insist, I’d put on my armor every day and battle for the biggest share of the pie I could grab. Cynicism and rose-colored glasses are two sides of the same coin: they’re both easy ways to pre-make our judgments ahead of time, without having to evaluate each person and situation and decision.
Either/or thinking is an easy way out. But it’s a trap.Of course, the most important problem with the either/or view of life is that it’s, you know, not true. Insert rationalist rant here, about how reality is more important than any comforting lies we could make up about it, and how we need to understand reality as best we can so we know how to act in it. But the other problem with the either/or view of life is that it’s a trap. It closes us off from life. When we follow someone else’s pre-packaged rules about how to act, without ever questioning them, we retreat from engaging with the world at the most intimate and powerful level. When we slot everyone into boxes, we don’t let ourselves be surprised by them. The hard, bright walls clearly dividing the world become a prison. Living a life of absolute certainty, with every decision already made for us — it would be like living in Nineteen Eighty-Four, or in Camazotz.
It’s a funny thing. In the Christian mythology, the blissful reward we’re supposedly reaching for is a state of permanent choicelessness, in which evil and suffering and bad decisions never cross our minds for even a second. And the gravest sin human beings ever committed, the sin so dreadful we’re all still being punished for it generations later, is attaining the knowledge of good and evil. Yet in this same mythology, free will and the ability to choose right from wrong is considered a great gift — so powerful and important a gift that God permits terrible evil and suffering in order to let it flower. It’s an utterly incoherent philosophy. Yet a part of me does understand its appeal; the yearning for a reprieve from responsibility and uncertainty that somehow, magically, isn’t a prison.
But the greater part of me rejects it. The greater part of me grasps, all the way down to the marrow of my bones, that drawing our own lines in the infinite spectra of experience is what makes us human. The greater part of me grasps that I don’t trust people so I can get an ironclad guarantee of not being hurt: I trust people because a life without trust is pretty much not worth living. The greater part of me grasps that if there’s no room in my life to be surprised by the terrible things people do, there’s no room to be surprised by the amazing things they do. The greater part of me grasps that, as Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in The Left Hand of Darkness, “The unexpected is what makes life possible.”
The unexpected is what makes life possible. A life with absolute certainty is no life at all.
And I want life.