How many times do you have an encounter with someone that, while brief, stays with you and makes your life better? Sherwin Wine had that effect on me and judging from the reaction to his recent tragic death, he has had that effect on many others. Loving comments about him and his life abound, like:
“It is with great sadness that we inform you of the death of one of the greatest Humanist leaders of the 20th Century: Sherwin T. Wine, the 2003 American Humanist of the Year.” Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, Greg Epstein, Chaplain
“A titanic voice of reason and humanity has been stilled. One of the very rare instances whence loss is, perhaps, somewhat mitigated by the legacy…” People For Change
You can learn more about him and The Society for Humanistic Judaism here. The New York Times marks his passinghere.
My encounter with Sherwin, yes, I feel I want to call him Sherwin though I barely know the man, was at the Humanist Conference that took place in April 2007 in Cambridge, MA. Taking place shortly after the Virginia Tech shootings, I arranged for Sherwin to be on a nationally syndicated radio show hosted by Todd Feinburg. Todd’s listening audience is politically and socially conservative, religious, and had been talking about God, blame, and finding comfort in the face of tragedy in the preceding days. I thought that it would be interesting for them to hear what humanists, naturalists, people who believe in the natural world, had to say.
I had heard Sherwin speak and knew that he would be wonderful, but this short interview, short interview that has now been listened to by so many of his loving friends since his passing, is an inspiring, touching, challenging statement about finding comfort while looking at life as it is, without rose-colored glasses.
Sherwin was on the show for only about 15 minutes. However his comments inspired a passionate discussion for the next two full hours which can be heard here and here. This is remarkable, since radio shows generally switch to new topics each hour. Truly there is a hunger for, as Sherwin called them, ‘issues of ultimate concern.’
When the interview was over, he immediately turned his attention to a colleague and friend who was going through severe medical difficulties and pain while eating lunch, attending to me, then going back to the conference proceedings. In the midst of it all, you got the feeling that Sherwin connected with people in meaningful ways both one-to-one and when speaking with a broader audience.
In his book, “Staying Sane in a Crazy World: A Guide to Rational Living,” Sherwin addresses issues of ultimate concern. A review of his book says it this way:
“‘Life is unfair. It often does not give us what we want. More often it does not give us what we deserve. There is too much death, betrayal and frustration. There is not enough love, happiness and hope. It is quite clear that the universe does not conform to the human moral agenda.
“‘A just universe is also a meaningful universe. It is also a sane universe. An unjust world is a meaningless world. It is also a crazy world. Staying sane in a crazy world is not easy. It requires a special kind of human ingenuity and determination.’
“Sherwin Wine explores what it means to cope successfully with an unfair world. The first step is to dismiss illusions that hide the reality we must face. Being rational and realistic is not a cold response to life. It is tied to the passion for personal strength and dignity.
“Wine develops the ten steps to sanity. These steps are answers to certain fundamental questions of life. What is happiness? What do I need to do to be happy? How do my fear, anger, love and guilt fit into my search for personal dignity? What does it mean to be ethical in a world that is less than ethical? How can I find the strength I need to cope with the problems of my life?
“Staying Sane in a Crazy World is a fresh and somewhat outrageous new approach to the search for meaning in life. In an age when it is fashionable to give people answers that they want to hear but cannot use, Wine provides less fashionable — but more effective — answers to the fundamental issues of the human condition.” Evolvefish.com
Finally, I’d like to share another quote of Sherwin that I am glad to have found and anticipate coming back to:
“There are two visions of America. One precedes our founding fathers and finds its roots in the harshness of our puritan past. It is very suspicious of freedom, uncomfortable with diversity, hostile to science, unfriendly to reason, contemptuous of personal autonomy. It sees America as a religious nation. It views patriotism as allegiance to God. It secretly adores coercion and conformity. Despite our constitution, despite the legacy of the Enlightenment, it appeals to millions of Americans and threatens our freedom.
The other vision finds its roots in the spirit of our founding revolution and in the leaders of this nation who embraced the age of reason. It loves freedom, encourages diversity, embraces science and affirms the dignity and rights of every individual. It sees America as a moral nation, neither completely religious nor completely secular. It defines patriotism as love of country and of the people who make it strong. It defends all citizens against unjust coercion and irrational conformity.
This second vision is our vision. It is the vision of a free society. We must be bold enough to proclaim it and strong enough to defend it against all its enemies.” Rabbi Sherwin Wine, Wisdom Quotes
Even though I only briefly met him, I feel both lucky and cheated. Lucky that my life has been enriched by him. Cheated that this person, this ‘self’, this unique individual is gone, that I will not have another chance to speak with him. Sherwin had said he would be on my radio show. Now, this can’t happen.
Nevertheless, he does live on in us naturalistically – his ideas, part of what was in his brain, are now in our brains, for our enrichment, for our enjoyment. Which we will now pass on.