Confessions of a Disoriented Young Humanist


By Alex Abbott
American University

My life is not a stained glass portrait of precise, crystalline ecstasy. It is a collage of murky grays, spectrums of sepia, tones of icy blue cynicism, hints of beige uncertainty, with a trail of restless and insecure brush strokes leaving behind fuzzy and undefined borders.

While growing up, church was an obligation. Everyone else went. My whole life, up until college, I merely did what was expected of me. While religion was just one of those expectations, that belief system buffered me from doubting the rest of my perceptions about the world.

At first, my transition to humanism felt like the shedding of a skin – while my former beliefs fell off quickly and without much tugging and pulling, I also felt like I lost something that had protected me.

Although I have undeniably gained empathy and insight which has made me a better person, questioning all of those other expectations that I have acquired has often been an isolating, frustrating, arduous experience.

It’s easy to demonize religion, but it’s more difficult to accept how onerous the process of interrogating your entire life can be. I’m not sure people fully understand how religion can turn the world into a narrative, a set path that more or less supports you.

It was my first semester of college when I veered away from that path. I was scared and anxious. Hurt. Uncertain, insecure and awkward.

My childhood church was one of my safe places, so I had one less attachment I could trust. When I left for college, I already realized that I didn’t have the same moorings and support network to rely upon. I already felt like I had to rebuild almost everything from scratch…

In many ways, I am still searching for a voice and a place.

Because I went to school in our nation’s capital, surrounded by many hyper-aware, notoriously politically active students, because I work at a non-profit and that passion still motivates me and steers my decision-making, it’s incredibly tempting to think of issues in the abstract, on a national or societal scale. I worry so much about hunger, poverty, climate change, patriarchy, racism, militarism and dozens of other insidious problems.

Often, I ask myself, ‘Does anything I do make a difference on a larger scale?’ In these all-too-common dark moments, when I feel my impact is a pittance, almost anything I do feels futile or counterproductive.

Whiplash ensues. GUILT — for not being involved, for not waking up early on Sundays, for not being able to commit. FAILURE — for not protesting more, for not volunteering more, for not knowing more about the struggles of the people in my community.

My hope was to have some grand answers by now but, so far, all I have is this same tenuous and treacherous journey of self-doubt.

I have a desperate longing to bridge this gap between my own personal efforts, which can seem so petty and anemic, and the grander, more imposing world that I am lost in. If you can imagine the intensity of this burning inadequacy, is it clearer why people may embrace religion? I no longer look for a divine spark, but I do need to share a human touch.

Today, it is my goal to be a better person than I was yesterday, to take one or two specific steps that will help someone else along the way. Maybe that’s just giving up my seat for the mother with the stroller when I ride the train today. Maybe that’s not yelling at the next tourist who wants directions. All of us can make a difference, and it is the small, granular scenes of life that add up to one vast production.

I have often felt paralyzed by anxiety, by hopelessness, by my own ignorance and cluelessness. Sometimes, I am broken, but I am hopeful that I can still accomplish something in this world – even if that’s just one small act of kindness at a time.

I can’t prove this, but I feel intuitively that a lot of younger people may shy away from organized religion because we are going through so many changes and experiencing so many vulnerabilities in our lives, that we feel fragile and don’t want to be judged for not having answers.

One part of humanism that resonates with me is the value of doubt and exploration. I do not feel comfortable reciting dogma or being told that I should just rely on faith. It would be a cruel fate if, as humanists, we didn’t allow ourselves to feel doubt, either, even self-doubt.

As a young humanist, I just want to say that – as far as I am concerned – it is OK to feel like you don’t belong; it is OK to keep searching and struggling, just as long as you are not afraid to listen to other people and learn from your mistakes.

If each life is a work of art, before you worry about perfecting a masterpiece, it’s alright if you need to get a grip or practice using the right lens. As a humanist, I appreciate the chance to look through a multitude of frames and angles along the way.

Alex Abbott (American University)

Yet Another ProfileAlex is a 2012 American University alumni with a degree in Political Science and Philosophy. He currently lives in Washington, DC and works for a non-profit membership organization which advocates on behalf of seniors. Arguably, he enjoys improv comedy, poetry, and politics too much. He is trying awfully hard to be a decent humanist, feminist, and liberal. He is also passionate about many other topics including religion, economics, climate justice, and disability rights. His Twitter handle is the semi-pretentiously-titled @Alexthethinker.

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