What Does It Mean To Be Human

To ask what it means to be human strikes at the fabric of the soul. The temptation, of course, is to gloss, to idealize. The task, however, requires much more than that. The task is not to rhapsodize; it is to distinguish between the human and the nonhuman, the subhuman that rages under it, taxing our humanity at every turn. Then, the task becomes plain. In Thomas Hardy's words, "If way to the better there be, we must look first at the worst."

The problem with trying to define what it means to be human is that we now take so much of the inhuman for granted. We confuse the meaning of the words "natural" and "human,” make synonyms of them. We act as if one is the other. We allow one to be the other. We rip to shreds the ideas each of them masks, forgetting one and surrendering to the other. We call the "natural" human and in one flash of the pen presume we have made it so. We wander in a philosophical maze and never even realize that we are lost.

War is “natural,” they tell us. Violence is “natural,” they argue. Self-aggrandizement is “natural,” they maintain. What they do not say is that just because something is “natural” does not make it human. And then the slippage starts, the desecration of life. Greed is “only human,” they maintain. Sexism is the will of God, they insist. Rape becomes a weapon of war, of “defense,” of the humiliation of one male by another at the expense of women. In a mindset such as that, ambition is not only condoned; it is encouraged. Dishonesty becomes the coin of the land. Bankers cheat; brokers steal; presidents lie and the rest of us lower our standards to meet the norm and concentrate more on survival than we do on life. We begin to pay more attention to what we are getting out of life than what we are putting into it.

We cluck at rape, of course, and shake our heads about genocide and talk about being bored with TV murder trials; we cease to look at the pictures of small, long-lost children, memorialized on milk cartons. We buy more locks and more guns and insurance policies, hire more lawyers. But we change nothing in ourselves, or in anything else. We simply become more and more inured to the “natural,” and less and less confident that humanity is a star to be followed or anything more than a brass ring on a boardwalk carousel where fantasy reigns and the process of going someplace is to trace an interminable circle. Humanity goes in and out of focus, blurred always by the “natural” and unconscious of the spiritual that magnetizes it.

But I have seen humanity. I know its face even when I cannot define it. It is blazoned in my mind. It measures my character and condemns my disregard. Anything less than these images disappoint me to this core.

I have a picture in my mind of nuns putting flowers in the gun barrels of Filipino soldiers in Manila who then refused to shoot into the crowd. I still hold in my heart the sight of a young man in Tiananmen Square standing in front of a moving tank that then turned back. I carry the image of men carrying a lone survivor out of a tangle of earthquake wreckage on a swaying overpass that then collapsed. Every time these images flash before my mind I remember that to be human is to give yourself for things far greater than yourself.

I have a memory, too, as a twelve-year-old of crying silently but bitterly face-down into a pillow on the living room floor. That day, my bird, my only life companion, had disappeared up an open flue in our apartment wall. There were visiting relatives in the house, in my bedroom, whom I knew were not to be disturbed. The needs of the guest came first, I had been taught. But when the house was safely dark, I let the pain pour out, not simply for the loss of my dearest possession but also in sorrow for my own carelessness in his regard. Then, suddenly, I felt the covers around me tighten. My mother had gotten in on one side of the mattress, my father on the other, and together they held me all the long and empty night. I learned then that being human meant to enter into someone else's pain.

I heard a young U.S. soldier talk enthusiastically about gunning down Iraqi soldiers from planes as "a turkey shoot." The look of glee in his eyes, the excitement in his voice, while he described spraying frightened men with high-caliber bullets from thousands of feet above them numbed me to the center of my soul. If truth were known, it confused me, too. After all, it was a good thing, wasn't it, that we had “won” a war with so little bloodshed.

Then I read a tale from the Sufi and came to understand where the numbness had come from. Once upon a time there was an old woman who used to meditate early on the bank of the Ganges. One morning, finishing her meditation, she saw a scorpion floating helplessly in the strong current. As the scorpion was pulled closer, it got caught in roots that branched out far into the river. The scorpion struggled frantically to free itself but got more and more entangled.

She immediately stretched herself onto the extended roots and reached out to rescue the drowning scorpion, which as soon as she touched it, stung her. The old woman withdrew her hand, but having regained her balance, once again tried to save the creature. Every time she tried, however, the scorpion’s tail stung her so badly that her hands became bloody and her face distorted with pain.

A passerby who saw the old woman struggling with the scorpion shouted, "What's wrong with you, fool? Do you want to kill yourself to save that ugly thing?"

Looking into the stranger's eyes, she answered, "Because it is the nature of the scorpion to sting, why should I deny my own nature to save it?" Then I understood the numbness. Then I learned that Reverence for Life is of the essence of humanity.

And that is what we have lost. We “defend” ourselves by threatening the globe and our own level of civilized humanness with it. We have chosen technological progress and financial profits over the needs of human beings. We have bartered the quality of our own souls; we live the denial of Reverence for Life.

But we have become a society of machines and business degrees, of stocks and bonds, of world power and world devastation, of what works and what makes money. We train our young to get ahead, our middle-aged to consume and our elderly to be silent. We are sophisticated now. We live in stadiums, not galleries. We listen to rap music, not Mozart. We talk about our ideas for getting ahead rather than about our ideas for touching God. We are miles from our roots and light-years away from our upbringings. We have abandoned the concerns of the civilizations before us. We have forsaken the good, the true and the beautiful for the effective, the powerful and the opulent. We have abandoned enoughness for the sake of consumption. We are modern. We are progressive. And we are lost.

So what do I believe in? What do I define as human? I believe in the pursuit of the spiritual, in the presence to pain, and the sacredness of life. Without these, life is useless and humanity a face.

To be human it is necessary, perhaps, to think again about what matters in life, to ask always why what is, is. To be human is to listen to the rest of the world with a tender heart, and learn to live life with our arms open and our souls seared with a sense of responsibility for everything that is.

Without a doubt, given those criteria, we may indeed not live the “better life,” but we may, at the end, at least have lived a fully human one.

—from What Does It Mean To Be Human, Frederick Franck, Janis Roze and Richard Connolly, eds. (St. Martin's Press, 1998)