About five or six months ago, I made it my mission to determine what humanism means to me. I read literature (well, a little bit anyway), studied, and talked to others, but nothing quite felt right. I was trying to define something that seemed undefinable.
I know, that’s just what you want to hear from the MHA’s Communication Officer, right?
My belief that humanism is undefinable changed one Friday night as I stood in the middle of Smith Park with a roll in one hand and a homeless man’s hand in the other. Suddenly, the entire concept of humanism came down to a single word for me.
You might wonder how a roll and a handshake helped me define what I had previously thought was undefinable. Let me back up a minute and take you to that park.
RU Hungry in Smith Park
A few months ago, the MHA board started volunteering with RU Hungry in Smith Park on Friday nights. If you aren’t familiar with RU Hungry, let me start by saying this is a tremendous organization. This group of dedicated volunteers has one mission and one mission only.
To feed the hungry.
Each Friday night, the group converges on Smith Park with hot food for the men, women, and children who struggle to find their next meal.
During my first trip to Smith Park, it was my job to put rolls on plates as hungry people walked through the line. About halfway through, I placed a roll on a gentleman’s plate and he grabbed my hand for a moment. We chatted, holding up the line a bit but no one seemed to care.
We didn’t talk about his situation. Instead, we talked like two humans making a connection. We laughed about his trouble with the ladies, chatted a little bit about the weather (the go-to topic for all Mississippians), and I even gently teased him about his sports team of choice (Go Cubs!). As I did this, those arbitrary categories that separate us disappeared.
He was not homeless. I was not housed.
He was not in need. I was not attempting to fulfill a need.
He was not hungry. I was not well fed.
He was not underemployed. I was not employed.
We were just two humans sharing a laugh and complaining about the weather.
We were simply two people making a connection.
When the meal was over, I spent some time talking to the head of RU Hungry. He shared something with me that illustrates the importance of that small connection I made during the meal.
He told me that while RU Hungry is not the first organization to feed the homeless in Smith Park, it does something that few others do.
It connects with the men, women, and children and treats them like human beings.
It sounds so simple but it’s so rare in the world.
Some organizations throw food at the homeless, afraid to get too close. Others make them listen to a religious service before finally giving them the food they need to survive. Still others grill them about their housing situation to make sure they are truly homeless before giving them food.
RU Hungry provides food with a heavy helping of humanity on the side. This organization doesn’t just feed men, women, and children. It does so with compassion.
Isn’t that what humanism should be? Shouldn’t we make connections with the people around us without those arbitrary barriers we are so inclined to set up? Shouldn’t we treat everyone with compassion and get to know the real person that is inside?
Couldn’t these connections make the world a better and more understanding place?
What I’ve learned is this.
We all long for human connection. It drives so much of what we do and who we are.
It’s why it hurts so bad when others disagree with us or don’t share our beliefs.
It’s why we feel that stinging pain when we are rebuffed or when people refuse to look us in our eyes.
Connection is validation. It reminds us that we are in this together, whatever this might be.
It’s that urge to connect, to share something with the people who surround us, that drives us.
It’s why we struggle to fit in, sometimes compromising who we are just so we can feel that intimacy with those we love.
Many of our problems are based around this longing to connect and the inability to always make it work.
For the homeless in Smith Park, that need for connection is satisfied through hot meals served by people who see their humanity.
For others, connection can be satisfied by taking the time to truly listen to them without judgment.
Connection comes in many shapes and forms, and I truly believe it’s the driving force behind humanism.
My Promise as a Humanist
Part of being a humanist means I am also a human, and that means I make mistakes. If my wife is reading this, I hope she skipped past that last sentence because during our 13 years together, I have never admitted such a thing, but I’m putting it out there now. I do make mistakes.
I have what many would consider a privileged life, and as someone who does enjoy a certain amount of privilege (i.e. white employed homeowner), I have the ability to walk through life with blinders on from time to time. These blinders get in the way of making connections and don’t serve any sort of positive purpose.
As a humanist, I am taking off my blinders. I might still see issues through privileged eyes, but I can promise this. I will always look you in the eye and be willing to connect with you. I will never throw food or money or anything at a problem and expect that to solve the issue. The only way to truly help is with kindness, compassion, and connection. That doesn’t mean that I won’t donate to causes that are important to me, but I will spend an equal amount of time connecting with as many humans as possible.
And this is my other promise to you.
I will back at Smith Park on Friday night, doing my part to be the best humanist I can be.