The middle-aged woman in a dark red sweater looked withdrawn and forlorn. I had been answering questions from the audience after presenting a talk called “Humanism As a Source of Inspiration and Meaning.” She raised her forearm just slightly to indicate she had a question. Her question—and my inability to satisfy her with an answer—haunted me for weeks.
“What about hope?” she’d asked.
Undaunted by the aura of hopelessness in her tone, I answered brightly: “The humanist worldview is filled with hope. We may be made of matter, but we decide what matters. It is through meaningful human action that a blank computer screen can become a poem, that slavery can become freedom. We can help others, alleviate suffering, and experience beauty. Humanism is not just the rejection of an idea. Humanism is an affirmation. It is a positive, clear-eyed response to our one world. It is saying ‘yes’, not saying ‘no.’”
“I don’t see how that helps me have hope,” she said, monotone. I went into high gear, and tried a different answer.
“Humanism is about possibilities. Without some grand supernatural plan or destiny, the future is open. Possibility means the door for hope and change and goodness is open. Possibilities can lead to progress, in the world and in our individual lives. It is a positive psychological message. We have choices in how to shape our lives. We can live with caring and compassion. We can invest ourselves in worthy goals. We don’t need anything supernatural for that. The fact that we can try to change ourselves, other people, and the world—and make it a better place through reason and compassion—is a fundamental wonder of being human, and can be celebrated. It is a cause for hope, and wisdom.”
“Okay,” she said. She was polite but unconvinced.
I don’t know what personal trauma, life events, or innate characteristics made the questioner long for hope, but clearly she’s not alone in seeking to satisfy this deep human need. Religion, in part, peddles hope. Hope also wins elections and sells products. The question is—for someone who is currently without hope—are the kinds of secular answers I proffered going to be enough on a personal, emotional, and psychological level?
I realize now that philosophical concepts may be too abstract for some who feel despondent. She needed a personal answer. What about hope for her? Humanism has a solid foundation. We have secular dreams of a better tomorrow, and a track record of positive social change. But do we have answers on a personal level? Do we have a fulfilling substitute for “God loves you” or, for the bereaved, “don’t worry, you’ll meet again someday in heaven”?
So let’s admit straight out: humanism is not about hope. It’s about facing the world as it actually exists and making the best of it. It’s about looking this real world in the eye and, using imagination and initiative, building castles in the sand, not castles in the sky. It’s about finding goodness within the spectrum of what’s real and what’s possible. And in facing such truths, humanists don’t look outside nature for salvation; they don’t seek change through wish fulfillment. This perspective is not a limitation. It’s a motivator. It’s the ground for positive action and results.
There are other approaches as well. A naturalistic, scientific worldview has led to medical marvels such as surgical anesthesia and life-saving antibiotics. In the same manner, properly used psychoactive medications can be thought of in a positive light as one tool among many to help relieve mental suffering and stress, find inner calm and happiness, and help individuals and their families to enjoy better lives.
Reflecting about the woman who asked, “What about hope?” I realize now that what she needed most was not just ideas, but love, broadly understood. She needed to feel loved by a person, family, or community. Conversely, she might find meaning in providing unconditional love to a person, pet, or worthy goal.
Ideas are the groundwork of the humanist lifestance, and are valued. But I now feel that the best response would have been to ask the woman to meet me for coffee afterwards, and then listen to her. To care. To show by action that there is the possibility of finding a person or a community that listens, supports, and tries to help with appropriate suggestions. A community that strives to provide encouragement—not with fairy tales, but with a whole realm of positive, real-world, personal human responses. That is the humanist way.
Lawrence Rifkin is a physician and a writer whose work has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Contemporary Pediatrics, Free Inquiry, and Medical Economics (in which he was the grand-prize winner of the Doctors’ Writing Contest).