Tears of Joy

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 6, 2010 in Inspirational

I can’t remember the last time I cried due to pain or loss. Years ago, I guess. I live a very happy life.

But I do cry for joy sometimes.

Yesterday it was listening to Minchin’s “White Wine in the Sun” that did it. Or sometimes my eyes well up when I consider the vastness, complexity, and beauty of the universe. Or even when listening to Muse sing epic songs about rising up to fight corrupt powers:

Come ride with me through the veins of history;
I’ll show you how God falls asleep on the job.
And how can we win when fools can be kings?
Don’t waste your time, or time will waste you.

No one’s gonna take me alive!
Time has come to make things right.
You and I must fight for our rights!
You and I must fight to survive!

Or:

Change everything you are and everything you were.
Your number has been called.
Fights and battles have begun…
Your hard times are ahead.

Best! You’ve got to be the best!
You’ve got to change the world.
And you use this chance to be heard.
Your time is now.

Strangely, I haven’t always been an optimistic, purposeful, driven, enchanted naturalist. In my teen years, I was known by everyone as a pessimist, and known to myself, at least, as unmotivated and often unhappy. So what changed?

Sabio Lantz wants to know, too:

(1) Is it possible to cultivate this attitude or [are] some of us are just lucky enough to be born with it? For it seems an enchanted life is much more pleasing that a cynical, pessimistic life.

(2) How do we nurture this attitude to avoid atrophy?

(3) Is it possible to innoculate others with this attitude?

I’m not a psychologist, and I don’t know the answers to these questions. But here are some thoughts on how to become optimistic and purposeful:

Get some perspective. At certain times (e.g., now), the world seems to be getting worse on the scale of 10 years or 50 years. Life is messy like that. But look at things from a broader perspective, and it’s hard not to be an optimist. A few centuries ago, 99% of the planet lived in crippling, illiterate, disempowered poverty. Now only about 25% of the planet lives that way. In the 20th century in China and India alone, hundreds of millions of people were lifted out of extreme poverty and given an education. In the past 150 years, science has eradicated diseases that used to kill millions of people. Science has produced high-yield, nutrient-rich crops that feed millions of people who might otherwise starve. And while our weapons are also more devastating, it has become genuinely more difficult for rulers to sell the prospect of war to their citizens. (Those who complain that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan faced too little public opposition are not paying attention to the rest of human history.) Millions of people in wealthy nations give money or even years of service to complete strangers of other races. Women and minorities are being elected to public office. It’s a good time to be part of the human race.

Appreciate life. Regret is useless and poisonous, like whipping oneself in penance to an imaginary overlord. Appreciation is swift medicine.  Take a dose when you awake, when you brush your teeth, when you eat breakfast, when you drive to work, and throughout the rest of your day. Enjoy sunshine and candles and warm blankets and orgasms. Notice that you live with comfort and conveniences for which a king from 200 years ago would have sold half his kingdom for. You drive your own climate-controlled, universal-music-performing hyperfast chariot. You have instant access to a large fraction of all human knowledge. You have a microwave and flush toilets and Ikea.

Eat less, move more. Little else has been shown to be so encouraging and empowering as good health. There really are healthy versions of almost everything available, and you can also train yourself to eat less. And if you don’t already exercise, it may be unrealistic to plan a daily workout regime. I don’t have one. But you can choose to do physical activities that you enjoy, whether they be walking with friends or biking or swimming or playing tennis or dancing (or taking dance lessons).

Get some purpose. This is huge, but should be easy. There are so many ways you can contribute to the world, and this will make you happier than living only for your own personal gain. Find where your skills and passions are and find a way to contribute. Make art or code websites or be an activist or study & educate or consciously improve the lives around you with love and friendship. Above all, listen to more Muse. They’ll really pump you up.

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Ajay July 6, 2010 at 7:00 am

Nicely said. Nothing to add here.

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Hendy July 6, 2010 at 7:36 am

Love the post, Luke. I truly appreciate your posts along with those at Daylight Atheism and almost everything I’ve read of Richard Carrier. Why? Because of everything I’ve read you three have a wonderful way of recognizing the aspects of humanity that we all treasure that I find lacking in some other atheistic writings. Not all are dry, but you three definitely radiate the zest of life particularly well.

It’s also wonderful to be able to point others to things like Ebonmuse’s thoughts on his marriage and Richard Carrier’s path from Taoist to atheist as well as posts like this to show that the common misunderstanding that atheists have no purpose, no drive, no hope, are just angry venomous beings, etc. is patently false.

In my time of doubt I met with a individual I looked up to extraordinarily during my time as a believer. He is an inspiring man, a father of 5, and the founder of the college outreach I worked for during college and for a year afterward. I told him of my doubts and he expressed that he truly believed all atheists would commit suicide if they knew they really understood the position they held. I met with my Christian men’s group leader to talk about my doubt and after none of his arguments were convincing, he finished off our Chipotle dinner conversation with, “Well, they why should you even want to live?” I explained that regardless of belief I still thought life worth living, still wanted to benefit others, make a difference, etc. and he just kept repeating “But why?” or “But why does it even matter?” after everything I said. I was quite surprised as no one had yet resorted to what I would call a pretty childish mantra as a way to respond to my doubts…

Anyway, lots of rambling. Bottom line is that I appreciate the post and the work of you along with all others who illustrate brilliantly that religious groups do not hold the monopoly on all things worthwhile in life. Perhaps you’ve already posted on this phenomenon, but if not it would be worth it to explore the common fallacy that if life isn’t eternal or guided by a supernatural being it somehow becomes pointless… despite inherent instincts to want to live, to prefer happiness to misery, to love, etc. It’s quite an interesting conception that most of my friends have brought up in some manner or another that I think is fascinating. I have found that my believing friends fret about the potential impact my nonbelief may present to my life: loss of moral ground, no reason to treat my wife and child with love and care, complete selfishness, etc. I don’t have any of these preoccupations! i just want to know the truth and go from there to be a happy, purposeful, positive-effect-producing human being! What gives?!

An 4min amusing anecdote which melds well with your appreciation section can be found HERE.

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Hendy July 6, 2010 at 7:37 am

Hmm… that last link isn’t working. Try THIS

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Justfinethanks July 6, 2010 at 7:56 am

Or even when listening to Muse sing epic songs about rising up to fight corrupt powers:

I feel the same way about The Arcade Fire. Except when they sing epic songs about accepting the fact that losing your humanity, comfort, and sanity to corrupt powers is inescapable and inevitable.

I can taste your fear
It’s gonna lift you up and take you out of here
And the bone shall never heal
I care not if you kneel

We can’t find you now
But they’re gonna get their money back somehow
And when you finally disappear
We’ll just say that you were never here

Been working for the church
While your life falls apart
Singing hallelujah with the fear in your heart
Every spark of friendship and love
Will die without a home
Hear the soldier groan, “We’ll go at it alone”

-Intervention

or sing epic songs about crippling paranoia

Every night my dream’s the same
Same old city with a different name
Men are coming to take me away
I don’t know why, but I know I can’t stay

There’s a weight that’s pressing down
Late at night you can hear the sound
Even the noise you make when you sleep
Can’t swim across a river so deep
They know my name cause I told it to them
But they don’t know where and they don’t know
When it’s coming, when it’s coming

- Keep the Car Running

I find it comforting and moving for reasons I can’t explain.

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David Iach July 6, 2010 at 8:12 am

Wow, can’t believe you also like the same songs I do. I really love Muse and their music is truly epic.

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Justfinethanks July 6, 2010 at 8:27 am

And if you don’t already exercise, it may be unrealistic to plan a daily workout regime.

On that front, I highly recommend getting some workout DVDs, which have come a long way in recent years. I’ve been doing Insanity from Beachbody for the last month, and that stuff turns me into a quivering, collapsed pile of red, sweaty flesh six days a week. Plus it saves me time since I don’t have to drive to the gym.

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lukeprog July 6, 2010 at 9:11 am

Hendy,

Yup. The religious tell themselves all kinds of lies to make their religiosity sound more reasonable.

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Márcio July 6, 2010 at 9:42 am

The only problem it’s that no one is good enough in God’s standards. Maybe your life is much better in comparison with murderer, but that is not enough for God.

Actually we all are much closer to a murderer than to God.

I like to say that we are all sick. Some of us are sickier than others, but we all needs a cure.

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Rob July 6, 2010 at 9:48 am

Luke,

I urge you to read David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence for a serious and probing challenge to your “enchanted naturalism,” as well as to the belief that it can ever be a good time to be part of the human race (or of sentient existence).

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lukeprog July 6, 2010 at 9:54 am

Rob,

I haven’t read Benatar’s work, but my question is… how could we have avoided coming into existence? When I say it’s a good time to be human, I don’t mean to say that it’s better we’re here than if we had never been here. I’m saying that given that we are here, it’s a good time to be alive.

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Lee A. P. July 6, 2010 at 10:49 am

You know what makes some people cry?

A DOUBLE RAINBOW MAN!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQSNhk5ICTI

(a lot of people are making fun of this guy as a stoner punk. Fuck those people! This guy is swell in my eyes!)

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Red-agnostic July 6, 2010 at 10:58 am

(Sorry for my bad English)

Please be more respectful when making disparaging comments about U.S. neo-Imperialist Wars against Iraq and Afghanistan. Keep in mind that these wars of aggression (a war crime under international law) are being waged so that Middle East oil profits flow into the United States Treasury and you can enjoy a high standard of living, a standard of living adequate for asking yourself “does God exist?” or arguing over “how many angels can fit on the head of a pin?”

This optimistic post sounds like a Christian sermon. Neither religion nor atheism serves as a basis for morality. You must first satisfy your needs (food, a job, freedom from political oppression, etc). And that is the task of political activism.

Man thinks differently in a palace and in a hut.” “If because of hunger, of misery, you have no stuff in your body, you likewise have no stuff for morality in your head, in your mind, or heart.” “Politics must become our religion,” (Ludwig Feuerbach)

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Zeb July 6, 2010 at 11:00 am

Awesome post Luke. It makes me so mad when Christians talk about this era as a period of decline, as if there was ever a more truly Christian period in history. Frankly if the loss of nominal faith was required for the majority of humanity to begin to accept the ethical obligations Christ announced (care for the weak, avoidance of violence, equality, etc.), I think that was a good trade. If we had to trade our inhibitions on fornication for inhibitions on discrimination, that was a good trade. Of course I think contemporary secular culture throws the Baby out wi th the bathwater, but thank God we’re finally getting rid of some of that awful bathwater! From a Christian perspective I think this is the most righteous and faithful period ever*, though there is still lots of work to do on both the ethical and spiritual levels.

*I would say that the atheist who follows the spirit of Christ without acknowledging it has better faith than the Christian who believes in word but does not follow the Spirit.

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orgostrich July 6, 2010 at 11:32 am

I think you all would appreciate this:
http://xkcd.com/167/
i <3 xkcd

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al friedlander July 6, 2010 at 11:42 am

I really like the musical tastes on this blog. Muse and Arcade Fire are both fantastic (I saw Muse live once; Matt is amazing, and inspired me to learn a completely new genre of music).

Kudos for promoting optimistic habits. The world needs more optimists, because since we’re all here, we really need to make the best of it.

Unfortunately, I’m a terrible hypocrite in this regard. I’m a pessimist by nature; can’t really help it. I’ve tried optimism in many periods of my life, but pessimism just feels more at home to me, and less forced.

Muse has never made me emotionally-charged in the specific way that you described (except when I saw them live), but Brand New has.

i’m a mountain that has been moved
i’m a river that is all dried up
i’m an ocean nothing floats on
i’m a sky that nothing wants to fly in
i’m a sun that doesn’t burn hot
i’m a moon that never shows it face
i’m a mouth that doesn’t smile
i’m a word that no one ever wants to say

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lukeprog July 6, 2010 at 11:54 am

Red-agnostic,

Was that directed at me? If so, I can’t see where we disagree…

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Eric July 6, 2010 at 4:38 pm

Ha. Knights of Cydonia is an awesome song! lol

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PudgyPanda July 6, 2010 at 6:57 pm

Oh goodness, this post makes me even more pessimistic and depressed (‘~’)

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Jeff H July 6, 2010 at 7:38 pm

What makes me depressed is that Muse’s talent is wasted on a whole shitload of 13-year-old girls. Seriously, they can have Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus, but I’ll be damned if they take Muse away from the people who can actually appreciate talented artists :P

(And Al, Brand New rocks also! Good choice!)

I think I waver in between this enchanted naturalism and then just plain ol’ humdrum naturalism. It’s good to have this refresher of how much progress we have made, but I still get sad and/or angry that so much of the path is still before us. Let’s just say that this: “about 25% of the planet lives [in crippling, illiterate, disempowered poverty]“….is my motivation for this: “There are so many ways you can contribute to the world, and this will make you happier than living only for your own personal gain. Find where your skills and passions are and find a way to contribute.” My frustration comes from the fact that so many of these people living “with comfort and conveniences for which a king from 200 years ago would have sold half his kingdom for” don’t seem to share my motivation.

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lukeprog July 6, 2010 at 9:50 pm

Jeff H,

But even that is better now, too. A higher percentage of people today care about those suffering in other lands than ever before in human history. Or so the researchers estimate.

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Almond Tequila July 6, 2010 at 10:03 pm

Luke–an embittered atheist, the sort of atheist who does not so much disbelieve in God as personally dislike Him.

Just sayin’

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Rhys Wilkins July 6, 2010 at 10:14 pm

Almond Tequila,

Which article did you read?

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Rob July 7, 2010 at 2:28 am
lukeprog July 7, 2010 at 5:00 am

Rob,

If only you could see the headlines from 1750!

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Rob July 7, 2010 at 5:27 am

Oh, I don’t dispute that those headlines would also make me shudder with horror (though I’m not yet entirely convinced, in light of the kinds of horror humans have since invented to inflict upon their, and other sentient, species, that I would shudder more then than now). But the negative claim, supposing it to be true, that things are, generally, less bad than they were, and might become progressively so, still seems to me a rather shallow basis for an optimistic outlook on life that takes seriously the terrifying amounts of ineliminable human and non-human suffering in the world. I daresay it’s an affront to that basic awful fact of (at least much of) sentient existence.

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micthacks July 7, 2010 at 3:53 pm

I lurk here a lot but I’ll comment for the sake of MUSE:

I love this band. seeing them in December. The Exogenesis symphony is incredible.
Also Tim Minchin is awesome. Gettin bigger here in Australia everyday.

Also Luke, your awesomeness and sincerity inspire me. I watch your ascension in this world with great interest.

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Scott July 7, 2010 at 4:00 pm

I believe Glenn Beck is a big fan of Muse. It’s funny, considering that Matthew Bellamy is an atheist and a 9/11 truther, two groups Beck hates…

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lukeprog July 7, 2010 at 4:22 pm

Heh. Thanks, micthacks.

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Mastema July 7, 2010 at 6:22 pm

I didn’t believe Beck liked Muse until I just looked it up. Sadly, it’s true: http://mediamatters.org/mmtv/200909160008. A little part of me just died.

Matt’s a little nutty when it comes to conspiracy theories, but I forgive him that considering his genius. I saw Muse recently in Seattle, and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever been to even though it was in an arena. I’ll make sure to get tickets any time they come to town.

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lukeprog July 7, 2010 at 6:27 pm

Speaking of Matthew Bellamy (aka the New Freddie Mercury): I was a huge Queen fan when I was young and superChristian and ignorant, and my dad worried that telling me Freddie Mercury was gay would ruin my ability to appreciate the band! But it didn’t, though I’d been indoctrinated to think homosexuality was an abomination before the Lord.

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Jeff H July 8, 2010 at 5:20 am

Mastema,

Yeah, I’ve seen that video before. I actually found it kinda funny. But apparently (and I’ll let you decide whether it’s just a case of Glenn Beck lying) the thing about Muse asking him to retract his statement was a joke:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/music-news/6261191/Glenn-Beck-was-joking-about-Muse-complaint.html

Again, I’ll let you decide how much you trust anything coming out of Glenn Beck’s mouth.

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Mastema July 8, 2010 at 5:36 am

Jeff H,

I wish Muse would have actually asked him to retract, but it doesn’t really matter to me. The fact that Glenn Beck likes ANYTHING that I like is upsetting. I am, however, slightly amused that Glenn Beck apparently hasn’t looked too closely into Matt’s other opinions.

Beck is the only person on Fox that I think may be crazy and stupid enough to believe everything he says.

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Rafael H July 14, 2010 at 1:54 pm

One of my favourite posts ever! I love it.

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