The Human and the Humane

| April 12, 2017 | 0 Comments

It is easy to become jaded. To watch the news, and say, “Look at us, at humanity. We’re a bad lot. We’ve invented war, sown death in earth, in water, and in sky. We prey on each other like wolves on cattle; we are animals in form and in fact, and would be better off never having been born. Both video and written media confirm this fact, for any news channel will tell you that we elected a certain recent president, and Genesis confirms us as the inventors of original sin — and we didn’t stop there. We invented daytime television, fax machines, etc, etc.”

I have been reading as well, of course. A very dry psychology textbook, most recently. I find that I am… easily amazed by the material, because the most simple precepts outlined there and in my class are more than enough to shock me. The fact, for instance, that human beings are inherently social creatures — yes, I see that eyebrow raise, but I started in political, not psychological sciences, a domain which still espouses theories neither practical nor honest. Rousseau believed that people began as solitary creatures before they came together and corrupted each other, and it’s not as though my professor bothered to fact check him.

But that isn’t the rub, of course. One can easily say that human beings tend to form societies on the basis of observation alone. The really interesting part is why, a question often overlooked in our individualistic culture — and if my textbook is accurate, then the answer is, simply put, that we are better off together than apart. Whether it’s twenty hunters chasing a mammoth or twenty lawyers working to help a frightened immigrant family at the airport, we’re more likely to succeed when we pool our physical and cognitive capital. It has been said that it takes a tribe to raise a child, but if the results are any indication, the tribe raises each and every member in it, as well.

It can be humiliating, to realize how much you need other people. You aren’t the maverick action hero, fighting against the machine, that you fantasized about — you would rather be a part of the machine, a regulating device rather than a woman left to her own devices, though given your due as you give your due. At best you are a rebel with a cause, an agent of change who wants to renovate but will not topple a tower that so many people live in. Perhaps you will be the woman who opens its doors.

It’s reassuring, too, to know that you were meant to be part of a family, a tribe, a society. To know that your occasional loneliness is not unique, but part of what makes you like other people. That it would not have developed and remained, were it not useful in the way that the gas gauge in your car or the growl in your stomach is useful.

I have often looked back in time with dismay. So many billions of people have come and gone without leaving so much as footprints. How can we possibly matter and be remembered, if we do not know every name of every child who was born in Rome, in Mesopotamia, in all the cities whose names we have forgotten? But there is another way of thinking about this, one which suggests that each of those lives had incredible and incomprehensible significance, that we were and are all working together for something, towards something, to surmount something within and without ourselves, perhaps to surmount ourselves, too. They brought forth fire, blades, flutes, hammers, language, law, electricity. Freed from the burden of reinventing the wheel, among other devices, we can focus on both the esoteric and the essential of our natures, hoping that one day our most unlikely and experimental innovations — human rights, for instance — may one day become as commonplace, as taken for granted, as any of these other early experiments.

There is another way of thinking about the news. It is something to be grateful for, I think, when people report and declaim the persistent evil of the world, because if something is news then it is, at least, not usual. Words like “inhuman” reassure me, too, because even though we may accept that humans have committed evil actions, we distance ourselves from them. We say, “that is what we do, but not what we are, certainly not all we are or anything like what we want to be.” Perhaps one day we will drop the “e” in “humane” and make “human” a perfect antonym of “inhuman,” an adjective of both physical and moral meaning — or perhaps we will find a word for ourselves in a new language entirely, one invented in a world a little closer to heaven — and built upon our own contributions.

featured photo credit: Photosightfaces <a href=”″>Leading the way</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a> <a href=””>(license)</a>

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Category: featured, Reflections, Thurman Thoughts

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