Reframing (with Chris Stedman) | Crooked Media
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October 29, 2021
Unholier Than Thou
Reframing (with Chris Stedman)

In This Episode

Content warning: This episode contains discussions of suicide

Have you heard the one where the atheist walks into the divinity school? Oh, it’s not a joke, it’s the lived experience of humanist chaplain Chris Stedman. Phill and Chris talk about the pros and cons of organized religion, cultivating community and ritual outside of religious contexts, using the internet to heal after personal tragedy, and finding the divine in pop divas. Required listening for the “spiritual vibes of non-religious people.”

 

Resources:

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255 or text HELLO to 741741

 

 

Transcript

 

Phillip Picardi: Just a quick note for our listeners before you dive into today’s podcast, this episode does have some conversation about suicide and some content about suicide in here. So if that’s not something that you feel like you’re ready to listen to today or you want to listen to today, I recommend maybe coming back and revisiting us at some point in the week. And of course, if that’s not something you feel like you’re ready for it all, we will see you for next week’s episode. You can also find resources about suicide and help and hotlines in today’s show notes if you are so interested.

 

Chris Stedman: I think that like part of the path forward toward a more compassionate society, one that’s less sort of atomized, one that’s more humanistic if I can use like the language of my own worldview and community, you know, is embracing a world that lets us sort of be all these different people and sees that not as this like problem to overcome, but actually like part of what it means to be human, and part of what makes us who we are.

 

Phillip Picardi: From Crooked Media, this is Unholier Than Thou. I’m your host, Phillip Picardi. OK, everyone. So this is officially me coming to you right after my first day of classes at Harvard Divinity School. I am a little bit overwhelmed if I’m being honest. Divinity School, and just like the concept of being a 30-year old back in a classroom is a lot more honestly than I was bargaining for. But I’m actually really grateful for today’s guest and to be hosting a conversation with today’s guest today after I’ve had my first day, because this guest actually has a background in divinity schools. Chris Stedman is a noted atheist and a humanist chaplain who has been at Yale Divinity School, Harvard Divinity School, and is now a professor of Religious Studies at Lutheran University. So he has this really interesting multi-faith and multidisciplinary background. And Chris’s perspective on faith has been something I’ve sought for a long time because I myself was waffling between identifying as spiritual or agnostic or atheist for really the better part of the past 5 to 10 years. And so Chris’s work has been really inspirational for me because it’s shown me an example of what it means to be spiritually or religiously curious. And yes, I’m using queer sexual language to talk about a spiritual journey. Bear with me. I promise it will make sense, without necessarily being religious on its face. Chris, for the past year has been going through a really interesting journey memorializing his friend Alex, who passed under quite difficult circumstances. And he’s been exploring that on a podcast that he’s hosting called “Unread” which you can, of course, find wherever you listen to your podcasts. And I do recommend a good listen to it. It is spiritual, it is familial, it is about friendship, and it’s a little bit about Britney Spears, and you’ll hear more about that from my conversation with Chris. So the topic of this episode is about reframing. It’s about reframing faith, reframing spirituality, and reframing loss and death, especially in the face of so much tragedy. And I think Chris did such a beautiful job paying homage to his wonderful friend, and also giving us a lot to think about, about what it means to be human in a world that seems so robbed of humanity. So I hope you enjoy today’s episode.

 

Phillip Picardi: Wow. Our guest today is a writer, professor, and fellow podcast host of the new show “Unread.” He was previously the founding director of the Yale Humanist Community, which I’m not sure Chris, does that make us rivals now that I’m at Harvard, the superior divinity school, or?

 

Chris Stedman: Wow. I mean, see, I feel like I’m really in the middle here because I also worked at Harvard. So, I’ve done both. And I see the value in both.

 

Phillip Picardi: So what you’re trying to say is you’re still superior.

 

Chris Stedman: No. No, no. Never. No. Because as some folks at Harvard and Yale reminded me regularly, I didn’t actually go to those schools. I just worked there.

 

Phillip Picardi: So you were like a black sheep of your program?

 

Chris Stedman: Yeah, I just worked there.

 

Phillip Picardi: Well, in more ways than one, because you were also an atheist in divinity school. Did that actually make you feel like a black sheep, though? I feel like this is a much more low-key environment about that stuff than I was anticipating.

 

Chris Stedman: Well, you’re at Harvard Divinity School. All that divinity schools are very different. So it is—

 

Phillip Picardi: OK, OK? Give me the law of the land. Yes.

 

Chris Stedman: At Harvard Divinity School, being an atheist is NBD. At other divinity schools it’s a little different. You know, I, so I actually went to, when I did my master’s in religion, I went to a theological school in Chicago called Meadville Lombard, and it’s a Unitarian Universalist-affiliated theological school.

 

Phillip Picardi: OK, love the Unitarians.

 

Chris Stedman: Me too. Yeah, me too. Honestly, a big part of it was because I knew I was an atheist. I knew I wanted to pursue higher education in religion. But it didn’t really occur to me that atheists would be not only welcome in theological environments, but that there would be like a lot of them there. And so when I was looking into, you know, options, I was like, well, the UEUs, they’re definitely going to be welcoming. So I ended up going to a UEU theological school, which I loved. And honestly, a big part of the desire to go to that one specifically was that in Chicago, there’s over a dozen theological schools and they all have this consortium. And so if you’re enrolled at one, you can take classes at any of them. And I really wanted to learn in as many different sort of religious environments as I could because I was trying to figure out how non-religious people like me can work to meet the same kinds of needs that people often meet in religious spaces: the need for community, for connection, for meaning. And so I wanted to sort of see like, OK, so how do all these different religious people do this and and see if that could help me figure out how atheists like me could do it in our own way.

 

Phillip Picardi: So you’re basically going in at this point, you’re kind of like infiltrating the religious circles to figure out the roadmap, to apply it to non-religious folks or people who are not comfortable, perhaps with religion in their daily lives, but still want to have a higher purpose.

 

Chris Stedman: Absolutely. And you know, that really is what I ended up doing for the better part of a decade was working as a humanist chaplain, specifically working to help, for lack of a better term, help support the spiritual lives of atheists, agnostics and other non-religious people at Harvard and then at Yale.

 

Phillip Picardi: Wait a minute! That’s genius. So, the spiritual lives of non-religious people. I didn’t realize that, actually—and forgive me—I didn’t realize that those two things could exist in in community with one another.

 

Chris Stedman: Well, I mean, it’s, and here’s where we sort of come up against the challenges of language. It’s fraught, right? Like, when I was a chaplain supporting the Yale humanist community, so supporting the non-religious students at Yale, one time we had an event on spirituality, and at the beginning I was like, all right, so let’s just do like a show of hands exercise for people who are comfortable. How many of you would say that the language of spirituality like, resonates with you? How many of you would consider yourself spiritual? And about half of the students in attendance raise their hands. And then I said, OK, how many of you feel like the language of spirituality like doesn’t apply to you. And the other half raised their hands. And I mean, I think it is, it’s a word that is imbued with so much meaning that it’s hard to sort of, there are people who want to reclaim it and say that spirituality doesn’t necessarily have to include a higher power. It can be about our sense of connection to the world around us, it can be about our inner lives. It can be about, you know, where we find meaning and purpose. But I think for others, they feel like it’s inherently sort of associated with ideas of higher power of supernatural forces, those sorts of things. So when I think about spirituality, I think about, yeah, what does it mean to be me? What does it mean to be a person? What does it mean to live a meaningful life? And so even though now I’m no longer working as a humanist chaplain, these are still the questions that really drive me in my career as a writer, in my podcasting and in the teaching that I do now as well.

 

Phillip Picardi: It’s so interesting because hearing you talk about humanism and that language, and actually before I attended Divinity School, I really wasn’t familiar with that word, or with it as a concept. What I keep coming back to in my own kind of unlearnings about Christianity and maybe the patriarchal lies I was told about Christianity, humanism does feel like it’s at the core of what at least Jesus was talking about, right? Which was that we need to look out for our neighbors and that we are all connected and that we are all one. And how we treat one another has ramifications that, you know, have ripple effects that we may not understand immediately, but that will unfold. And you know, when I think about what we’re dealing with current events wise, whether we’re talking about climate disaster, climate catastrophe or the pandemic, right, which is a virus that humans spread to one another, or any other social justice issue, we do really see a spiritual ramification for the ways in which we are harming either the world or each other. And that ripple effect has been, I think it’s been interesting to watch because it helps me understand how intertwined we all are. And so humanism, I feel like really gets to the core of that.

 

Chris Stedman: Yeah. I mean, first of all, you’re not alone in not being familiar with humanism. It’s not a very widely known or well understood thing. I mean, honestly, I didn’t learn of humanism until I was doing my master’s in religion. And so, you know, I already had an undergraduate degree in religion at this point. I was, you know, midway into my graduate studies in religion. So if anyone should have heard of humanism like, and even I hadn’t, and it was honestly when I was working at an interfaith organization while doing my master’s where, you know, because at that point, I was identifying myself as an atheist, as nonreligious, which I still am those things but I was pulled aside one day by my boss, who is a Muslim, and he said, you know, Chris, I don’t want to tell you who you are or what language you should use to identify yourself but when I hear you talk about like, I hear you describe yourself as atheist and non-religious, and I think those things are really important to talk about, but when I hear you talk about the values you do have, the things that you are passionate about and that you care about I hear a lot of humanism in that, but I haven’t heard you use that word to describe yourself so I’m just curious if that’s something you’re familiar with or not? Which I wasn’t. So he pointed me in the direction of all kinds of resources, and as soon as I started reading about humanism, about this philosophical tradition that is about sort of saying, as human beings, what is our responsibility to one another and to this world around us and how can we live lives that not only allow us to have personal fulfillment, but then also make sure that we’re taking responsibility for other people’s quality of life as well? As soon as I sort of discovered that there were other people who were thinking about these kinds of things, it was this revelation for me. It was like, oh, here is language that helps me articulate, you know, the things that matter to me as an atheist, as a nonreligious person. Like, if I take seriously the idea that I think it’s unlikely that there is a higher power that’s going to intervene in human affairs, to do anything to sort of solve our problems, then that means I have an ethical responsibility to the world around me. And how can I sort of live a life that, you know, tries to leave the world better than I found it? And humanism gave me some of that language to articulate that. And I think that this matters because you know, anyone who knows anything about religion in the U.S. right now knows that, you know, we’re rapidly becoming a less religious country.

 

Phillip Picardi: Oh yeah.

 

Chris Stedman: The fastest growing segment of the American religious landscape is people who say that they’re not religious. And a lot of my fellow atheists like, celebrate this every time some new poll results come out saying like, look how not religious this country is now, or look how the fastest growing segment is people who are not religious. But it actually like, and I’m a worrier by nature so this is like a default reaction for me, but it causes me to worry because I think that the way that we think and talk about what matters to us is, you know, frames and guides the way that we move through the world. And I, you know, there, while a small percentage of the religiously unaffiliated in this country are atheists and humanists, the majority of those folks are actually what people who study religious demographics would describe as nothing in particular. So people who when they’re asked what their religious affiliation is, they say they don’t have one. And when they sort of define further, you know, what do they believe in, it’s sort of nothing in particular. They don’t really know what they believe. And this segment of the sort of nonreligious population is sort of increasingly checking out of society. And, you know, I think that, so this is a, I’ve been teaching now this class I teach at, I am an atheist teaching in a Lutheran university and I teach in the religion department. And so because this university that I teach at was founded as a Lutheran university, was actually founded as a training school for Lutheran missionaries, there are these two religion requirements. All students have to take two religion classes. And I teach the second one, which is religion 200: religion, vocation and the search for meaning. And most of the students that take my class are taking it to meet their religion requirement, right? And so, like a lot of them fall into this category of like nothing in particular, they, you know, maybe they didn’t grow up in a religion at all, maybe they did, but they’ve sort of drifted away from it. And I see, you know, me teaching this class like, I take the responsibility really seriously because I see this as a window in their lives for them to really think deeply and intentionally about what matters to them and why. So religious communities abuse their power.  We, you know, we could spend three hours talking about examples of religious communities wielding their power—

 

 

Phillip Picardi: Oh God, there would be 50 seasons of this podcast just talking about the ways in which religious institutions can be terrible.

 

Chris Stedman: Yes, absolutely. And I’ve experienced it personally.

 

Phillip Picardi: Same here, baby.

 

Chris Stedman: I think almost any LGBTQ person in some way has.

 

Phillip Picardi: Yep.

 

Chris Stedman: And you know, and so, but I will say it like religious communities at their best when they’re wielding that power in like really positive ways, they sort of lock people into a community that forces them to be challenged to ask themselves, am I living my life in a way that aspires to the greater good for, you know, for all people? And you know, my mom is not particularly religious, but she started going to a Lutheran church because she likes that every week it’s like an opportunity to sort of check in and be reminded that she’s trying to live in a certain way.

 

Phillip Picardi: Right.

 

Chris Stedman: And so I just worry about this sort of shift out of religious institutions that’s happening in this country because I don’t, I want people to be in spaces where they feel safe and valued and loved. And if religious spaces aren’t that for them, that’s fine with me. I couldn’t care less, but I want to make sure they’re going somewhere, so.

 

Phillip Picardi: Atheism doesn’t have to mean apathy.

 

Chris Stedman: Yeah, exactly.

 

Phillip Picardi: And that’s a, that’s a really crucial point because we are moving, especially like right now very rapidly into a society that does feel like it’s deteriorating and the climate catastrophe is only going to worsen, which means that we’re going to have more and more people who are displaced or more and more emergencies, more and more people to help. And of course, our increasing polarization of American politics does not look like it’s going to let up, especially not if Facebook and the tech barons have anything to say or do about it.

 

Chris Stedman: Yeah, yeah.

 

Phillip Picardi: And all of this stuff is really designed to steer us into a sort of despondency, right? What can we do? These problems are too big for us to handle. We are powerless in the face of these power structures. And religion time and time again is filled with stories about the powerless taking power back, right, or finding power from some inexplicable reserve, right, or from some divine source in order to overcome and find meaning and purpose and justice—justice in the spiritual sense, not in the legal sense. And I do. I do really feel where you’re coming from there. If we are increasingly leaning into that despondency or that helplessness, we are not going to be part of a global solution.

 

Chris Stedman: Yeah, one thing that religion does really well is helps us see ourselves as part of a larger whole.  I grew up non-religious, but I remember my best friend in third grade was Jewish, and she invited me into, you know, I would come over to her house for some holidays and stuff like that. And I remember how important Judaism was to her and how it sort of placed her in this bigger story. She was a part of something. And, you know, a big part of why like, so my last book, “IRL” was on the internet, and I think like, you know, you might sort of like, look at that on the surface and be like, well, what does that have to do with like religion and humanism?

 

Phillip Picardi: Everything.

 

Chris Stedman: But for me, like my big concern right now is that so, you know, I started to feel and recognize that a lot of the needs that we once met in religious spaces we’re now meeting online. The need for connection, the need for community, the need for understanding the world around you and finding a sense of meaning. But my concern was that the internet can, you know, especially when we’re using it, sort of mindlessly, we’re just like clicking and scrolling, it can atomize us and make us feel like individuals rather than like part of something bigger than ourselves. And I think we’re specifically at a moment in history when more than ever, we need to see our struggles as intimately connected with, you know, the well-being of every other person, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s a pandemic. And at the very moment when we need to see ourselves as more interconnected than ever before, the internet is driving us in directions of atomization, of isolation, of individuality, to see ourselves as individuals rather than as a part of a collective.

 

Phillip Picardi: Yes! Not to mention hierarchies, also.

 

Chris Stedman: Absolutely.

 

Phillip Picardi: Follower accounts, influence, etc. Yeah.

 

Chris Stedman: Exactly. So I think we, there’s some course correcting that we need to do. And, you know, I think while working on that book, you know, my sort of desire was to figure out, OK, how can we, you know, in the ways that religion gives us sort of structure, ways for, you know, thinking about who we are and you know what our place in this world is like—can we bring some of that into our digital lives and try to have more meaningful digital lives? If I think, and I think it’s going, I mean, I don’t see this massive sea change happening overnight where we all start going to church on Sunday mornings instead of logging on to Twitter. Like that’s not going to happen for me.

 

Phillip Picardi: Or me!

 

Chris Stedman: And so I mean, yeah, so how can I start, you know, being more purposeful in my digital habits and harness all the good that the internet does offer us? Like the internet has, you know, I think for a lot of queer people again, it has been this immensely powerful way of rendering ourselves visible and finding like-minded others. Like for me, the first people I ever came out to were digital strangers, you know?

 

Phillip Picardi: Oh, me too.

 

Chris Stedman: Yeah, I think that’s a really common experience. And so—

 

Phillip Picardi: You know, actually the first person I ever came out to when I was 14 on gay dot com, where I believe my username was Italian Stallion 77.

 

Chris Stedman: No way.

 

Phillip Picardi: The first person I came out to there lived the town over from me. We had never met in real life. And then I was throwing the Pride party for the Out magazine in June of 2019. And when I walked in, he was arranging the flowers on the table.

 

Chris Stedman: Oh my gosh. So that was the first time you had met offline.

 

Phillip Picardi: It wasn’t the first time we’d met offline, but it was the first time we had seen each other and had been like holding this moment together where it was just like, you know, he sat at the dinner and it was just like a really beautiful moment because that was the first person in my life who I had allowed to see me, fully.

 

Chris Stedman: That’s so sweet.

 

Phillip Picardi: And who had encouraged me to speak my truth. And so there was, I will forever be connected to him. I don’t know if he’ll forever be connected to me. But anyways, but that’s, that’s, yeah, that’s our story.

 

Chris Stedman: I love that. Yeah, I love that.

 

[ad break]

 

Chris Stedman: Like, there are times when the internet makes me feel less human for sure, like when I’m stuck in the sort of clicking and scrolling and, you know, the algorithm has totally sucked me into its web and I’m chasing the high of, you know, or like, I’m deleting something because it didn’t get enough likes or whatever. But I also have experienced the internet as this like radical space for experimenting with identity, for like tiptoeing into a fuller version of myself. And the internet, like religion at its best, can be this tool that gives us like resources for becoming more human, for becoming, you know—if part of what it means to be human is to be challenged to, you know, expand who we are and to be challenged by other people as a part of this community that we’re in, I think the internet can do that. Like some of the people who have, you know, given me the most insight in my life are people I’ve met online. You know, some of my best friends are people I’ve met online.

 

Phillip Picardi: Well, that’s an interesting point to raise, because it’s also what led you down this very interesting journey with the podcast that you just launched, Unread. So do you mind actually setting the scene for us about how this whole situation came into your lap?

 

Chris Stedman: Yeah, gosh. So Unread is a project I never imagined I would make for many reasons. In December of 2019, I had just finished the book IRL that we were talking about, and I had just turned it in and I’d been off line for like three months, just focusing on finishing the book. And so I had just gotten back online, just like stepped back into the world, and was like just getting my bearings and I got this email. It was, I remember, I’ll remember it forever, it was at exactly seven p.m. I was sitting at my counter in my studio apartment and I got this email from my friend Alex, who, Alex and I met when I was living in Chicago, when I was going to theological school, and I was very much like on my career path. I was like, I’m getting my masters, I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that and whatever. And I met Alex on OkCupid, and he just completely cracked open my entire world when, the moment we met. Like he, in so many ways, like my life in that moment was driven by like, you know, by fear. I was like trying to prove to myself and to the world that I was worthy, that I was valuable, and I was trying to follow this blueprint for how you do that, and Alex was like the complete opposite. He was so free. He was so unapologetically himself. He was like the most himself person I’ve ever met. And I was, I just fell in love with him immediately. And like, not in the sense. I mean, we did like sort of date for like a hot second there but like, very quickly, it just turned into one of the most meaningful friendships I’ve had in my entire life and—

 

Phillip Picardi: A soul connection.

 

Chris Stedman: Yeah, absolutely. And he showed me how to be, yeah, a freer person. And I look back on the person I was when I met Alex, and I see someone who was very afraid of being themselves, of letting the world see, you know, the different facets of who I was. And to the degree that I am, like, less afraid now, I fully credit Alex. And so, yeah, in December 2019, I got an email from him after not having been able to reach him for a little while, and the email was to inform me that he had ended his life. And so he set, he set up some emails to go out after he died to me, to a couple of other close friends of his, to his family members, each one letting us know about his decision and why he had done it. And most, most of all, the notes were to, you know, let us know how much he loved us and cared about us. And I mean, obviously in the moment, my reaction was one of pure panic and horror. But I can look now at the email and think like, Wow, what a compassionate gift to be in the place that he was and to say, I want to make sure that these people know that they were loved and that you know, that I know that they loved me. So it was, I mean, it was one of the worst moments of my life. It was awful. Even, just—

 

Phillip Picardi: So sorry, honey.

 

Chris Stedman: Thank you. Even just thinking about it right now are like talking about it, I’m like feeling nauseous.

 

Phillip Picardi: You’re like in that place. I know, that feeling.

 

Chris Stedman: Yeah, yeah. It’s very raw for me still. But there was one thing in the email like, you know, I could understand everything like because he really sort of walked me through everything in the email so I could understand it. But there was one thing in the email that like, didn’t make sense, and it was at the very end. He, just like as an afterthought, almost was like, oh, by the way, here’s Alice Files. And it was there was a link to a SoundCloud, this locked private SoundCloud page, and it contained two audio files, and they were files of him talking to someone he had met like a decade earlier in a Britney Spears fan forum, and they were, it was audio of them talking with some other folks, too. And this person, Alice, is this person he met in this Britney fan forum who they would go talk in these audio chats and she sounds exactly like Britney Spears, his number one idol, like his obsession in life. The most important person in the world to him. And so he just kind of dropped these files into his goodbye email to me of him talking to this person who sounds like Britney Spears. And after he died as I was navigating, you know, I sort of threw myself into a lot of the logistics around his death, helping to make sure his family, you know, could pay for the costs of, you know, everything associated with his death, helping them plan the memorial. But I just kept sort of coming back to these files and trying to wrap my mind around like why he sent me these because he didn’t give any context for them. He just sort of dropped them in an email. And I just couldn’t let it go. And as I was talking to his family and his friends about it, we all started to kind of feel like, because Alex was someone who like, he loved to play games with you. He would just like, yeah, try and like, bring you down the rabbit hole with him because he was like, truly this, you know, larger than life person who was, like, always up to some kind of antics. And so we all started to feel like this was like a sort of one last little game from Alex, was, you know, dropping these files in the email and that there was a reason he did that, you know, because nothing he did when he died was sort of random. Everything had, there was a reason. He had planned everything out really, really carefully. And so we wanted to figure out what that reason was, why he sent these files. And so Unread was me sort of like going down the rabbit hole of trying to figure out what those files were about and why he sent them. But also just like trying to make sense of like what happened and better understand this person who had just changed my whole world when we met.

 

Phillip Picardi: Gosh, it’s like an Alice in Wonderland journey, isn’t it?

 

Chris Stedman: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, obviously, like her, the name of this person was Alice. So like that—

 

Phillip Picardi: Yeah, that’s why I said it.

 

Chris Stedman: Yeah, that that that kept coming to mind for me, like and I make this comparison in the podcast a couple of times, I’m sure. But like, Alex really was like that rabbit, like just beckoning you down the rabbit hole like everyone I talked to, so I interviewed a bunch of his friends and family for the show and like, this was the thing that everyone kept saying over and over again was how, like, Alex was always inviting you to, like, become whatever version of yourself like you were afraid of or you didn’t want other people to see, or you were scared to show, like he would invite you to, like, go down the rabbit hole within yourself. And I think for like, especially, you know, I am a I’m a queer person, so like, obviously, this is something I think about a lot but, you know, I think especially for a lot of queer people like that person who invites you to like, become or yourself and to become the version of yourself that you’re scared of or you’re scared of other people seeing, like that is such a, it’s such a gift and it’s such an important person in your life, and I think so many of us have that person. And for me, Alex absolutely was that person. And so I think a big part of what I ended up reflecting on while working on the show is like the impact of having that person in your life. And for me, obviously, I was like processing losing that person.

 

Phillip Picardi: It’s interesting. I have so many thoughts, but you know, one of my first thoughts about Alex being the person who helped you uncover something about yourself and also being like a, like a dogged Britney Spears fan is like how many gay people, queer people do we meet who feel that way about the divas, right? Whether it’s Beyoncé or Rihanna or Gaga? Or, you know, for so many of us, it was Britney. For others, it was Madonna. It could have been Diana Ross, but there was something about out watching these women, especially in their music videos and in their performances, exude this kind of audacious sexuality and femininity that we were all stifling in ourselves, and then we fell hopelessly and headlessly in love with them, you know? And they gave us the sort of permission to embrace something in ourselves, even if it’s just like alone lip syncing in our bedroom or singing terribly in our showers. They gave us some sort of permission to explore a side of ourselves that certainly society didn’t want us to. And so there’s a really interesting parallel between Alex and Britney that I think is is really interesting. Most notably, the key parallel is that both of them were really going through this underworld journey that was not visible to so many people from the surface.

 

Chris Stedman: Yeah.

 

Phillip Picardi: You know that there is a huge cost that it can take on the human soul to be audaciously oneself in a world that wants you to be anything but.

 

Chris Stedman: Exactly.

 

Phillip Picardi: And when you are looked at as the brave figure or the lone figure, it often strips you of a, of a certain humanity that you need because you also need to be loved and taken care of. And that is such a hard thing to navigate.

 

Chris Stedman: Yeah, yeah. I mean, you know, with Alex, like one thing that we talked about a lot was just that like, I mean, he was the life of the party and like, but, you know, he would say, like, you know, a lot of people like, loved him when he was the life of the party, but he wasn’t always that, you know, and people didn’t always love him when he wasn’t the life of the party. And that was a struggle for him. And I think like, you know, this theme throughout the show is this idea that like, yeah, part of what made Alex so free and such a like gift to the people who knew him, was also part of what made his life difficult. Because, you know, the world punishes people who, you know, deviate in the ways that Alex did. And, you know, when Alex died like, so much of it felt like this huge injustice to me, and in the show I get into, you know, some of the systemic failures that contributed to his death. And you know what a society that allowed for people like Alex to thrive might look like. But it also felt like this injustice because, you know, you look at like people who die whose lives like, look like what we consider a successful life and like those people are celebrated, right, and all their achievements are lauded and that sort of thing. And then, you know, someone like Alex dies, who, you know, Alex was like, he had this wandering life and he was, you know, restless and he would he moved from place to place and, you know, a big part of what made him so free again, like made it hard for him to, like, maintain a job and those sorts of things. And this, his kind of, even though, even though he had this like profound liberating impact on anyone who ever knew him, this is the kind of life that like doesn’t get celebrated in that same way. And you know, my hope is that Unread, I think like more than anything I’m trying to like, show the world, you know, what an important person this was. And like, you know, I had this like recognition while working on the show that like all throughout the years of my friendship with Alex, like I was prioritizing my career. I was like on my path. I was doing what the world expects you to do.

 

Phillip Picardi: Been there, baby.

 

Chris Stedman: You know? And Alex was like, while I was prioritizing that stuff, like, Alex was always prioritizing like me and our friendship and like being there for me. And I’m like, yeah, why are my priorities the kind of priorities that are more likely to be celebrated, whereas Alex’s are like actually the priorities that like, I wish I was better at and, you know—

 

Phillip Picardi: Totally. That’s a full circle moment for the conversation and you explaining humanism, isn’t it? It’s like—

 

Chris Stedman: Yeah.

 

Phillip Picardi: What do we value? Why are we here? And how are we taking care of each other? These are all core tenets of of what you’re getting at right now.

 

Chris Stedman: Absolutely. And it’s like, you know, I mean, I study religion, I teach religion, so like, I see religion and everything. I’m biased. But, but like when I when I was doing this deep dive into like the stan community is where Alex met this person and like where he found understanding that he, like couldn’t find in a lot of other parts of his life. I see a lot of religion at its best at play. I see, you know, that kind of radical space of acceptance where you can just show up as you are and be loved. I see a space where people are trying to help each other get through this difficult life. And I see, like in Britney, a lot of people like having this kind of avatar like who you know, I know, like for Alex, I think a big part of what Britney represented to him was this person who was in so many ways like the absolute best at what she did, like a superstar, truly gifted, but she was also like fully human. You know, she had struggles. She was real, like she, in this age of like celebrities who are like projecting this image of perfection all the time, like Britney was, Britney is, still is—and I think this is a big part of why people so identify with her. And like a big part of that dynamic of the FreeBritney movement and all the emotion behind it is like, Britney is this person who shows that you can be fully human, like you can be amazing and also you can, you know, have struggles and be real. And I just think he really identified with that. And so . . .

 

Phillip Picardi: Yeah. It is interesting. We are also pop culturally being asked to reexamine the ways in which we have treated women, especially famous women. I think about the Tina Turner documentary, which was her setting the record straight about not wanting her life story to be about surviving domestic violence, but trying to tell the public I am a happy woman who is accomplished and in love, and I live a fulfilled life and you made me this tragic heroine, and that’s not necessarily how I see myself, especially not as a Buddhist woman, right?

 

Chris Stedman: Yeah. And we see Britney saying similar things in her Instagram captions.

 

Phillip Picardi: Totally. Monica Lewinsky’s getting her moment. We see Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams reclaiming a lot of their space too. So, yeah, there’s a lot of feminine figures who are kind of reclaiming a mantle and are being seen by society in a way they haven’t before, which is interesting.

 

Chris Stedman: Yeah. Yeah, I just, you know, I think like when I reflect on, and this was like, so, making Unread really like for me was trying to like make sense of why this person who was everything to me, like was no longer here. And a big part of what I came to recognize is that, yeah, that this world, like made his life very difficult because he didn’t conform to this like prescribed narrative, and he didn’t follow this any one specific path. He was everything, like he, you know, he was the life of the party but he also like was, you know, someone who had, you know, really big struggles in his life. And I just my hope is and gosh, I mean, we just have so many, we have so many challenges in front of us right now. And it’s, it’s like, you know, but my hope is that like as a society, we can get better about letting people be more than one thing. You know, and I think like my, one of the things while I was working on IRL that I kept bumping up against, like a big part of why I started writing it in the first place, honestly, was that like, I felt so much pressure—and I’m sure you, many people can relate to this—I felt so much pressure when I post online to like, I was like, OK, like, this is who I am, like, I’m this, you know, atheist, community builder, and interfaith person and you know, and like, that’s the sort of stuff I can talk about. And if there’s any, and if I start like, so for me, it kind of came to a head because in 2016, my long-term relationship ended. Then my work at Yale ended. Like all these things that I thought made me who I was as a person, were all kind of like coming undone at the same time. And I noticed, like I was still posting online as if it was sort of like business as usual because I felt like that stuff was like too much to share or like sharing that meant that I was no longer this other thing. And you know what was honestly like it was in 2016 that, like Alex, more than anyone else was like there for me, basically, like helping me understand that like, yeah, just because these things that I thought like made me who I was as a person are changing or ending doesn’t mean that like, you know, I can’t be this other person, too. And I worry sometimes that like in this moment that we’re living in, we’re all, yeah, like, it’s really easy online to want to sort of project this like particular kind of image. This is not like a new revelation. I think this is something we all struggle with, but I hope, like instead, we can embrace like, so, you know, from the beginning of human history, we’ve always been multiple selves, like the person I am right now talking to you is not the same as the person I am when I’m teaching my religion class or when I’m talking with my mom or whatever. And it doesn’t mean that like one of these versions is like the real me, and the others are like acts I’m putting on. It just means that who I am as a person is a composite of all these different selves. And I think online, we feel like we have to sort of pick one of those and be that.

 

Phillip Picardi: Yes!

 

Chris Stedman: We can’t be all of those different things. And my hope is that instead we can embrace the challenge the internet poses to this, you know, this thing that’s always been true of who we are, which is that we’re multiple people. And instead like, embrace this opportunity to like, own that and and like, be honest about that. And really like as I was investigating this, you know, these files Alex sent me and like diving deep into who Alex was like, it was such this reminder that like—because Alex, I got to know all these different sides of him through interviewing all of his different friends and talking to people, and like he was a person who was not afraid to be all of these different people. And I think that like part of the path forward toward a more compassionate society, one that’s less sort of atomized, one that’s more humanistic if I can use like the language of my own worldview and community, you know, is embracing like a world that lets us sort of be all these different people and sees that not as this like problem to overcome, but actually like part of what it means to be human, and part of what makes us who we are.

 

Phillip Picardi: Yeah. That’s really beautifully said. And they know we’re coming up on time. But I do want to ask you just one more question before we go. You know what? I am back home now. I’m from Boston originally and so this has been, even just in the three weeks I’ve been on this soil, it has already been emotionally excavating. And one memory I’m coming up against a lot is that of my cousin who passed away really tragically right after she gave birth to her daughter of stage four metastatic breast cancer. And you know, she really fought this cancer like heroically. She even ran the Boston Marathon while she was undergoing treatment for her cancer just to prove to the cancer, I guess, that it was not going to own her body, and that was truly her fighting spirit up until her very last moments with us. And one thing that has helped me, as I think about death is is, in some ways, like it’s a remnant of the Catholic upbringing that I was raised in, but I still do find comfort in it, which is that when people pass, they can be your guardian angels. You can still feel them with you. You still carry their love with you. And so even if you may have trouble believing of heaven and hell or purgatory or whatever else the church’s teaching us about God forbid, there is an eternity that happens for people because they live on in your heart. And I realize that might sound religious or too deeply spiritual to people. I’m not sure, but because you were in chaplaincy and because you have a humanist perspective, I’m just wondering, do you find spiritual comfort anywhere in the passing of your dear friend? Or what does that conversation look like?

 

Chris Stedman: Yeah, I mean, so like just—gosh, I think it was like a month after Alex died, I was doing an event at a college, which I’ve done for, you know, over a decade now, is like, go around, do these events at universities. And I was in a class, I was doing a class visit and they asked what I thought about the afterlife and like, did I think that people like, you know, lived on in some way? And like, you know, Alex had just died and it was very like raw and fresh for me and before, like in a normal moment, like my answer would be like, well, I don’t really know, you know, like, I think we can’t rule it out for sure but like my best guess based on the available information is like, probably not. And like, if there were a moment where like I would, I would feel most challenged in it, it was like that moment right there, where Alex had just died and I was so, you know, shaken by this still. But I found myself feeling like, you know, there is what we like want to be true or wish to be true, and then there’s what we think is true, and like maybe on some level, yeah, I would. I would love to think that, you know, Alex has is living on in some way, like in a literal sense, you know? But I still don’t think that’s true. Like, I do think that, you know, he is just gone. And like part of what makes his death so tragic and what makes me so angry at the systems that failed him is that I think he’s just gone, you know? And on the other hand, as you say, like, it’s not as if, like he is gone, but like his impact is very deeply felt, like I will carry him and the way that he changed me with me forever. And it was so clear to me when interviewing his family and friends that like, I’m very much not alone in that. And you know, I again, I do think like part of my hope with making Unread was just to share, like a little bit of this person with the world because I think that who Alex was and what his priorities are, are like so much more of what I would like to see the world’s priorities be. And so, you know, I don’t in a literal way sure, I don’t think he’s like my guardian angel, like literally watching over me. But like, absolutely, he is my guardian angel in the sense that like, I have his ashes on my bookshelf and like I found myself during the pandemic, like when I was completely isolated, living alone, like talking to him, like he is this person who helped shape who I am and is still continuing to help shape who I am because I am able to sort of like continue to check back in with myself and the things that he taught me. And again, like to me, this is what like religion at its best is all about, is like giving us the spaces in our lives where we can check back in with ourselves and say, like, hey, like, what are my priorities? How am I trying to be in this world? What kind of person am I trying to be? And for me, Alex has very much played that role in my life, and he will continue to for the rest of my life. So in that way, he is, he is kind of a guardian angel, just, you know, not literally.

 

Phillip Picardi: That’s beautiful. Well, my grandmother would have told me to light a candle for Alex, whether or not we believe he is still here in some sort of metaphysical way or not. So I will do that today—

 

Chris Stedman: Thanks.

 

Phillip Picardi: —in honor of our conversation, thank you, Chris. This was so lovely. Thank you for sharing Alex’s story with us. And obviously our listeners can find Unread wherever you find your podcasts. Thank you, Love.

 

Chris Stedman: Yeah, thanks so much. Thanks.

 

Phillip Picardi: OK, that’s all we have for our show today. I hope you enjoyed it and make sure you tune in next week. Same time, same place, for more unholy goodness. Unholier Than Thou is a Crooked Media production. Our executive producer is me, Phillip Picardi. Our producer is Leslie Martin, and Brian Semel is our associate producer. Our editors are Karim [unclear]. David Greenbaum and Sara Gibble-Laska. The theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa.