On Being Human

A person in a snow storm, sticking out their tongue to catch some flakes - a very human activity

Being Human as Being Set Apart

What does it mean to be human? Although a few individuals are born with limitations or predilections or capacities different from the bell curve’s norm, people throughout the world share certain traits. We all have a consciousness that recognizes our selfhood, bodies that experience pain and pleasure, and minds with the capacity to notice, to interpret, and to draw conclusions. Most of us long for intimate connection and supportive community. At times, our emotions get the better of us, especially when our instinct to survive is threatened, and all of us can feel threatened by the most benign thing if it touches on our core values or anxieties.

But is this particularly human? Do these traits make us different from the other creatures who share our planet? Does something set us fundamentally apart? Are made in the image of God and destined, in the final days, to rule over angels, separated from the lowly animals by the nature of our souls? Or are we unique in the way a lion differs from other felines and elephants differ from tapirs? Lions have an enormous roar, and elephants use their trunks in a way no other creature can, but that doesn’t make them a different order of being.

We didn’t always think humans were set apart. Instead, we understood that animals were our relatives, more like us than unlike. We imbued them with culture, language, and deities. Indeed, we often made them into deities. Our forebears, who lived close to nature, felt this kinship. Humans might be special in some ways, but all earth’s creatures have their own kind of specialness.

Not So Special

This sense of connection did not last. In many parts of the world, we decided humans were different, not because of our lofty souls, but because we were the toolmakers or the storytellers or the thinkers. Animals were more like machines, with no agency of their own and no consciousness that might feel pain.

As we have refined our scientific method, however, we’ve discovered that every living thing, has, to one degree or another, the capacity to know it exists, to feel discomfort, to communicate, and, often, to develop relationships. Other animals make tools and use language and plan ahead and pursue goals.

It seems we aren’t so special, after all. One by one, every difference we see between us and those other creatures has been eroded by the facts.

On Realizing Mortality

But maybe we’re different because, unlike those other animals who live securely in the present moment, we see the future and know we are going to die. This knowledge influences every aspect of our lives. To mitigate the loneliness of mortality, we strive to leave a legacy, whether one of beauty, justice, or infamy. We seek gain and fame. Many of us feel the urge to raise a child. Others live furiously, trying to experience all the pleasures a body can contain. We try to run from the truth of our existence with addictions, distractions, or religious promises.

At some point, though, life will end for everyone and everything. All the lights in the universe will flicker out. The rocky landscape of space will be still and completely silent. The cold will be so complete, not even thought will be able to move. To be human is to know this and to come to terms with that knowing.

Does this make us unique among the animals? How can we tell? After all, the knowledge that we will die drives us to cheat and lie and strive and succeed, to do terrible and wonderful things, but is that so different from what animals do?

Humans, the Philosophers

Every creature wants to survive. That’s why we search for food and mates. It’s also why we stab others in the back, literally and figuratively, and why we betray them. To keep ourselves safe, we cringe from challenges, flee, freeze, and fight. But we also run into burning buildings to save others, try to heal even grievous sounds, comfort the afflicted, and rebuild the broken.

If we humans torment, bully, and murder, we are not the only creatures to do so. Nor are we the only ones who can be tender and kind. If the awareness of our mortality lies behind so many of our urges, might it not lie behind those of other creatures, as well? Elephants and crows appear to mourn their dead, as do chimpanzees and others. Maybe they understand more about what it means to die than we think. They may even realize that, one day, death will come to them, as well.

Perhaps the difference is that they do not philosophize about it. Other creatures may take life, and death, as they come. Who but a human would write such an essay as this, an arguably trivial use of one’s time? Does the foraging bumblebee seek to understand the sun, or the sloth ponder the nature of reality? Are whales reciting poetry when they sing, swallows dancing when they flit to and fro? Are the structure built by bowerbirds a form of art?

Being unable to enter the minds of these creatures, we cannot know how much joy they take from beauty, motion, and sound. We cannot know how much they ponder existence.

A person in a snow storm, sticking out their tongue to catch some flakes - a very human activity
Photo by Darrell Cassell

Anthropomorphizing the Moon

Nor do we know how much they project themselves onto everything around them, but certainly we humans do it all the time. It seems to be part of our nature.

Take the moon. On a recent January morning, when the sky was clear and cold, and the sun had not yet shown itself, I walked my dog through the golf course. As I crested the hill, I saw the moon hovering close to the horizon, huge and deep yellow. Its crescent shape held within it the shadow of its full roundness, like a pregnant maiden who carries within her an unborn child. Nearby, the morning star shimmered.

It was lovely. More than that, these beacons of light seemed to shed warmth. The star stood with a stolid protectiveness, and the sliver of moon held tenderness.

But things are so rarely what they seem. The star is not a star at all, but a planet. The moon’s surface is not brilliant or colorful, nor is she a goddess for whom birth would hold some meaning. The moon’s surface is hard and gray, a mass of rock. If rocks have no consciousness, then the moon is lifeless. Nor is the sun alive, the one I imbue with intention, as if it could choose to reveal itself or not.

Yet our language is filled with verbs that imply agency, and it is easy to get caught up in what-ifs. What if the sun cared, and that is why it spread its warmth over us? Could it choose to punish us by withholding its light? And what if rocks were sentient? How would it feel to be the moon, devoid of life, perhaps devoid of friends? How absurdly human to imagine a moon might long for friendship.

Being Who We Are

Perhaps that is the most enduring part of being human, this tendency to project our thoughts and feelings and beliefs on those around us. We do it not just to a lump of seemingly lifeless stone or a raging ball of fire, but also to bees and worms and ferrets and angels and other people. It seems we cannot help ourselves. We are the center of our own story, and everything around us derives meaning in as much as it relates to us. At least, that’s how our minds see it.

That’s why it’s impossible for us to imagine the end of imagining. We know intellectually that one day, we will be no more. If we think about it, we will admit that eventually, even the tallest tower, the most fertile farm, the grandest epic, the most delicate song will fade in the end. Everything we create and hold dear will be as naught. Eventually, the universe will become so cold, not even thought will be able to move.

Then, it will not matter what it is to be human. Even so, it is completely human to rail against this truth, to deny its reality, and to act as if, by our creations, we could change the trajectory of time. What hubris we humans have. Does any other animal imagine it has such power? What a human failing. Yet it can lead not only to horrific destruction, but also sublime kindness and creativity.

Like every other creature that lives on earth, we humans are born and, thus, must die. What we do with this knowledge makes us who we are.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

Photo by Darrell Cassell on Unsplash

Copyright © 2022 Barbara E. Stevens. All Rights Reserved.