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?

Monday, January 02, 2006


I was in the barbershop the other day and a bunch of guys were talking. It started on sports, then at some point someone made a flippant remark that ‘so and so should be tortured, after all Cheney says it is okay’. I kept my mouth shut because I am always politically out of step in my neighborhood, and the conversation went on about torture for a bit. Finally the younger barber made a half-hearted stab at brainstorming how anyone could okay the idea of torture. He said, “I guess somebody will say that maybe if they’d tortured the right guys they might have stopped September 11”.

I don’t even think it was his view, he just was thinking out loud. Well, the group jeered, and the kid barber nudged my arm and said what do you think? I promise I would have had no audience if I had volunteered what I think, but having refrained and then thought for a second before answering, I had the room at attention for a minute.

“The problem with torture is the same problem it has always been.” I said. “I bet if each of us knew as much as could be known about things that are known to be happening in the world, we would all be able to come up with twenty or thirty people who ought to, maybe even must be tortured into telling us everything they’ve ever known, thought or dreamed about. The problem isn’t who deserves it, but who decides who deserves it. I mean, I know I’d pick the right guys to torture, but who knows about YOU FUCKERS!” Well, there was a pause, and then one of the firemen from the station across the street laughed. And then everyone else laughed. But they laughed kind of thoughtfully. When it quieted down, the fireman said, ‘Let me guess, Special Forces?’ I just laughed. It was pleasant to be able to explain why I don’t feel quite like most people in my neighborhood, but also to show that I am not supporting torture.

"It is easier to find men who will volunteer to die, than to find those who are willing to endure pain with patience.” Julius Caesar

Sunshine on Discovery Bay

Sunshine on Discovery Bay
As always, the photos we use are either my own, or in the public domain. Please let me know if there are any errors and I'll correct them immediately.