Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Happy Birthday, Joss!

In case anyone is out of the loop, that guy, over there in the right hand corner, is one of my favorite people ever. And today is his 45th birthday. YAY! So, in honor of his birthday, and because Joss Whedon and his impact on my life is actually surprisingly easy to write about, I'm going to recount a bit of that.

In the speech he gave after he received the Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism, Whedon said this:
Right now, things are not terrible for a nonbeliever. Uh, okay. We got a shout out during the inauguration. That was amazing. That has to be a political first. I mean, one of the biggest things in politics is establishing your religious street cred. But the fact is, just - just by Obama saying - including nonbelievers in his speech, um, I felt something I've never felt before in my life. And I've had people come up to me and say, "Oh, you wrote this thing and helped me to come out" and it's meant a huge amount to me that people say these things to me. But I never - I never, until that moment. And I was like, "Oh, that's what it feels like. I matter. I'm a person. They counted me."
I got a bit of that jolt on Inauguration Day as well. But I'm one of the fans who has gotten that feeling from Joss Whedon's work. I didn't need it to come out because I'm not gay (though, because of my Buffy the Vampire Slayer shirt collection, more than a couple of people assumed I was in high school). And I wouldn't be able to explain that to Whedon directly if I were ever to see him anywhere, because (as my mother oh so helpfully points out) I'm a flight animal. 

My jolt came as a result of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I was in 6th grade, had moved to a new - and strange - town the previous year, and still felt out of sorts. Out of place. The town I moved to was extremely tiny and extremely religious, so I felt extraordinarily out of place. And then this show came on, about this girl who also moved to an extremely tiny town she didn't fit into. A show came on that had lines like, "Note to self: religion, freaky". A show came on that had a girl who rocked and kicked ass and took names. And it had a guy at the helm who was a humanist, was an absurdist, was a pop culturist, was an atheist. Was a feminist. And who proudly proclaimed all of those things. Who made characters I admired and that I loved and that I looked up to. I didn't really know much of that at first. All I knew was that there was a show created that I felt at home with, that I had to watch. A show that gave me a warm feeling inside, like it had something to say.

It's kind of sad, really, how much this one man and his creations really have impacted my life. But he - and they - have. Joss Whedon was one of the first atheists I ever knew about, aside from those in my own family. I don't really know how I can express how big a deal that was, to have someone who wrote something I fell so strongly for be an atheist - let alone be an atheist who was also a feminist. It's kind of sad how much watching episodes like The Body meant to me, where someone died and there was no comforting answer given or theorized about what happened after death and where they might have gone. 

There are a couple of things I don't agree with Joss Whedon about. One of them is the use of the term "sky bully" in reference to other people's gods. One, I don't think that such a pronouncement is very helpful in creating good atheist-believer relations; and two, I don't think there is any proof that if a god exists, s/he is in fact a bully. I'm more than aware that people have bullied on behalf of their god, but I'm also aware that a belief in a god has also inspired incredible works of good. Frankly, with or without a god, people would find reasons to bully; and with or without a god, people will find inspiration to do good. God's the convenient excuse in those cases, but not the root of the cause. And to maintain, even obliquely, that a god or a religion is the root cause of the problem is just as bad as maintaing that a god or a religion is the root cause of the solution.

I think its important to note that Joss Whedon isn't the reason I'm an atheist, or the reason I'm a humanist, or the reason I'm a feminist. He is the reason I'm so picky about my television programs, but that's neither here nor there. What Joss Whedon did - and has done and continues to do - is to inform my atheism, my humanism, and my feminism. And also? How I write and speak. But more than that, he gave me a feeling of belonging.

I don't know if I read Whedon's work the way Whedon means for it to be read, with a hint of optimism abounding in the darkness. In the absurdism, in the existentialism, I see a tremendous amount of hope and expectation in this life we live and these people we live it with.  But in quotes like:
Faith in God is means believing, absolutely, with no proof whatsoever. Faith in humanity means believing absolutely in something with a huge amount of proof to the contrary.
If there is no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. 'cause that's all there is. What we do, now, today... ...Because, if there is no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.
I find inspiration. I feel connected. And that's really what matters.

So, happy birthday to the guy who has played an unwittingly large role in my life for now more than half of my life. In the words of the guy himself,
Stay crunchy, even in milk.


Rebekah said...

Bravo; well said.

Mr. G said...

I had a similar experience with my favorite comedian, George Carlin. I had never really accepted anything I'd been told to believe, even at as young an age as five years old ('twas a big dinosaur freak and that alone didn't jive with anything in my children's Bible) but I always pushed it to the back of my mind.

Then, when I was 16 or 17, a power outage hit my house. When everything came back on, the TV popped on to a blurred out version of HBO, but the audio was crystal clear. I was doing something else at the time and hesitated to turn it off. The more I listened the more I became sucked in by what I was hearing. Whoever this guy doing stand-up was, he was not just funny as hell - he also made a lot of sense. Within ten minutes, I was sitting in front of the blank screen, completely enraptured. I ended up listening to the entire hour-long special, which turned out to be George Carlin's "Back in Town." While he didn't actually say it in that special, it was pretty clear Carlin was an atheist and it got me to finally think more and more about what I believed in and what I didn't. And the conclusions I came to were that I was an atheist through and through.

Ironically, Whedon could have been a similar force in my life but I didn't get into Buffy until my brother bought the Season 1 DVDs while Season 7 was airing. I ended up watching around 130 episodes in less than a month (which was difficult because only the first three seasons were available on DVD at the time) and was caught up by the time First Date aired. By that point, I'd already found myself drawn to several other atheists (my first girlfriend, my favorite college professor...my first roommate was also an atheist but that was pretty much the only thing we agreed on) so it didn't surprise me in the least to find out that Joss was atheistic. And his work has meant a great deal to me. I created a poster to hang in my room (which I still do this day) that featured the speech from "Epiphany" that you quoted, because I felt it the most elegant explanation of how I felt. Hearing your story brought back some memories for me :)