“You can survive on your own. You can grow strong on your own. You can even prevail on your own. But you cannot become human on your own.” Frederick Buechner
Buechner’s quote challenged me to think through what it really means to be human. It is the one thing that each of us has in common, regardless of race, socio-economic status, gender, or ethnicity; we each must decide and live out what it means to be human.
Being human (that is, being something different, even higher, than the animals) is not, I believe, a given. Each of us is born homo erectus (“upright man”), but it is what we do with that capacity that determines whether or not we will become homo sapien (the “wise man”).
As the case of Victor, the “Wild Boy” of Aveyron (found in the woods outside of Aveyron in 1797 apparently abandoned as an infant, wearing no clothes, running on all fours, incapable of speech, defecating on himself) shows, becoming human happens only by the proper intent, culture, and education.
This is a topic I will explore through several blog posts, and I invite you to join me and add your thoughts to the conversation. Below, I have outlined my initial thoughts on what it means to be human. These are by no means final. I am still wrestling with this both philosophically and personally. I look forward to your thoughts!
On Being Human
**In developing these thoughts, I am working to distinguish those specific traits that separate us from every other species of life on Earth. In other words, what makes humans distinctly human in both kind and degree.
Being human is to be able to think about being human. This seems a bit trite, but it is where any concept of being something higher than our animal kin must begin. For all of their intelligence and capabilities, not in the history of Earth have we any evidence that even our closest biologically or intellectually related neighbors (the chimpanzee and the dolphin) have ever come close to scratching out what my three old can do when asked to describe himself. This “meta-cognition” (the ability to think about the fact that we are thinking about the fact that we exist) sets us far apart from anything else on this planet. And man has been doing this from his earliest days. From drawings on cave walls, to the oral stories passed down from early campfires, to the deep philosophical musings of Plato almost 2,500 years ago, being human has always meant wrestling with what it means to be human.
Being human means being evil. Humans seem to be the only species capable or willing both to commit and endure evil. While the lion eating the gazelle is certainly tragic for the gazelle, no one condemns the lion for his need to survive. When humans eat each other, however, something seems “off”. Animals can do things we might consider vicious, cruel, sly, and cunning, but they have yet to create Auschwitz. While animals display love, affection and tenderness to each other, evil seems to be something particular to the human condition.
Being human means being moral. Since evil is particular to the human experience, it also means that being moral is as well. Being able to differentiate between two acts based not upon personal gain, benefit, or survival (as an animal might so differentiate), but based solely upon their being “good” or “evil” gives humans moral agency. The stray dog sleeping around is not called “loose, promiscuous, easy” or “overcome with lust”. There seems to be no moral category in the animal kingdom for greed, sloth, wrath, lust, envy, pride or gluttony, even when they display such traits. Indeed, when humans operate this way, we tend to use bestial terms to describe them: He is sly like a fox, he eats like a horse, he’s mad as a bull, she is cunning like a minx. Being animalistic is fine for the animals, but seems to degrade what it means to be human.
Being human means having the capacity to live transcendently. As humans, we can choose to live above our base urges, drives, and desires. We can choose our “better angels” to live by. Rare is it that we see the snake being more than “snake-ish” or the ox as overcoming its “ox-like” tendencies, but humans have this power in spades. We can choose virtue over vice, temperance over indulgence, self-control over addiction, wisdom over foolishness. We can be more than our biology or physiology. We can master our cravings. We can even choose to be holy.
Being human is to carry the spark of the Divine. As a Christian, I believe that being human is to be made of the stuff of earth infused with the breath of God. You may call this morality, or philosophy, or transcendence but I believe it is the Spirit of God calling humanity to rise above itself, to become that which it has the full capacity to become. It is the Divine (as C.S. Lewis says) that turns tin men into men of flesh. If being human means full and complete flourishing of the soul (the inner workings of the human condition) as much as for the body and the mind, then I believe (as Buechner writes) that only the Divine can accomplish that. We need God, because we humans make very poor gods.
These are but a few of my initial thoughts. I look forward to hearing your comments, and I invite you to list what for you it means to be human.