Penelope Hamilton: Being a Humanist Celebrant Part 3

Humanist Celebrant

by Penelope Hamilton, originally published in the 2013 Summer edition of Humanitie magazine.

Penelope Hamilton: Being a Humanist Celebrant Part 3

When I introduce myself at a ceremony and say: “Humanists believe it’s possible to live a good, worthwhile life guided by reason and compassion.” I emphasise the word “possible”, because it’s as hard for us to live up to our ideals as it is for everyone else, religious or not.

Fallibility is something we share with every human being, and knowing this should prevent us from becoming complacent. It’s a struggle, for example, to feel compassion for people who annoy you with their words or actions, especially when they cause damage, whether you yourself are hurt or you’re upset on behalf of someone else. Human thought and feeling are often talked about as though they’re entirely different, but they’re interdependent and complementary functions, influencing each other positively and negatively, and in ways that sometimes seem mysterious as well.

Our childhood circumstances and experiences lay down all sorts of attitudes, good and bad and we may be oblivious to their existence. For example I blush to remember a particular thought that sprang into my mind about 35 years ago. I can recall exactly where I was and what I was doing, because the simple, unguarded thought, which revealed an unconscious prejudice, shocked me to the core.

Having prided myself on being an open-minded and tolerant person, without prejudices of any kind I could hardly believe it had happened, but the words had sounded clearly inside my head and I couldn’t deny that I’d heard them. Luckily I was alone, and there was nothing to distract me from digesting this unpalatable lesson: hidden, hateful things lurked in my unconscious and might unexpectedly emerge, so I’d have to be vigilant if I wanted to control them.

Thoughts, then, aren’t always in line with the thinker’s ethics and principles, and it’s wise to acknowledge them when they take form, however uncomfortable they make you feel, because suppressing them doesn’t get rid of them permanently. They return again and again, in increasingly unmanageable and damaging forms, and your body language will convey their messages just as effectively and hurtfully as words. That’s why maturity and self-knowledge are important in a celebrant, whatever his or her age.

Reason and compassion; paired together, they sound like an old married couple, sitting companionably on the sofa, at ease after living with one another for so many years. In reality, however, they’re opposites, and find it hard to relax in each other’s company, either ignoring one another, or criticising and arguing, the one sneering and cold, the other incomprehensible and in tears. There are plenty of examples of people speaking passionately and logically on the side of either reason or compassion, and this is proof enough for me that neither is superior to the other and they have equal value.

Empathy is much lauded nowadays, and occasionally I wonder whether the balance has tipped too far, with professional skills taken for granted, (impassion inspires, while reason provides skills, but the former is often more noticeable than the latter.)

When I need an operation, however, would I prefer to be treated by a consultant with a lovely bedside manner or a brilliant surgeon, if I can’t have both?

Celebrants don’t have a doctor’s power over life and death, thank goodness, but we do affect our clients’ wellbeing and happiness. We vary as much as people in any other profession, of course, some celebrants having more empathy than others, but our minds are applied to every element of what we do and when we’re preparing or delivering a ceremony we give equal thought to body language, presentation and words. Training and experience give us the ability to create suitable ceremonies, rather than simply empathising and sharing our clients’ emotions, however strongly we feel.

No one wants a weeping, incoherent celebrant, and no one wants an expressionless, robotic one either. It isn’t always easy to find the balance between the two and be both warm and proficient, but when we’re doing it well we make it look easy. If helping people is our goal, we can use our minds to convert empathy into action.

Without action, it’s my belief that both reason and compassion are rendered useless, amounting to nothing at all.

Penelope Hamilton is a registered Humanist celebrant

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