Secular Solstice Dawn Speech: Only Human

“You’re only human.”

That’s what someone says when they want you to set your sights a little lower, to make your goals a little less lofty. “Only human”. It’s supposed to be a reminder that, when you get down to it, we are basically chimps who traded a little less hair for a little more brain. “Only human” means: you’re limited. You’re fragile. You are flawed. And all that is true – but that doesn’t preclude greatness.

You, and I, are human.

When evolution created us as weird chimps to hunt and gather on the African Savannah, we said “how about we thrive on every corner of every continent instead?” And when evolution looked at us skeptically and said “um…even the really cold parts? Like, there’s this whole Scandinavian region you are really not cut out for” we said “ESPECIALLY the really cold parts, and when we get there we’re going to invent IKEA because frankly these rocks are uncomfortable”, at which point evolution presumably threw up its hands and left the weird insane chimps to it.

We are the humans! We are the ones who write, who speak, who invent! We are the strange chimps who always found a way to thrive, on every corner of this ridiculous planet, no matter what it threw at us!

We are the humans! We are the ones who saw a poisonous tree, thought “that looks delicious”, turned it into almonds, and now we pour it in our coffee for breakfast! We are the humans, and we have it in ourselves to care, and love, and protect all of our people! We are perhaps uniquely endowed with the ability to go beyond what drives evolution instilled in us, to love and care and protect for its own sake.

We are the humans! We figured out what the stars are made of! We’ve peered into distant galaxies! We’ve mapped the echoes of the very beginning of the universe! We figured out what EVERYTHING is made out of, and now we take the fundamental building blocks of everything and  SPLIT THEM APART to make energy. Like that! (said as a light turns on) We are the humans, and after spreading to every corner of this planet, we looked up and said “yeah, that looks good.” We are the humans, and if you want to do a full headcount you’re going to need to go into orbit. We are the humans, built to run on the Savannah, but now you can find our footprints on the moon.

We are the humans. We’re the reason you don’t see Smallpox around anymore. It got a bad case of us. Oh, and by the way, we’re not done. You know polio? It killed or paralyzed five hundred thousand of us in 1950. But humans noticed, and humans said “FUCK NO”, and inch by inch we’ve fought back, from half a million each year to just THIRTY-FOUR cases of polio in the wild in 2016. This year? Only SIXTEEN. Polio is at the gates of oblivion, and we have a message: Give smallpox our regards.

Next time someone says that you’re only human, forget the “only”! You are one of THE humans! The truth-seekers, the peacemakers, the atom-splitters, the moon-walkers, the artists, the dreamers, the lovers and protectors – The rebels who defy the world they were made for, who never stop dreaming and working for a better tomorrow.

We are not done. We countless problems left to solve,many of them self-made. But we are the humans, and we don’t give up, and we have come this far, and as long as even one of us is still breathing, we fight – because we are ONLY HUMAN.

Secular Solstice: Call and Response

(Speaker lines in italics, audience response in bold)

The universe is vast, and dark, and cold.
But we are not.

The stars are silent, and ancient, and impossibly far away.
But we are not.

The laws of physics are indifferent to hope, or desperation, or love.
But we are not!

Does anything in the universe care?
Yes! We care! There is light in the world, and it is us!

We are flawed.
We’re learning.

We are fragile.
We’re getting stronger.

To the best of our knowledge, we are alone in the universe.
But we have each other.

Our history is littered with tragedy and despair.
We can do better.

We visit countless cruelties and injustices on each other to this day.
So we must do better.

We lost five hundred million to Smallpox.
So we destroyed Smallpox.

Hundreds of millions of us are still in poverty.
But fewer every year.

Hundreds of thousands are lost to Malaria.
But fewer every year.

Our problems are legion.
Then so will our compassion, dedication, and ingenuity.

There is no destiny written for us.
Then we will write our own.

We may lose.
But we will try anyway

because there isn’t anyone else.

Secular Solstice Eve Speech: Stories

This is one of two speeches I wrote for this year’s Secular Solstice in Seattle. “Wrote” might be a strong word – there were a bunch of notes and ideas and scribbles and then I went up with some index cards and talked for a bit, but I probably ended up saying something like this.

We humans are creatures of stories. They’re how we understand a world never meant to be understood. There are true stories, and fiction – and then there are the stories untold. Stories lived, but never heard, never written. Tonight, I want to try telling some of these stories – imperfectly, but as best I can. Because they deserve to be told.

This is the story of an fifth century farmer in the ruins of the Roman Empire, cold, sick, worked nearly to exhaustion, and powerless to any armed factions roaming the countryside. At night she gazes in uncomprehending awe at the stars, the Gods, and she when she has the energy, she desperately hopes for a better life for her children, or her children’s children. For a world where hunger is a distant memory and her children spend every night in a soft bed, where they are warm, even in the winter. For a world where her family is safe. But that is an impossible dream, beyond hope. How could there ever be a world like that?

This is the story of a girl in thirteenth-century India, sold into an arranged marriage at the age of twelve. At best, she will spend the rest of her life as property to a man she has never met. But – ff the dowry is not paid, she will be killed on the spot. And if she should survive her husband, she will be expected to commit suicide via self-immolation for him. Her voice, her will, her life is ripped away by a world that refuses to acknowledge her fundamental status as a human being. She has dreams that she dares not to speak, of a life that is hers to live, of a world where women know freedom and cruelty knows justice. And though she may never see that world, maybe her daughters, or their daughters, or – someday…

This is the story of a man in the 18th century, born in slavery, tormented and tortured until one day, through cunning and courage he bests his captors and escapes. His dream came true, in his time, and he could have kept it – but there was an opportunity. A chance to enlist, to risk his life and freedom, to fight for three million still enslaved. So he does, because he can’t bear to do anything else.  At the Battle of Poison Spring he sees Confederates slaughter his brothers in arms rather than take them prisoner – because that would acknowledge them as human. He survives, but the nightmares never stop. When he wakes up in a cold sweat, he prays for a world where freedom was a right, rather than a distant dream guarded by bloodshed and evil.

There are three lessons to take from these stories:

First, that simply by being here tonight – together, safe, warm, well-fed and at-peace – a million desperate wishes, from every era and every continent of our collective history – are answered. I shouldn’t exist. My father was supposed to have an arranged marriage; and too recently my white mother would have been prohibited from marrying him; A century ago, the complications of my birth would have killed my mother and I both. Tonight, we are living an impossible dream, and to every ancestor who lived and struggled and sacrificed for that dream, I say: Thank you.

The second lesson: that our great-grandchildren, should we be so lucky, will tell their own stories, and as best we can we should make them good ones. We are not so different from the heroes or the villains of the stories I just told. To the litany of now-obvious historical mistakes, of slavery and cruelty and bigotry, we must discover our own, so that the next generation can do better. I want our descendants to tell stories of Old Earth, how their ancestors faced the horrors of malaria and war and cancer and animal slaughter, of a humanity whose survival rested on a single fragile planet, of a time when extinction was a very real possibility. I want them to tell the story of how the world was saved, and to turn to the stars in search of the next tale.

And the last lesson is this: Stories are how we comprehend a world not meant to be comprehended. But the universe is not a story, and it is not compelled by any narrative force or convention, even a tiny bit. There is no guarantee that there will be anyone to tell any stories a hundred years from now, and the final story may be that of the last survivor, desperately wondering what they could have done differently – if there is time enough even for that. The universe is not fair, and it does not owe us a happy ending. We have to build it – not because we’re heroes, or chosen, or destined for greatness. We are flawed, and confused, and very often weak. But we have to build the future anyway – because there isn’t anyone else.

Let’s Make a Trade

I’m breaking my typical schedule of posting nothing while hoarding half-finished posts to ask for help: Specifically, I’m looking to make a trade for a presidential vote in a swing state. If you are in a swing state and were not previously planning to vote for Clinton, I will cast my ballot in Washington State for the candidate of your choice in exchange for you voting for Clinton. I will also, with your permission, sing your praises as a person who is Good At Cooperation (or, if you prefer, I promise to protect your anonymity forever and ever).

Your third-party candidate gets just as close to the 5% threshold they need to get federal funding in 2020, and Trump becomes less likely to destroy the world.

Relatedly: There is a reason the title of this blog includes the word “Almost”, and for the first time in decades it seems like someone who genuine deserves the title of “villain” (rather than just “someone who has vastly different ideas, priors, and opinions than me”) is on the verge of acquiring massive power, up to and including control of almost half the world’s nuclear weapons. Donald Trump is about as far from Stanislav Petrov as you can get, and I would consider it a dear favor to me, as well as my species and the continued existence of sentient life in the universe, if you did what you could to prevent that future from coming to pass. Please vote, and ask friends and family to vote for The Continued Survival of Humanity. If you live in a safe state, consider trading your vote on or (though I obviously have not had success there – I got a match, but they haven’t responded to any chats and repeated requests to confirm their humanity – still, worth trying).

If you’re interested in vote-trading with me or anyone else reading this, please leave a comment.

Thank you, from one human to another.