Julian Bagini: Inaction stations

by Julian Bagini, originally published in the 2013 Summer edition of Humanitie magazine.

One of the most profound comments on human nature came to me courtesy of an employee of Network Rail at Paddington station. There was trouble on the line and no trains were going in or out. Passengers were being advised to take the underground to Waterloo and then the slow train to Reading, where they could continue their journeys. Now I knew that meant replacing a twenty-five minute journey with one of at least an hour and a half. So I asked, might it not be better simply to wait at Paddington since the chances were the problem would be cleared up within the hour? Maybe, he replied, but “people like to keep moving.”

It’s become a catchphrase in our household ever since. People would rather move, do something, anything, rather than accept that there’s nothing they can do and they’d be better off staying still. Action stops us feeling helpless, even when it’s no help at all, and may even be a hindrance. For instance, we’ve had a family bereavement recently and much as people want to help, there is nothing they can do. This is something that one relative keen to provide support and comfort just cannot accept, and so with the best will in the world they have simply created a new lot of bother for us.

Action can also make us feel virtuous, but there’s no point in doing things to make us feel better if they don’t actually make thigs better. Carlyle once wrote: “Nothing is more terrible than activity without insight.” I know that because it’s on a poster outside a Baptist church, which just goes to show how it’s easier to understand in abstract than it is to put into effective practice. Humanists have good reasons to both take action and to be part of it. We need to act because if we don’t, no one else will.

Only humans can make a better world. But at the same time, we know that history is not a narrative of salvation, that the universe has no purpose, and that nothing can change the brute facts of bad fortune and ultimate extinction. To put it crudely, there’s some shit we can shovel and there’s some we have to live with.

I think humanist organisations also feel the tug of activity too strongly at times. One problem I have, for example, is the perceived need to take positions on the big issues of the day, such as euthanasia. Humanists do tend to be pro-choice but it is only a tendency. So why present a unified humanist front when there is no unity, or any need for it out the back? The fear that if humanists don’t step up to the microphone the floor will be left open for bishops and other religious leaders should not lead us to sacrifice our integrity for the sake of greater public exposure. Sometimes what we don’t do is as telling as what we do. Inaction can speak louder than words too.

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