I had this kind of amazing night on Halloween: it gave me one of my moments of atheist/ secular transcendence, and it’s been making me wax philosophical about the importance of letting the universe surprise you. So I thought I’d share with the rest of the class.
One of Ingrid’s Morris dancing teams practices on Monday nights, and since last Monday was Halloween, they decided to have a short practice and then do a couple of ad-hoc performances out in public. I tagged along: it didn’t seem like it was going to be anything special, but I like the Morris gang, and I didn’t have anything else planned, and I wanted to hang out with Ingrid on Halloween.
And it was astonishing.
The first dance was at the USS Hornet, the aircraft carrier that recovered the astronauts from the Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 moon landings, and that’s now a national historic landmark and museum in Alameda. (They were doing night tours for Halloween.) It’s a massive, weirdly beautiful object, especially imposing and spooky at night. And the dancing in front of it was one of the weirdest, eeriest, most beautiful sights I’ve seen in quite a while. The outfits for this dance team are both festive and dark, with rag coats in blacks and grays, and top hats with black veils. They look spooky and slightly menacing even in broad daylight: in this setting, they looked positively unearthly. (A gallery of larger photos is at the end of this post.)
And I watched, alternating between snapping as many pictures as I could, and just standing there agog at how gorgeous and bizarre and unexpected it all was. Out of all the odd turns my life could have taken, watching my wife’s Morris team dance at an aircraft carrier on Halloween night has got to rank pretty darned high. (And not just any aircraft carrier — the aircraft carrier that picked up the Apollo astronauts when they splashed down! How cool is that? I hadn’t even known this was in the Bay Area. Yet another surprise.)
Their second dance-out was in front of the Alameda movie theater. Less of an unusual space, but more of an audience. Which meant that I got to experience their surprise and delight. I was watching the audience as much as I was watching the dancing: passers-by on their way to the next trick-or-treat stop, their plans happily interrupted by this unexpected spectacle of veiled folk dancers in rag coats dancing to accordion music in front of the movie theater. Little kids with huge eyes; parents with big grins at their wide-eyed kids; grownups snapping a hundred pictures; teenagers capering alongside and cracking up, semi-mocking but also appreciating the spirit and wanting to join in. There was this one kid in particular, about thirteen years old I’m guessing, who stopped when the music started, and just stood stock still, jaw hanging open, absolutely mesmerized. His older sister (I’m guessing) kept trying to get him to move along… and he would not move. He had never seen anything like this in his life, and by gum, he was going to see as much of it as he could.
Which I guess is what I’m getting at by gassing on about this.
There is so much in this life that I have never seen. And I want to see as much of it as I can.
A lot of things in my life changed when I became an atheist/ materialist/ secularist. And one of the main ones was how much more open I became to the world… and how much more open I became to being surprised by the world. When I chose to prioritize reality over whatever pre-existing opinions and beliefs I might have about it — and more specifically, when I made this a conscious philosophy and guiding principle of my life — my life opened up in ways I could not have imagined. It’s opened up in large ways… like flying around the country giving talks to crowds of total strangers, and having a significant portion of my friends and colleagues be people who are young enough to be my children. It’s opened up in small ways… like taking time to notice and absorb the street art around my neighborhood, and stopping on the street to buy a coconut curry ice cream pop from a food cart on the corner. I feel this excitement about the very fact of my life that I didn’t have before: this incredible sense of good fortune about the fact that there is a universe and that I get to be alive in it. And I feel this sense of urgency, almost responsibility, to not let myself get world- weary and jaded, and to let myself be gobsmacked by it all.
It’s not that life had no surprises for me before I left my religious beliefs. Of course it did. But I feel so much more intimately connected with the universe now that I’m not lying to myself about it. And I feel much more capable of being astonished by it. Like I wrote in Atheism, Openness, and Caring About Reality: Or, Why What We Don’t Believe Matters: Our world gets bigger when we let the world in. Our world gets bigger when we let the world itself take priority over whatever ideas we might have about it. Reality is bigger than we are. Our world gets bigger when we let that reality be what it is… and when we pay careful attention to what it is, the most careful attention we possibly can.
And since I now think that this life is the only one I’m ever going to have, I feel much more driven to experience it as fully and as richly as I possibly can. It is sometimes intensely frustrating to know that there are restaurants I’m never going to eat at, movies I’m never going to see, books I’m never going to read, people I’m never going to meet. But that makes me feel that much more passionate about really experiencing the restaurants and movies and books and people that are part of my life. It makes me feel that much more driven to stay present with them, to not space out and drift into my own little world, to connect with them and see what surprises they might have in store. Sometimes it’s a big, obvious, dramatic surprise: like seeing Scotland for the first time, or speaking to a crowd of 1,000 people, or meeting someone out of the blue who within a year would become one of my best friends. And sometimes it’s a small, subtle surprise of everyday life: like the taste of the scones from the new bakery, or some silly and wonderful video of a guy dancing in his rec room, or an afternoon with friends in a generic conference hotel room laughing ourselves into insensibility.
Or the sight of my wife’s Morris dancing team, dancing in black veils and dark rag coats in front of an aircraft carrier on Halloween night.
Other pieces in a similar vein:
Skepticism As a Discipline
For No Good Reason: Atheist Transcendence at the Black and White Tour