Today we bring you our latest installment of “What Would a Humanist Do?”—offering multiple AHA staff opinions on reader questions. Because while humanists are committed to being good without a god, sometimes they need a little advice on how to pull it off.
Q: The coronavirus pandemic has forced me to become accustomed to a new reality. No big gatherings with friends. No trips to the movie theater. No indoor restaurant dining in my city. And I have, reluctantly, become accustomed.
So imagine my surprise when my mother called recently and asked “what flights home looked like for the holidays.” It honestly hadn’t even occurred to me that my family would gather from across the country this year as we would in normal times. While I believe I can trust my parents to take reasonable precautions before such a hypothetical event, I can’t say the same for my siblings and their children. And the thought of getting on a plane fills me with anxiety.
Holiday gatherings seem like a wildly irresponsible thing to do this year, and yet my family is plowing ahead, totally oblivious. What would a humanist do?
I have to agree with you, reader: holiday gatherings seem like an irresponsible thing to do this year. My own family just this week finally admitted to each other that none of us feel comfortable traveling, so my sister’s family and I aren’t going to travel to Florida to see my father for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s. Although I miss my father deeply (what will soon be a year since our last visit is the longest I’ve ever gone in my life without seeing him in person), he is in his 80s. My sister and I just can’t guarantee that it’s safe for us to visit him. Even if we followed all the rules for quarantining, social distancing, and mask wearing, it would just be impossible to truly know that we wouldn’t be contagious after travelling. Luckily, my sister and her family live near me and I have created a bubble with them, so we can spend the holidays together. In a similar way, my father and his wife have created a bubble with his mother-in-law. The decision might be much more difficult if any of us were facing spending the holidays alone.
I would simply tell your mother that you don’t think it’s safe to travel or to be in large (or even not-so-large) groups. Articulate that you don’t want to endanger her or any of your family by being in close proximity indoors or by gathering in a group—especially after being on an airplane. This year the holidays simply can’t be normal. You might also point out to her that Dr. Anthony Fauci recently said that he won’t be seeing his three adult children for the holidays because he doesn’t think it’s safe. The humanist thing to do is to respect science and to keep our loved ones healthy by following the rules of the pandemic.
Large family gatherings are a time-honored tradition for many during the holidays. But you’re right, this pandemic makes travel and such gatherings more hazardous between risking exposure to the coronavirus to potentially being the one to expose your family. While it’s important to remain connected to your loved ones, being connected doesn’t require large family gatherings. As much as family may disagree, any holiday experience can be shared by phone or a video call. Time spent together should be meaningful and joyful, not wrought with worry and concern because a large gathering is expected. Instead, take time to visit on your terms, when it’s safe and makes sense, so you can make the most of your visit with your loved ones.
Holidays are already a difficult time for many (even pre-COVID) and spending the holidays alone can be incredibly lonely. While my family lives close by and I can convince them to get tested before I come for the holidays, I know that isn’t the case for everyone, therefore my perspective might be biased. That said, I’m not going home for the holidays. I also acknowledge my views are more hard-lined than others, but I stand by them. I am 100 percent against getting together with large groups of family even during the holidays because we are in the midst of a pandemic that only appears to be getting worse. If I gathered with family, the idea of risking their lives, especially those without health insurance or who don’t speak English well (another thing that can lead to medical discrimination) repels me. Think of your elderly family, of our minority communities that are dying disproportionately, and of your own health.
Inviting one or two friends over during the holidays or having one or two family members over who can get tested is much better than flying somewhere for a large family gathering. I know holidays sometimes feel like they’re strictly for families, but friends can be like family during the holidays. Take it from someone who’s spent the holidays alone before: it’s tough, but it doesn’t mean you won’t have many in the future to spend with those you love.
Each year during the holidays I strive to generate the festivity created by my parents —dedicated humanists who loved the holiday season because it was an excuse to celebrate with family and friends. They loved to throw a good party and were a fabulous team. As a musician and antique dealers’ son, my father filled the house with his favorite stereo recordings while setting a table worthy of a bygone Victorian era—polished silver, glistening china, and family linens from the nineteenth century. My mother, a gourmet cook and artist, spent days creating a feast of culinary delights that left no sense undazzled. Together they produced an atmosphere of great joy, encapsulating the importance of making the most out of life in good music, a beautiful table, incredible food, and fabulous company.
With the loss of my mom in 2016 (my dad having preceded her), the holiday lights indeed dimmed, lacking the luster of years past. My already small family became even smaller, making what was once a very festive season sad and lonely. To remedy that I started new traditions: spending Thanksgiving with my friend of fifty-one years and her family and hosting a grand Boxing Day event the day after Christmas. This year, however, will be different. There will be no Friendsgiving traveling to Chicago or large Boxing Day gathering open to all who can come. We are choosing a quiet, safe holiday season at home, where we’ve been since the beginning of this pandemic. I’ll do my best to include the joys and traditions my parents left behind, even if it’s just me, my husband, son, and daughter. It’s what this humanist is going to do.
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