I’ve had some time, lately, to ponder some deep thoughts.
Most recently, I’ve been asking myself, “What does it mean to be human?”
A better question, I think, is to ask: What does it mean to be a human? “Human” as in, a human being.
Anthropologists will froth at the mouth given half a chance to explain that we are, specifically, homo sapiens sapiens (and not simply homo sapiens) versus our kissing cousins, homo neanderthalensis (who, by the way, survived for one million years, which is far longer than we’ve survived as a species to date), and then might even go further to explain why so many of us have DNA from both species. And after sucking the life out of the room at a cocktail party with their answer, I would ask, “Yes, but is that what makes you a human being?”
We can’t claim that we are human because we grieve. Dolphins grieve. Elephants grieve. Dogs grieve. The list goes on. Those who aren’t animal behaviorists would like to explain these images and actions as the animal being too stupid to understand the other is dead. Beware, though: Even Psychology Today referred to the belief that we’re the only species who grieve as “arrogant.”
Because we express ourselves through art and music? Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so, too, is art left to the definition of the viewer, and music left to the hardy eardrums of those who don’t need hearing aids. So there exists plenty of examples of beauty, art and music in the natural world, if one chooses to define it as such. We can witness animals as they communicate using a variety of tools – many of which we can’t witness because we aren’t in tune with their frequency or aware of their body language. But watch deer, elk and horses communicate and you will see art in motion. Listen carefully to the calls and replies of birds across a valley, and you will hear music in your heart.
There are still a few holdouts on the fringe of intelligent society who will insist that we are defined as human beings because we communicate through language. I won’t even dignify that with examples of how humans, in fact, are not the only species to communicate. Look it up if you don’t know. Also, read the previous paragraph again.
Animal groups wage their own version of war on each other, although not quite to the same extent as organized, catastrophic human war. Chimps have been known to invade and kill members of other groups in order to take over the other’s territory. They’re more like gangs. Humans have those, too.
Even as we humans desperately cling to the ownership of things as a means to justify our existence, as a way to point to how important or influential we are, we still cannot claim this separates us from the animals and mammals: Hunting territories abound in the animal kingdom and are protected as fiercely as a flannel-clad, off-the-grid landowner with a 12-gage.
Just as with everything else, though, humans take ownership as far as they can. “How can you own the sky?” Chief Seattle knew it best. Humans could, if it were possible, lay claim to chunks of air just as we’ve laid claim to chunks of earth. Give us enough time and we’ll figure out how to do it. That would surely separate us from most of the animal kingdom, since aerial predators also claim the sky above their ground territory.
(As an aside, it would be interesting to point out to those who insist we are superior to animals just how much we actually have in common with them.)
Certainly there’s something that defines us as humans and unites us as human beings.
I would like to believe it is our capacity for compassion and empathy, and our ability to lift up others around us without hesitation and without regard to how different these other people may be from ourselves.
We are all one human race. I keep harping on that – in my non-profit, in my book, in my life – because I just can’t get past the fact that we have divided ourselves along lines. Although our earth is filled with natural divides – mountains, deserts, waterways and oceans – we’ve decided, somewhere along the way, that we need to break our personal world into even smaller sections. We choose to allow our religion to divide us. Trust breaks down when a woman wears a hijab but not when she wears a nun’s habit. We create false borders of states and countries to keep others away and keep ourselves in. Politics come between families and friends.
Fear is a profound driver and is adept at hiding itself behind our consciousness. If we associate too much with people of another skin color, we might change somehow. When darker-skinned people move in next door, we might wake up one morning to look in the mirror and our lily-white skin has darkened. Is that a rational fear? Of course not and it’s not what people actually fear. So why do we fear someone else’s skin color?
If someone else worships God differently than us, they are wrong and evil and we must destroy them because the man who runs our religion says we must. And if we associate with them too much we will become evil and the man who runs my religion says we’ll burn in hell. Do we really believe this, even as every religion preaches, at its core, to love one another?
We fear what we don’t know, what we don’t understand. It’s healthy. But when we let that fear divide us, it isn’t healthy. It takes work to learn about someone else. Don’t like the music coming from the large family gatherings at your new neighbor’s? Don’t like the fact that they speak another language along with English? If we don’t like it and we don’t understand it, we must obviously be better than whatever the other group represents. And yet, people who speak more than one language may have stronger cognitive skills and be protecting themselves against dementia. Still, Caucasians either flee from neighborhoods as they change color or invade to make the neighborhoods white again. And all while they pop down to their favorite Mexican restaurant or drive great distances for the best smoked bar-be-cue pork and beans around.
I believe that every time we think of ourselves as better than another person, or better than a group of people, we diminish ourselves as human beings – that we reduce our capacity to become better people, and limit what our species can ultimately accomplish.
There’s an old saying: “The engine can’t move if the caboose’s brakes are locked.” Of course, that’s not entirely accurate. Still, the truth is this: If the caboose’s brakes are locked, and if multiple cars in the train have locked brakes, the engine will have trouble getting the train to its destination safely and on time.
Humans are that train. We are the ones trying to get somewhere – preferably, into the future without driving ourselves extinct – while limiting the opportunities for those around us.
At this point, I’d like to amend my earlier statements: I don’t believe that our capacity for compassion and empathy separates us as human beings. There are too many examples of predators in the wild adopting and caring for infants of their natural prey – for example, lionesses adopting a baby antelope and a baby baboon. Is it motherly instinct? Or is it the capacity to set aside natural instinct in favor of compassion?
Closer to home, there’s Jasper the fox and Rain the wolf playing together, and the Trash Brothers (Lando the dog and Michael the rat), and the pit bull who convinced his new mother to adopt his kitten, and all the cats whose best friends are a bird. The list goes on and on.
There are quite literally countless examples of how animals can show compassion and love in the most unlikely situations.
So when it comes down to considering what it means to be a human being, all I can point to is the fact that we have also divided ourselves among camps in terms of how we treat others and how we treat our planet.
To one group, “lifting up others” is seen as unnecessary. He who dies with the most toys, wins.
To another group, “lifting up others” is seen as essential for the human race.
One group argues that we need to stop babying the planet. That it’s impossible to kill the planet and we are the superior life-form here and we need to survive at all costs.
The opposing side says, “If there’s nothing left on which we can survive, we won’t.”
I’m left with the thought that humans don’t seem to be intelligent enough to stop destroying our natural habitat in favor of “progress.” We have manufacturing, and driven agriculture and created genetically modified crops; we’ve domesticated animals and created entire sub-species for food; and we’ve learned how to create technology to unite the world and make our lives easier. And all of this is also slowly destroying our planet. Surely we don’t want to simplify the definition of being human down this far, distill it into actions and self-described accomplishments that have taken us away from our natural state and into disease and destruction. But this is where I’m left.
And I’m left with examining how many groups of humans destroy other groups of humans simply because it’s a dog-eat-dog world and Darwin always preached about the survival of the fittest. And it’s “just their lot in life” to be destroyed by others. And also because “my God is better than your God.”
And this is what it means to be a human being. It means that we stand for everything and will ultimately crumble as a species if we can’t stand together for one common goal.
From where I sit, it seems hopeless. All of it.
Why continue? Why keep fighting for the good of others? Why keep telling people that we need to educate the poor and stop child trafficking and give our elders safe places to live? Why keep preaching that men and women, and heteros and homos, and blacks and whites and every other color and kind are all equal?
Because we can. Because we can continue and we can fight for what’s right and good and true.
Because if we stop fighting, they win.
And I don’t want them to win.