Thursday, January 05, 2006

To be Human

Mark Twain is as reliable as it gets when one anticipates reading a good story well-stocked with realistic and poignant observations about people, ideas and the human condition. In reading a sentence of his I began to think about the concept he raised, and it is a fascinating one: "We must learn what it is to be human - dogs are dogs, cats are cats; but we require lessons in being human." The idea that what is innate in other species must be uncovered in humans is, I think a very old one. And it goes directly to the question of whether we are what we are because of the environment in which we are raised, or work, or live; or whether we are born with a nature that must be discovered. But of course, it is more complex than that. The young man coming of age in Liberia, or Yemen, or France, or Myanmar, or Japan or the United States must necessarily be uniquely influenced by his experiences and context. In fact, the young southern woman has a different worldview than the young woman raised in California. The interesting part of learning to be human is that it must be precisely an individual and unique meaning for each of us, 'to be human'. Can I say with any real conviction that I know what you mean by 'human'? Is it biological, or spiritual, or based on one's politics? Is it both the desirable qualities (kindness, compassion, knowledge, etc.) or does it include the undesirable qualities (aggression, hatred, etc.)? Whatever, it seems to me that it is true that all of us learn what, and who, and how we are over years and experiences, and mostly we are surprised at what we learn. Seldom is what we youthfully assumed ourselves to be, what we in fact find ourselves to be over the years. And in some ways we surprise ourselves with both our capacity for the 'good' components of the human character and the 'bad' ones. In the end, all that any of us can do is our best, and who can say what is my best--even me? It is in this way that the grouchy neighbor can surprise us with a meal delivered after the birth of a child, or a former colleague can arrive to pay respects at a funeral, or the person who never remembered your birthday can throw a big surprise party for your 40th birthday, or someone you trust can betray that trust, and people who once saw eye to eye can stop talking to one another. Sometimes the person we think of as not really being all that considerate or nice surprises us by being exceedingly considerate. Sometimes the person we see as considerate is surprisingly cruel or unkind or selfish. Who can say when either is 'doing their best?' Are we in both cases learning what it is to be human?

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Sunshine on Discovery Bay

Sunshine on Discovery Bay
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