bx2e&pod

My childhood exposed me to a unique blend of religious and philosophical viewpoints. My mother came from a deeply devout Southern Baptist household, but she met my father during a bit of a ‘prodigal son’ phase after she dropped out of bible college. My father probably would’ve identified as Christian if asked – he’d been to church when he was a kid, he’d said a “prayer of salvation” one time – but it wasn’t a very big part of his world view. I’d say in practical, day-to-day terms, he was really some kind of Apatheist Randian Objectivist back then, although probably neither he nor I would’ve been smart enough to know that in the dark ages before Google.

They worked really hard at trying to find a balance for how to raise me, while still trying to navigate what they believed, as well as find compromises on what kind of lifestyle we’d have as a family. I’m grateful that I had parents that were willing to make that kind of effort. But it did lead to some pretty unusual circumstances at times. Dad’s outlaw biker friends taking over our living room, throwing darts, and listening to Alice Cooper records on a Saturday night; then Mom getting me up the next day to go to Sunday School. Mom dropping me off at my Montessori kindergarten in the morning, Dad picking me up in the afternoon in his 60’s Dodge with a roach in the ashtray (I need to ask him sometime about that car – I think it was a Coronet, but he sold it when I was still pretty young, and I don’t really remember).

As I got older, my mother started exploring the charismatic movement, even though that put her at odds with her parents that, like most Southern Baptists, trended more towards cessationism. So even just within Christianity, I got exposed to a lot of opposing views on the nature of god and his relationship to humanity.

For my own part, once I was old enough to start wanting to make my own decisions about what I believed, I explored a lot of different avenues. I took a year of seminary classes. I read a lot of Classical Greek and 17th and 18th-century German philosophers. I had brief Tzu phases, both Sun and Lao. I was a LaVeyan Satanist for a while. At different times I’ve described myself as an atheist, an agnostic, or a Deist. I’ve argued on the internet both in support of, and in rebuttal to, the Epicurian paradox. I got ordained as a Unitarian Universalist. I joined a megachurch and played guitar in the worship band for a couple of years. I’ve been saged, baptized (dunked and sprinkled), anointed with oil, cleansed, and had my tarot read. I’ve been to enough different communions to have brand preferences about wafers. I may have memories of a past life. I’ve spoken in tongues, I’ve laid on hands, and I’ve handled snakes (although that last one wasn’t a religious thing, I just like snakes). I know the difference between a pentacle and a pentagram, but I’ve doodled both.

These days my stances don’t swing quite so wildly anymore. My pendulum has settled somewhere around the middle of the Dawkins scale, although it doesn’t really have an option to perfectly describe where I’m at (“Most of the time I feel like there’s some kind of god or gods, but I acknowledge there’s no rational evidence to support that”). The only thing I believe “beyond a shadow of a doubt”, as the Baptists used to say, is that nobody knows for sure if the divine exists or what (if anything) happens after we die, and anybody that claims to is trying to sell you something. And while I find lofty speculations about metaphysics and the supernatural fascinating, what I feel like is a lot more important are the tenets we live our everyday lives by.

Self-proclaimed comedian Steve Harvey had a lot of people rightfully annoyed at him a few years ago over his statement that you can’t trust an atheist because they don’t have any basis for morality (he actually said “Where’s his moral barometer? It’s nowhere.”, and I think the hilarity of the phrase ‘moral barometer’ had as much to do with the viral spread of that clip as the associated outrage did). I don’t want to veer off too much into discussing why he’s wrong – other people have done it a lot better – but, if you’re not going to take any supposed holy book or sacred text as.. well, gospel, you do have to decide for yourself what morality means – what do you base your ‘moral barometer’ on? Where do you look for meaning if you feel there’s a good chance life, the universe, and everything is just a happy accident and no one exists on purpose? Secular humanism is a big one, there’s some great stuff there, kind of the modern outcropping of some of the best ideas by those German philosophers I was talking about earlier. I like Utilitarianism a lot, as well. But after all the religious texts and philosophical works I’ve read in my lifetime, there’s one maxim I hold above all others when it comes to my personal sense of morality and the meaning of life.

Be excellent to each other, and party on, dudes.

I realize that reads like a punchline. Yes, it’s originally from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. And I definitely see the humor that after all the Kant and Crowley, Aurelius and Paul of Tarsus, this is where I’ve ended up. But I very sincerely mean it.

Be Excellent

“Be excellent to each other” has shades of the Golden Rule. But as George Bernard Shaw said, “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may be different.” Clever, but I personally feel like it’s a criticism of the literal meaning of the phrase rather than the intent. The meaning of the Golden Rule, in my opinion anyway, is more like “give others the same amount of consideration and respect that you would want for yourself.” The problem, however, is that’s not what it actually says. “Be excellent to each other” does still leave some room for interpretation when it comes to “what is excellent?”, but I think the superlative nature of it – not the just bare minimum, something above-and-beyond – implies the intended meaning more strongly than “as you would have them do unto you” does. To be excellent is to do something out of the ordinary, to go out of your way, to do more than is required of you.

To Each Other

The Gospel of Luke claims that a religious expert once challenged Jesus of Nazareth by asking “who is my neighbor?” in the context of the adage “love your neighbor as yourself.” Organized religion has a history of being tribalist and exclusionary, and the text suggests he was looking for a loophole – he wanted justification to love people that were like himself, but not people that weren’t. It’s an easy proverb to adhere to if you get to be selective about who counts as your ‘neighbor’. In response, Luke’s author records that Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan. I’m not going to go full theologian here about the implications of that, but what he was saying was ‘neighbor’ is everyone in your sphere of influence – even if they’re from a different country or speak a different language or worship a different god – there are no loopholes, no exceptions. In parallel, in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, when we first hear Bill utter the words “be excellent to each other”, he’s speaking to a diverse collection of future dudes. But beyond that, when Abraham Lincoln later repeats them, it’s not just to an auditorium holding a significant cross-section of San Dimas, California, in 1988; but on a stage with figures from different cultures throughout the world and time itself. To refer to a group that broad, singularly, as ‘each other’, is about as inclusive as you can possibly get. In that way, I feel like “be excellent to each other” is even more succinct than “love your neighbor as yourself” – we don’t need a parable to understand ‘each other’ means everyone in earshot; everyone you’re in contact with.

Party On

Gather round, children, and I will tell you of a time in which people non-ironically used ‘party’ as a verb. As it neared the end of its lifespan, ‘to party’ almost exclusively meant either getting high or paying for sex (or maybe even both at the same time). Earlier usage, though, while not necessarily precluding sex and/or drugs, referred to merriment in a more general sense. It was having a good time, enjoying the moment. While if you said ‘I like to party’, people would generally infer friends, loud music, and libations, the understood meaning could be a lot broader depending on the context, and this is especially true of ‘party on’ as an interjection. It was used both as a phrase of agreement and of encouragement, similar in meaning to “I approve” or even “way to go” at times. A friend got a rad new skateboard? “Party on”. It was an acknowledgment that something was positive, or that you shared that person’s enthusiasm. You could even offer an empathetic “party on” if it wasn’t something that was relevant to you personally, but you could see it brought someone else joy. You might not be into glam metal, but if your friend was excited about the Skid Row tickets they won from the radio station, well hey, “party on”. Like “you do you”, it could mean “I’m happy you’re happy”.

It’s human nature to want to celebrate with each other. Every culture has celebrations, feasts, holy days. These are about marking the seasons and years, but they’re also about setting aside time to celebrate together. When we have a birthday party, we’re not just ticking off that someone made another trip around the sun, we’re expressing gratitude for that person and their presence in our life. Because the heart of celebration is gratitude. Whether it’s gratitude for something profound or for something as simple as good music and good friends, to party – to revel, mayhaps even carouse – you first have to be grateful. And to party on, you have to do so in perpetuity. You have to be able to find things worth celebrating no matter what circumstances you find yourself in. You have to remember to always be looking for something you can be grateful for.

Dudes

A linguistics professor at the University of Pittsburgh published an extensive piece on the use of the word ‘dude’ in American English in 2004, and while some of the reasons put forth for its popularity may be problematic, there’s two very relevant things there I want to focus on. The first is that while expectedly the most common usage of ‘dude’ is by a male speaker to a male addressee, the second most common is by female speakers to female addressees – ‘dude’ truly knows no gender. So while at first blush it’s easy to take ‘dudes’ as gendered language, even in 1988 it wasn’t exclusively a masculine form of address. The film does present ‘babe’ as sort of a feminine equivalent, but ‘dudes’ – then and now – is used as a collective noun for mixed groups of any gender.

The second salient point is why that is. ‘Dude’ is mostly genderless because it isn’t really about the identity of the person being addressed at all. Instead, it’s more about the speaker’s relationship to them.

Dude is developing into a discourse marker that need not identify an addressee, and more generally encodes the speaker’s stance to his or her current addressee(s). Dude indexes a stance of cool solidarity

Scott F. Kiesling, Dude, 2004

‘Dude’ implies non-intimate camaraderie. It says to the listener that you see them as your equal. It’s so effective at communicating that, we pair it with confrontational statements (“Dude, that’s not cool” or “Turn signal, dude!”) as a way to soften them – to “ameliorate the .. hierarchal stance of the rest of the utterance.”

I often reflect on something the 14th Dalai Lama said, I never consider myself as something special. If I consider myself as something different from you .. then you actually create yourself as a prisoner. I forget these things, I simply consider I am one of the seven billion human beings. We are. Mentally, emotionally, intellectually, we are same. I feel like that’s the same sentiment expressed by another notable figure as I’m a dude, he’s a dude, she’s a dude, cause we’re all dudes. To call someone “dude” is to say “I accept you, we are the same.”

In Summary

When you put it all together, it really does hit a lot of the high points of my personal philosophy. Go out of your way to make the lives of the people around you better. Treat everyone you meet as an equal, remember they have their own thoughts and feelings that are every bit as important as yours. Always look for reasons to be grateful, and don’t be afraid to express them. Additionally, it not only avoids but outright eschews a lot of the unnecessary asceticism that always seems to creep into religious doctrines on morality. Be who you are, do what you love, just remember to be excellent to everyone – including yourself.

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