Personal insights from the 1994 Humanists of the Year.
Lloyd Morain is past-president of the American Humanist Association, the International Society for General Semantics, and the Pritikin Research Foundation, and is a former editor of The Humanist.
Both coauthored the book, Humanism As the Next Step, helped found the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and are Fellows of the World Academy of Art and Science. Their personal insights offered here are excerpted from their 1994 Humanist of the Year Award acceptance speeches.
MARY MORAIN ...
Most systems of basic beliefs--most life stances--give some emphasis to helping others rather than our individual selves.
We humanists have truly an invincible argument in that direction. Believing that we exist only in a single world, the natural world that we share with other living creatures, and that we have no very special first-class tickets that allow for travel to continuous existence in other spheres at the end of our journey in this life, we are sure that a lonely cousin, or a starving Haitian, will not have his or her sufferings made up for in another world. In our human distresses, we have only each other to turn to for help.
Already, in certain circles, people are heard to say that he or she is a "real humanist" in the same enthusiastic, quiet voice that for long we have been used to when a person is described as being a "real Christian." Humanists are concerned with people other than themselves, as well as themselves.
If humanism encourages one to be interested in the reduction of human suffering, this certainly leads to a concern for stabilization of population growth.
We find it easy to accept comparison between Homo sapiens and other living creatures as regards to the importance of adjusting numbers to the food base. It is easy for us to realize that, like deer and other species, slow, painful "death control" takes over if numbers increase to such a degree that this overburdens the carrying, sustaining power of the land.
Humanists say that they believe in making full use in life and thought of modern scientific knowledge and method. General semantics, in particular, gives simple ways in which scientific knowledge can be put to practical day-to-day use by the person in the street in everyday concerns. It is based upon the observation that the languages we moderns use in talking and listening to ourselves and others were laid down many centuries ago when there was no realization of that hidden world brought to us during the twentieth century by powerful microscopes. These have revealed that everything exists in a universe of constant change, constant interrelationship, constant difference. Words make static that which is dynamic. Moreover, words classify, often bringing together things or people that are very different from each other. Striking examples of such words are weapon, furniture, wife, mother, marriage. Their meaning varies widely in many and changing different cultural and economic contexts. Words are maps only. A map is not the territory it represents.
This insight encourages a willingness to study a situation, to hold back judgments about groups of people--such as mothers and wives. We realize that we are considering a particular time and place. This brings a realization of the huge differences in economic, cultural, and personal circumstances of individual people in the world.
Its usefulness in the population field is wonderfully illustrated in the story Werner Fornos, president of the Population Institute, told us in his acceptance speech for the 1991 Humanist of the Year Award. He spoke of an episode during one of those short time periods when a doctor was brought into a town in a poor country to perform the operation necessary to put an end to child-bearing for those women who wanted it. At one point, after a worn, bowed woman had been operated on, Fornos asked, "Doctor, why in the world are you doing this woman at this age, when she's obviously at the end of her reproductive years and there are so many people waiting outside?" The doctor answered, "You Westerners are so insensitive. You don't ever come to grips with the suffering of the world. How old do you think that woman is?" Fornos replied, "Obviously, 45 to 50," and was amazed when he found out she was only 25.
Recently, I felt something like the doctor's reaction when I heard a shuddering, "What if they change their minds?" when mention was made of large-scale projects in a new, wonderfully inexpensive sterilization method for women wishing this, in another underdeveloped country. (In this case, by the way, no one was accepted for the operation who was under 30 years of age or who had less than three living children safely over the age of one year.)
So, to come to grips with the suffering of the world, let us imagine two situations in which two 25-year-olds can find themselves today.
Our first case involves a bright college-educated American woman doing well in the business field. She is unmarried, with an exciting history of "loving male friends." She is thinking it is time to experience the unique joys of motherhood. Her next step, she feels, is to find a young man whose genes seem to promise a good father for baby-to-be.
Our second case is another 25-year-old woman from a poverty-stricken rural area of Africa. She was married at age 14 by her parents to a man who must periodically leave their near-desert farmland for months at a time in search of work in the city. He leaves her with a baby on the way, as he has quite regularly done in the past. This time, he leaves her with four little ones. Two other children have died during the recent years. She must not only care for and feed the family but must grow the food to feed them. The oldest is 10. That is what motherhood means to her.
These two young women live on the same globe but in a different universe. One can well believe the second if, at age 25, she says, "No more!"
The next century, just around the corner, is going to continue to show such amazing contrasts and to need many people in developed countries whose imaginations are fired and fueled by knowledge of these differences. Inquiry, in this context, leads to that good word of the doctor: sensitivity.
And behind this the century will need people with a deep broad loyalty and good will for individuals in our marvelous human race.
Three years ago, I became a born-again humanist. The Indonesian government had given its first approval in five years to the Seattle-based Zegrahm Expeditions to visit the Asmat region of Irian Jaya. I was part of that group. We anchored in the shallow Arafura Sea some dozen miles off the Asmat, which is the most extensive marsh in the world; it is also the last region in which both headhunting and cannibalism are practiced, although now on a moderate scale. As our motorized rubber rafts, called Zodiacs, entered the Etwa, a tidal river, we were accompanied by dugouts skillfully propelled by the obvious muscle power of men with bone nosepieces and feathered and fur head coverings. Their brown bodies were artistically decorated with white and yellow designs.
Some miles upstream, we touched on a muddy bank at Otjanep, the village where 22 years earlier Michael Rockefeller, in his quest for biz poles, lost his life in what was an involved payback. I was aware that among the men carefully eyeing us there might be one who had dined on Oysters a la Rockefeller.
We were invited up into the men's longhouse. After some milling around, my fellow adventurers and hosts were off to perform and watch custom dances, and the longhouse was deserted except for me and a paraplegic who departed into the semi-darkness of the possibly 200-foot-long windowless structure. I felt comfortable, almost as if I had had something to do with the building of this stilt-borne structure. Knowing it would be several hours before the retreating tide would make it necessary to hurry to the Zodiac, I moseyed about.
Quietly, a tall figure nimbly entered carrying a biz pole. The only thing between this probable headhunter and me was the pole. As he slowly advanced, internal forces moved me forward to inspect his biz pole with its seven figures carved from a mangrove tree trunk whose buttress root served as a phallic extension. Instinctively, I touched one of the figures and with the other hand, the carver's. I realized that this biz pole imprisoned the spirit or memory of one of the carver's family or friends, for whom it was necessary for there to be a payback by doing away with the killer or his or her equivalent and then rubbing his or her blood on the pole. Such a process would free the spirit of the deceased into nature at large and bring the weeks or months or years of mourning to an end.
I became fully awake to the situation. The carver just might be considering my blood to be the means of releasing the spirit imprisoned in his biz pole and bring him or her peace. It was not a time to smile. Our eyes met while I added support to the pole with one hand and the other interlocked his. Yet this sinewy fellow had a free hand and a long cassowary bone dagger. There were moments of involuntary shaking and then a kind of letting go, of being free from thoughts and words. Creative energy pulsed within the limits of my control. I sensed this was a special time and place for me to be. His eyes glistened and then moistened. Mine dampened. I felt powerless to let go of the pole or his hand and wipe my eyes. There was a sense of kinship with this man who technologically predated the Stone Age--a man of sensitivity, who was at home in his environment. Without civilization's word machine thundering in my head, my whole being felt a sense of brotherhood--if you will--an unacknowledged bloodless blood brotherhood. Only two other times have I experienced this closeness, and each was with a native in one of the world's vanishing remote places.
Rumbling laughter and chattering voices became louder as others climbed into the longhouse. I still clutched the pole, which held some unaccountable significance for me. My Asmat comrade vigorously motioned for me to take the pole, as if trusting me to release for him the spirit or essence inhabiting it and thus put an end to his grieving. The pole seemed to be frozen to my hands. Stepping backward and reverting to my Westernized custom, I pulled some Indonesian rupiah from my pocket and pushed them into reluctant hands. His eyes seemed to lose their softness, and slowly I moved out of the longhouse, down and away on the log path over the muddy grass. I turned and looked at my newfound brother standing in the opening. Carrying the pole, I wasn't able to give a parting salute. A little further on, two children were playing, tossing muddied Indonesian paper money into the air.
Today the biz pole stands in the center of my home office. When no one is around, I sometimes touch it and realize that what had occurred in the men's house on the Asmat coast was not something measurable by any scientific instrumentation or statistical quantification or verification. It had been a part of the mysteries of the present and the awesome range of the as-yet-unknown. This experience, heavily weighted with unknowns, probably provided me with much the sense that some Christians feel when they experience being born again. Looking back, might I not faithfully say that in Irian Jaya I became a born-again humanist?
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|Title Annotation:||addresses by Mary Morain and Lloyd Morain|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1995|
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