Years ago when I was an undergraduate at my big-name second-tier Ivy league college I was sitting around with my fellow undergraduates over pizza talking about what makes life meaningful, like you do. There was a general consensus that creativity was an essential element. The best, of course, was to be a full-on bona fide artist like a novelist or painter, but we could imagine how non-artistic professions like scientist or entrepreneur might produce the same kind of satisfaction. Even if you were, say, a carpenter, there could be an artisanal quality to the work that would make it rewarding. The specifics didn’t matter, as long as life offered some avenue of personal expression.
One of us (a few years older, though looking back on it still quite young) disagreed. We were being narrow-minded, he said. The belief that creativity was the key to a happy life was peculiar to the sorts of people who attend big-name colleges. In fact, for most people on Earth the idea that everyone should aspire to be some kind of artist sounds as weird as the idea that everyone should aspire to be some kind of insurance salesman. Think of a 19th century peasant in Italy, he said. For that guy satisfaction came from providing food for his family and going to church. Personal creativity didn’t enter into it.
But, we objected, wasn’t the 19th century Italian peasant really a kind of artist? His medium was the soil, and his ability to grow food from seed was a creative act in the same way as transforming a block of marble into a statue. Sure it might seem like something else was going on, but underneath it all that guy had the same aspirations we did.
For some deeply religious people, the idea of decency is so wrapped up with the idea of a personal God that they find it difficult to speak about it otherwise. This can cause friction when they encounter secularists like myself. Each senses that the other shares the same values, but has such radically different ways of expressing them that communication becomes strained. Sometimes the religious person will try and work around this by suggesting that to recognize the decency of others and the goodness of the world is to experience God’s love, and therefore the secularist is actually religious in every way that matters, they just don’t realize it. Even if this is offered in a spirit of generosity it is an exasperating thing to hear. No, the secularist thinks, I’m not a child. I know what I believe, and it is different from what you believe.
That the world is populated by people who are different from us is scary. That the things dearest to our hearts may not be dear to them is so scary that it becomes hard to see. But life is more interesting when we see it anyway.