Lately, I’ve been finding myself in search of what it means to be human. It seems like a simple question, and I’m sure that, biologically speaking, there’s a clear and concise answer. But while humanness can be expressed in terms of a few strands of DNA, all that really tells us is that we have a few different genes than a pig, a chimpanzee, or a tree. In my mind, this tells me a lot more about what I’m not, rather than what I actually am.
I remember when I was a kid in Catholic school. The priest teaching our religion class told us that what separates us from the animals were three factors: free will, intellect, and the ability to love. I didn’t question this too much at the time, but looking back on this, I laugh at this poor attempt to convince children that this makes them different. Think of all the stories you hear of a dog going into a burning building to help its owner get out. To me, this is a textbook definition of what it is to love someone. And while no other animal has learned to master tools quite like humans have, is this the only measure of a species’ intellect? Does Koko the signing gorilla lack intelligence just because she doesn’t know how to use a toaster oven? What about the dolphins who communicate with humans by pushing buttons or making sounds?
Throwing this grade school definition aside, I then moved on to trying to define humanity on my own. I thought about trying to find common ground with the other people who walk this earth. I was reminded of Jimmy Kimmel’s plea to save the Affordable Care Act this summer after his son, Billy, was born with complications requiring to him to have open-heart surgery at only three days old. Towards the end of the monologue, Kimmel comments, “If your baby is going to die, and it doesn’t have to, it shouldn’t matter how much money you make. I think that’s something that whether you’re a Republican, or a Democrat, or something else, we all agree on that, right?”, and then I was reminded of a different, sadly correct, counter argument made by Bill Maher. To the controlling political party in the United States at the moment, this is not the case. These people may see this situation as sad, but they don’t feel that it should be a part of the social contract to step in and help people struggling to pay for necessary medical procedures. And this led me to the conclusion that no matter what seemingly universal opinion someone can have, someone out there will disagree.
And in the midst of my pondering this great philosophical dilemma, World, you conjured up a week of nuclear hostility and white supremacy. While many have come together to mourn those killed or hurt in the weekend’s events and to reassure those who the white supremacists victimize that they are, in fact wanted and loved, I am reminded again that even something so terrible is not truly unifying, as the Tweeter-in-Chief failed to condemn white supremacists and instead continues to portray the “lying media” as the real culprit.
World, you have so much potential, but a lot of the time you make it very hard to love you. Why does it always take some sort of tragedy to bring out some kind of sense of unity and togetherness? I firmly believe that there is good in people, but most, for some reason or another, are too timid to show it. Being a “good person” requires more than just going to church on Sunday and sending “thoughts and prayers” during someone’s time of hardship. It’s recognizing the humanity of others, even those with whom you don’t necessarily seem to have a lot in common. It’s actually going out of your way to try and make someone else’s life a little easier. It’s volunteering in soup kitchens, welcoming refugees, or mowing your neighbor’s lawn. It’s putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, even if you may never actually have to wear them, so to speak.
So, World, there may not be any “great unifier” of humanity other than basic biology. There may not be any true definition of what it means “to be human.” But that won’t stop me from trying to empathize with my fellow man, from working to make the world a more loving and understanding place, and from seeking to find the good in others. Perhaps being human isn’t just a passive existence, but rather a process that we must actively pursue. To quote Batman Begins, “It's not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.”