My name is Kristy Gonzalez, and I wrote this blog post before our death themed assembly in July.
My friend Nick asked me to write about how I find meaning in life for an atheist blog. I suppose the subtext there is that atheists are commonly regarded as lacking meaning in their lives, and they are looking for someone to counter that? I figured I would give it a shot and post it to Sunday Assembly blog as well, because I think the topic is an important one and one we’re touching on at the next assembly and Wonder Club.
I’m not one for long philosophical rants about the subjectivity of “meaning” or how our lives are infinitely more meaningful because they’re finite or how astonishing it is that we should be here at all, defying astronomically improbable odds, musing about life’s meaning, ‘a way for the cosmos to know itself.’ If I had to write something like that, I’d run screaming from this blog.
So I’ll write instead about that bird at the feeder right now and see if I can make that work. Ahem, ahem, ahem, the meaning of life, as seen in the backyard.
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I just got a new bird identification book. The bird at the feeder is a female cardinal (but I didn’t need the book for that one, I’m getting good), and female cardinals really get a bad rap because they’re not nearly so majestic as their male counterparts. Oh! A goldfinch! A male goldfinch just joined the female cardinal, and is quite readily outshining her in his yellow and black splendor. I did have to look that one up, and I appreciate him even more now that I know what to call him. Now they’ve been joined by what must be either a brown thrasher or a brown-headed cowbird…hm…
I’m excited to know their names because Daggles (my dad) will be home soon, and I’ll get to tell him I identified a few of his birds. I’ll see his face light up with pleasure that I’m taking interest in his interests, and I imagine he’ll bring out his camera and show me the crown jewels among yesterday’s backyard visitors. My dad has always had a fixation with things that fly–his old airplane obsession has given way to a new hobby of bird watching, and the collection of bird houses and bird feeders around this house might soon hit triple digits. It wasn’t until he collected all these things that I was able to take the time to really examine the majesty of airborne objects– now that I think of it, perhaps it has something to do with our shared fear of heights that invites us to marvel at things in flight. That goldfinch outside, with all his majesty of gold zooming to the fountain and taking a dip–oh! And those shimmering water droplets he sprays around with his wings! They invite in me a sense of wonder at the simple beauty in the backyard and gives me a sense of kinship with my dad. A kinship that sometimes feels light years away.
I treasure these similarities we share. We are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to our most fundamental beliefs–where we believe life came from and what happens after. In a sort of ironic, nearly poetic symmetry, he’s a preacher, and I’m the president of atheist church in Atlanta. Okay, the media calls it atheist church, but I think of it as a delightful gathering of freethinkers who like to sing songs and marvel at the universe. Sunday Assembly is a huge part of my life and my identity, as are my beliefs that drew me to it–as much as his beliefs guide his day-to-day life. I spent my day today working on organizing SA events. He spent his driving girls back from church camp. I’m organizing SA on Sunday where we’ll talk about death with no after-life discussion to sugar coat it. He’ll be preaching on Sunday about the promises of heaven. When I fear death, like I did last week flying in a turbulent airplane, that’s because I love this life so passionately, and I’m terrified to lose it. It’s all I have. He rides in an airplane and the worst case scenario ain’t half bad. Jesus and streets of gold, as far as he’s concerned.
To approach life so differently is to have an enormous chasm in the way we relate to experience. But I like to believe that when we’re both looking at the birds in the backyard, it’s an engagement in a profoundly simple “moment of being” when you’re not engaging in thoughts of the past or future, you’re not examining life’s most fundamental truths or the dramatic implications of them. You’re resting in a moment of wonder for it’s own sake. Look at that starling! He just descended from the bird feeder in a flurry of feathery sound, coasting onto the top of an elephant ear leaf, light enough to barely shift it, hopping to the one below and then gracefully sliding back into flight, his swiftly beating wings blurring as he ascends heavenward and out of sight.
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How I find Meaning is a big question that I have no answer to readily. When my dad asks me about my day, and I answer, I’ll tell him about beauty and his birds. I hope it makes him smile. That’s enough for today, enough *meaning* for me. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.