Responding to tragedy as a non-theist

Back when I considered myself a Christian, I never had much difficulty in finding a way to respond to tragic events, or evil in the world. There were multitudes of theological formulae that could help bring comfort to a situation that felt hopeless. We would talk of how no matter how bleak things looked, Jesus was still Lord. We would declare that despite human evil and sin, God was there to bring peace. Our God gave us strength to triumph over our adversity and look with anticipation towards a new day.

Now that I no longer consider myself someone who believes in a deity, those old comforts ring hollow. In light of tragedies, such as the mass shooting in New Zealand, non-theists like myself need to find answers that don’t come from the concept of a spiritual being, or a divine creator. We need to discover how we can best respond to tragedy that aligns with our worldview, where humans alone are responsible for their actions, and the promise of an afterlife doesn’t exist.

Despite the fact that we don’t believe in a divine presence, we still need a framework by which to engage with the world. The word ‘theology’ comes from the Greek word theos meaning god, and the notion of logia which denotes a study or knowledge of a thing. In modern times the idea of theology has been generally equated to the study of the Christian God, though by definition it can apply to other theistic or spiritual faiths as well. When we talk about theology, we ask questions about how human existence and the spiritual interconnect in the world. Theology is only relevant in terms of how it affects the life of human beings.

As a non-theist, can we have a theology? Undoubtedly yes! If we break apart the word theology again, we then can ask the question, what is the theos that a non-theist is talking about? If a person does not believe in a deity, the concept of non-belief becomes the theos of theology! To a non-theist, the lack of a divine presence is the building block upon which we study and know things in our life. The theos in ‘theology’, for a non-theist, is the foundation of how we approach life. It’s the basis for how we answer the tough questions about how we should live and exist in the world with other human beings.

The theology of non-theism is a belief that we only have one life to live, and therefore how we act and treat others has a direct impact on how each and every one of the hours that we have left, is spent.  If we treat people badly, and without love, then our lives will be lesser for it. Whereas if we approach the world with compassion, grace, love, and respect, our own lives will be enriched and more full. Creating, loving, sacrificing… these are all acts that bring life to it’s fullest, not just or us, but for those around us. If we only have one life to live, why shouldn’t it be as full as it can be?

So, how does this influence how we respond to tragedy? If we can’t bring comfort in the hope of an afterlife, how do we wrestle with the hatred and death that surrounds us? We bring hope through the understanding that every action that we do has an impact in the hear and now, and that fact is of utmost importance. By showing love and compassion to those who need it most, we’re improving not just their life, but the entire human condition as well. Every act of sacrifice that we perform enriches our understanding of what it means to be human. We learn and grow as we show love to others, and this growth helps bring our society together. Just because we don’t have the promise of a life hereafter, does not mean that the non-theist cannot bring love into another’s life.

When events such as racially charged mass shootings happen, the response of the non-theist should be one of anger, sorrow and grief, but also of hope. Hope that when evil is brought out into the light that it is shown for what it truly is, and that its lies and ugliness becomes a repugnant smell to everyone around it. Hope that those who suffer can be given comfort and care by people who can show them love. Hope that anger and pain can be turned into positive actions that make a difference in the lives of those who will come after us. We do good in the world, for the sake of the world.

The late Paul Wellstone said, “We all do better, when we all do better.” This is the theology of the non-theist (and many theists!). A theology of hope and compassion towards everyone around you, seeking to make the world the best it can be in the time that we have.

The wisdom of crows

A poem

As I hiked through the woods on a winter day
I asked a crow to walk alongside me
To share with me the secrets of life
I turned and looked at him. Could it be that simple?
I stood still. Yes, yes, that was it!
I fell to my knees awash in new found understanding

I stared into his black soul-full eyes
He cocked his head to the side
I swore I saw the edge of his beak rise in a smirk
He took to flight and I continued my hike
I felt renewed
The knowledge of life flowing through my mind
Crows are smart
Crows are sneaky
And humans are fools for believing what they say

The One Thing

My wife’s employer gave her a book for Christmas, written by the owner of the company, Gary Keller. It’s called The One Thing, and since my wife had already read it, I decided to give it a go. It’s a quick read, and despite only being a few chapters in, I’ve already gotten a good sense of the message.

That message, simply put, is that if we want to be successful, we need to stop trying to do everything in life, and instead focus on one thing. He rails against the mindset that we need to be involved and doing as many different things as possible, and that by doing so, we’re not doing anything well. All of this becomes complicated by amazing technology that allows us to be connected constantly to dozens of different things that can fill our time. 

As I said, I’m only a few chapters in, but I feel like the core of the message is already starting to hit me. It cuts to the core of what I’ve been struggling with for a decade now, and that is I don’t know what my “one thing” is anymore. It used to be religion, and for a while it kind of was technology. But now, it’s vague. It all goes back to that struggle with identity that I’ve written about before. 

I’ve had some good meetings lately with folks about potential career changes, but I feel like I need to figure out this piece first. In a recent meeting with one individual, he asked me point blank, “What is it that you want to spend your time doing?” That’s the key question that I really need to get figured out. What do I want the day-to-day to look like?

I’ve also been listening to some humanist podcasts that have been meaningful for my wife, and talking with a friend who has gotten into Stoicism. A key component of this thinking is understanding that eternal significance is a pipe dream. Two hundred years from now, no one is going to know or care about me, no matter what I do. There are so few people in history that are remembered beyond their life, that trying to focus on “leaving a legacy” becomes a fool’s errand. 

The key is to focus on the here and now. What kind of impact can to have today? What kind of person can you be to those in your life now, not just as a memory after you’re gone? Those are the questions that bring me back to the question of what is my “one thing”. 

This is once again a blog post without answers, but I feel that by writing down the questions, and the musings, it helps me process and think. I feel like I’m closer and closer to the cusp of figuring myself out. Being on the edge is exciting and frustrating, and I appreciate my readers being willing to ride along while I continue to explore. 

Some time with the wife

One of my favorite things that has happened this year is that I’ve gotten to spend a lot more time running with my wife. Part way through the year I decided to spend some of my training run time with her, despite the fact that her pace is quite a bit slower than mine. This has had a couple of really positive effects. The first is that I’ve stayed much healthier this year, with almost no injuries or “niggles” to speak of. Secondly, it means we’ve gotten to spend a lot more time together.

One of the benefits of this is that we have some really great conversations. Sometimes we hash out difficult issues that we need to work through. Sometimes we talk of nothing of substance. Then there are nights like tonight where we work through big mental hurdles that are causing one of us issues. For me, tonight, this was about my job and career (duh, of course it was).

I had already had a conversation with my friend Michael over lunch, and it spawned into a much deeper dive with my wife on our run. We really dug in to some of the core issues that I’m feeling about what I’m doing day in and day out. What really triggered an epiphany for me was realizing that I need to come home from work feeling like I actually did something. When you’re a manager, often your day is filled with keeping the team on task, putting out fires, acting as an intermediary, and so on. I’m not getting to scratch my itch to actually accomplish something, and feel like I’ve done something fulfilling in my day.

In practical terms, what this means is that I need to stop thinking that the typical career path of climbing the organizational ladder is where I should be headed. Part of the reason that I got out of the Enterprise Architecture business was because I thought I needed to move into higher level roles, and I was told quite directly that I needed to show more people leading experience on my resume. That spurred me to move in to management, and as much as I like developing people, I really want to be a leader more than a manager. I want to get back to getting my hands a little bit dirtier than they get now, and end my day feeling like I accomplished something worthwhile.

Therefore, my new focus is going to be to start looking for something that’s more hands-on, and has more of a creative and deliverable outcome to it. It might be back in the architecture world, or it might be something different. However, it’s incredibly freeing to have a direction to point towards.

I’m glad I ran with my wife tonight.

Some things never change

Today on Facebook it kindly reminded me of memories from years gone by (as it does every day). Sometimes I’ll click past the first one it shows me and scroll down the page to see what else happened.


That’s right. I’ve been in career/job/life angst for 10 solid years now. It’s a bit of a slap in the face to realize that I’ve been struggling with this for a solid decade. You’d think that, by now, I’d have something figured out. Granted this specific post was more about money than career angst (I don’t think I was that disenchanted quite yet), but it was probably the start.

As I’ve thought more on my history, my happiest times were actually back just before this post. It was around this time that I moved into higher level roles, and started taking my hands off the keyboard a lot more. Since 2011 I haven’t done any real hands-on engineering work for my career. Part of the reason for that was that I was getting older and not keeping up with all the newest and greatest tech out there. I’m sure the fact that I spent so much of the time between 2002-2008 going to Seminary to train to be a pastor, didn’t help either.

Anyway, that’s an aside. The point of this post is that it’s been 10 years of trying to figure myself out. Knowing that fact makes me even more determined to make something positive happen now. Still not sure what it will be, but the motivation is getting stronger to end the cycle, while at the same time accepting of what may be the final answer, even if it’s not the dream I had thought of.