From the Archives: Part of the Show: Atheist Transcendence at the Edwardian Ball


Since I moved to the Freethought Blogs network, I have a bunch of new readers who aren’t familiar with my greatest hits from my old, pre-FTB blog. So I’m linking to some of them, about one a day, to introduce them to the new folks.

Today’s archive treasure: Part of the Show: Atheist Transcendence at the Edwardian Ball. The tl;dr: We don’t have to believe in God or an afterlife to find meaning and joy in life. We can think that there is no God externally giving us purpose, and that our lives are small and finite, and still feel profoundly joyful and purposeful. We can decide to be part of the show, and to participate in our lives as fully as possible. And a particular event — the Edwardian Ball in San Francisco, a magnificently silly annual costume event celebrating the life and work of Edward Gorey — reminds me of this.

A nifty pull quote:

When I’m in a despondent mood, I sometimes get depressed about the “closed circle” nature of human endeavor. I’m not naturally a very Zen, “in the moment” kind of person; I’m ambitious, forward thinking, and I like to think of my affect on the world as possibly having some life beyond my immediate reach and extending past my death. It sometimes makes me sad to remember that, even if I mysteriously became the most famous and influential person in the history of the planet, it’s still a closed circle — because life on Earth is a closed circle, and there’s no God or World-Soul to carry my thoughts and experiences into infinity. Like the replicant Roy Batty says in Bladerunner: “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”

The Edwardian ball reminds me, “So what? So what if you’re spending hours on your outfit just to be seen and admired by a couple thousand other people, whose outfits you’re also admiring? So what if you’re working to make life a skosh more joyful for people who’ll be dead in a few decades anyway, and whose descendants will be boiled into the sun in a few billion years? Don’t those people matter? And don’t you matter? The odds against you personally having been born at all are beyond astronomical. Beating your breast in despair because you’re going to die someday is like winning a million dollars in the lottery and complaining because it wasn’t a hundred trillion. You’re here now — and those other people are here now. Experience your life… and connect with theirs. Even if it’s just to spend a moment admiring the marvelous outfit they spent hours putting together.”

The Edwardian ball reminds me that permanence is not the only measure of consequence or value. The Edwardian ball reminds me that, as fragile and transitory as they are, experience and consciousness are freaking miracles. And the fact that we can share our experiences and connect our consciousnesses, even to the flawed and limited degree that we do, is beyond miraculous.

Let’s participate. Let’s be part of the show.

Enjoy!

Comments

  1. Ariel says

    One of your best. One of those pieces which can provoke a guy to send a marriage proposal … after being declined, to send a second, third, eleventh one … just to get arrested for harassment … oh, thanks to the Creator that we are both already married! :-)

    As I receive it, it’s not a philosophical piece, not really. Or perhaps it’s “philosophical” in a very broad sense of the word. There are few claims and few arguments here. It’s personal, it’s about your own way of looking at life. My comments will be in the same style. What’s there for me? What do I find congenial in your text and what is missing (not “objectively” missing, whatever this could mean, but missing for me)?

    What I find definitely appealing is the strong connection you make between fragility/transience and beauty. “All this celebration and magnificent silliness isn’t done by ignoring death” – yes, from my point of view it’s a must. Dance macabre lies at the core of the show and for me personally there is no way around this, no epicurean tricks, thank you, sir. (I think that’s the reason why when I look at my daughter, I see her as so painfully beautiful).

    And what is missing for me? To answer in one word: horror. Not the one from the movies, not the one transformed by art. The real one. From my own, very private point of view “the atheist meaning of life” as exemplified by the Edwardian ball doesn’t take the horror seriously enough.

    Imagine a ball as the one you described, but with one modification. There are real monsters hidden in the wardrobes. They have real teeth, real claws. One of the guests suddenly doesn’t have his liver any more. Another one wriggles in pain, clutching the place where his leg used to be. Still another didn’t even have time to take part in the “magnificent silliness” – a monster is eating her slowly, with no one being able to help. How to be a guest at such a ball? How to absorb it without cheating, while remaining sane? These are real questions for some people. (And no, I’m not saying that they should be real and painful for everybody; this is just personal.) The solutions? I don’t know of any very good ones. Well, pills. Avoiding the newspapers and history books (my wife’s advice). Yes, there are some tricks. The ball must go on, after all. And perhaps it’s just a price our species must pay for becoming a bit too conscious millions of years ago.

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